All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West ★★★★★
“On the contrary, said Lady Slane, that is another thing about which I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to become completely self indulgent. I’m going to wallow in old age. No grand-children, they’re too young; not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either, that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it. And I don’t want them bringing their children to see me, for it will only remind me of the terrible effort the poor creatures will have to make before they reach the end of their lives in safety. I prefer to forget about them. I want no one about me except those who are nearer to their death than to their birth.”
“She had had enough of bustle and of competition and of one set of ambitions writhing to circumvent another. She wanted to merge with the things that drifted into an empty house, though unlike the spider, she would weave no webs. She would be content to stir with the breeze and grow green in the light of the sun and to drift down the passage of years until death pushed her gently out, and shut the door behind her.” *
When Lady Slane’s husband passes away well into his 90s, her six children and their spouses set about determining how she will spend the rest of her life: she will divide her time between each couple, living in their homes and contributing to the expenses in a manner which will be amply profitable to them. But 88 year-old Deborah, who has always effaced herself behind her husband, the former Viceroy of India and a member of the House of Lords, decides otherwise; she will move into her own house in Hampstead, thank you very much, and furthermore, she will only invite elderly people like herself who have similar priorities and share her views on life. Now that she is closer than ever to dying, she wants nothing to do with the constant striving and ambitions of the young. Having installed herself in her new house, she makes a very good friend of the cottage’s owner, the elderly and very thoughtful Mr Bucktrout, who sets about renovating and redecorating the house at his own expense so she can live in greater comfort. Then a vague acquaintance, a man from her distant past in India, Mr FitzGeorge, who has become a millionaire and an eccentric renown for his collection of fine art, reintroduces himself into her life. He has always been in love with the once beautiful Lady Slane, and they form a special kind of friendship which will influence the rest of her ladyship’s few remaining years.
Vita Sackville-West, who among her many passionate love affairs, famously had Virginia Woolf as a lover, here explores how a woman who has both money and rather more than a simple room of her own might choose to live out her final years, having the ability to free herself of social constraints. The back story about the close friendship between these two authors was far from my mind when I chose to read this book, so it turned out to be a very timely read so shortly after revisiting Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I loved and took comfort in these reflections on old age, and how one might eventually look back on life from the distance of a great many decades, having acquired completely different priorities from those of earlier years. I also found it strange and intriguing that these reflections resonated perfectly with my own at this stage in my life, albeit my 93-year old friend I’ll call “Lisel” considers me to be a mere young girl still, all things being relative, as always.
* These quotes were transcribed from the audiobook version and as such are not fully accurate. For instance, the punctuation was pure guesswork, and I hope Vita Sackville-West isn’t spinning in her grave for the liberties I took, as I certainly mean no disrespect.
The title of this post and indeed, that of the novel, comes from the last line of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, a portion of which Sackville-West used as the book’s epigraph:
His servants he with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.