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Friday, 8 July 2011

Book Review: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

It's with a tinge of embarassment that I admit this was my first foray into the works of Vita Sackville-West. Fortunately, I enjoyed it so much that it certainly won't be my last.

All Passion Spent is a short novel at around 170 pages. Sackville-West apparently intended it as a fictional companion to her friend and lover Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and the similarities are certainly evident. However, it stands alone as a thoroughly enjoyable piece of prose equally relevant today as it was on publication in 1931.

Lady Slane's husband has just died. Having watched her spend her life in deference to other people, her children are confident she'll accept the arrangement to live with them each in turn as they do their 'duty' looking after her. However, Lady Slane rebels and rents a small house in Hampstead with her faithful servant Genoux. Four of her children are mortified while the other two (the only ones she has any affection for) accept her decision without argument. While living at Hampstead, Lady Slane makes friends with two elderly men and also Mr FitzGeorge, an acquaintance from early in her marriage. It's no spoiler to say, as Lady Slane is eighty-eight, that the novel ends with a death as well as beginning with one.

I loved this book. In a time of debate in modern society about care costs for the elderly and the consequences of longer living, the scenarios depicted in All Passion Spent really struck home. What do you do when your children regard you as a burden to be shared amongst them? What do you do when they expect your wealth to be given straight to them? And (though this one is rather unique to Lady Slane) what do you do with a very large bequest that has your children seeing pound signs at every turn? The relationship between a mother and her children is explored subtley and without criticism. As we learn more about Lady Slane's youth - and her 'beneficial marriage' - we come to understand why perhaps she feels as though she should finally take control of her own destiny.

The messages in this book are pretty universal and it should be read by young and old alike. Can you take control of something you feel is out of your control and enjoy your life a little more? Even if, in Lady Slane's case, that change only seems to give her visits from friends and walks upon Hampstead Heath. The little freedoms, Sackville-West implies, are as important as the big ones.

The most touching scene for me was one of the last, when Lady Slane receives a visit from her great-grandaughter Deborah. The similarities between the two are blindingly obvious but it's Lady Slane's melding of past and present, her life and her great-grandaughter's, that make this scene poignant. By following her own desires, Lady Slane has spurred Deborah on to do the same. And, in the end, that is a very comforting thought for an elderly woman.

As Vita Sackville-West's bisexuality is well-documented, this book can be considered part of the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011.

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