An Unexploded Bomb: Violet Trefusis

Last weekend, there was a great review in the NY Times of a new book out by Michael Holyroyd titled A Book of Secrets that mentioned either one of the most bold and brave or foolish and naïve of those famous turn of the century lesbians–Violet Trefusis (far left in photo), otherwise known as an “unexploded bomb.”

     “Trefusis was so intense that she appeared in many other people’s books, including those by Cyril Connolly, Nancy Mitford and Harold Acton, as well as Sackville-West’s and Nicolson’s. She was an excellent writer herself. A biographer of Nicolson likened her letters to “those flaming yellow bulldozers which one meets tearing up road verges, hedgerows, concrete walls, asphalt roads and any and every obstacle that lies in their path.”

Born Violet Keppel, she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, a mistress of King Edward VII, and the girlhood friend and then lover of Vita Sackville-West (right of Violet in the above photo)who was also Virginia Woolf’s lover for a brief spell. Vita got around.) You may remember the character of Sasha, the Russian princess, from Orlando. That was Woolf’s take on Vita’s affair with Violet—with the slight change that Sasha bails onOrlando when in fact Vita left Violet high and dry. Clever that.

Anyway, their affair was complicated with a capital C, and I do recommend Diana Souhami’s Mrs. Keppel and her Daughter (St. Martin’s 1997) or the cliff notes version at Wikipedia. Violet tends to get written off as a silly, foolish, overwrought girl who couldn’t adapt to the reality of the world she was living in and find a way to live in society with a husband while keeping her female lovers on the side (like Vita did). And she did end up a bitter, silly old woman but I have to give her credit—she didn’t want to live as a hypocrite and she paid a very high price for it. I always wondered: What would have happened if Vita hadn’t bailed?

Maybe Violet wouldn’t have written what she did. Her letters to Vita survive (Vita kept absolutely everything) and are compiled in Violet to Vita—if you’ve ever been young and madly in love, and therefore prone to passionate flights of prose, you’ll recognize yourself here and feel deeply for her. I’ve never read her novels as they are very tough to find in print and I will admit to a fear that they resemble Vita’s. But if Holyroyd and the critic Lorna Sage are to be heeded and they should be discussed alongside those of Edith Wharton, Christina Stead and Jane Bowles, perhaps it’s time to start digging them up.

In the meantime, more fun to dig into this: a little steamy visual aid of their affair from the film Portrait of Marriage (Janet McTeer!) based on Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson’s book about his mother of the same name.

Is it getting hot in here? Next up: Inferno by Eileen Myles. Now that I’ve finished Dance With Dragons I may finally be able to concentrate on something beyond the shores of Westeros…and the Free Cities…you know what I mean!

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