Saturday, August 4, 2012

Challenge - Vita Sackville-West

I've probably mentioned before how attractive a personality I find Vita Sackville-West, particularly the older, gardening Vita, and the Vita that inspired Woolf's 'Orlando'. I've probably also mentioned that I find her novels a slog to read, so much so that I've generally failed to finish them ('The Heir' is a notable exception but it's only a novella so perhaps doesn't really count. Her garden writing is excellent). I was absolutely determined that 'Challenge' wouldn't join the list of half read books on the shelf so made a real effort to see it through, I'm glad I did. 

'Challenge' was Vita's second novel, written between 1918 and 1919 at the height of her affair with Violet Trefusis, it was published in America in 1924 but pulled at the last moment from publication in the UK because of fears that it would reignite scandal. With hindsight this seems like locking the stable door long after the horse had bolted but in the 1920's perhaps showed a belated consideration for her family. Violet herself had no such consideration and felt the book should have been published as planned. Eventually 'Challenge' did get a UK release, but not until 1974 when Vita's son Nigel wrote an introduction for it reflecting that it could no longer do any harm (it could conceivably have done him a lot of good, following as it did his 'Portrait of a Marriage'). 

Virago are now giving 'Challenge' another outing with the 1974 Nicholson introduction as well as one by Stella Duffy, both are useful. 'Challenge' is a curious book -  the love story between Eve and Julian is thinly veiled biography with a bit of fantasy thrown in; Julian is clearly the sort of boy that Vita wished to be, the depiction of Eve chimes well with other descriptions of Violet and is just as clearly the sort of woman she believed herself to be - and most likely was. The rest of it is a blend of satire aimed at life in diplomatic backwaters, and an adventure based on the romance of bloody revolution. Most of the action takes place in the imaginary Herakleion, a break away state from Greece, which has an uneasy relationship with an outlying archipelago - the islanders want there independence from Herakleion and have turned to the nineteen year old Julian as a suitable leader.

Violet, now in the possession of the National trust
Vita does a convincing job of pinning down the romantic pull of islands and patriotism, Julian's presidential role also serves to invest him with a duty and something to lose - eventually he'll have to make a choice, but otherwise it isn't very convincing. She does young love well too - a point that Stella Duffy makes, and that's worth examining, the couple in this book are very young, far younger than Vita and Violet. The depth and intensity of Julian and Eve's passion is the sort that belongs to youth, and that along with Julian's doubts about Eve's trustworthiness suggest to me that even at the height of the affair Vita not only had doubts about her lover, but clearly saw the future. 

Eve/ Violet is a different matter, I don't believe I've ever come across such a woman - mysterious, eternal, secretive, infinitely diverse, a woman who exists only to love and be desired. She isn't very likeable, although it's possible to pity her, easy to imagine someone falling in love with her, harder to picture a happy ending for any affair she was involved in.

For all it's faults I feel like this is one of Vita's better books, the autobiographical element guarantees a certain interest, the caricature of diplomatic life is amusing, and as a tale of doomed love it's convincing. Despite previous experience I didn't find it a struggle to finish, and that in itself is an endorsement.  


  1. That's good to know as I've just picked this up at the library. I haven't read lots of VSW's fiction but I've enjoyed what I have read so I'll look forward to this.

  2. I've failed to finish Family History and The Edwardians so was really pleased to get on quite well with this one. I don't know how it would stand up without the reader knowing about Vita's personal history, but even so I thought the portrayal of the relationship between Julian and Eve had a lot to say that was worthwhile.

  3. It looks intriguing. Have you tried 'All Passion Spent'? I remember enjoying that, but nothing about it.

  4. I have 'All Passion Spent' but haven't read it yet - at least not all of it.