What if Knole, that fairy tale of a castle given to Thomas Sackville by Elizabeth I in 1566, had not been entailed? What if it had passed on to the little girl who grew up there — Vita Sackville-West — instead of going to a distant male cousin who inherited it from Vita's parents?
Knole, with its seven courts, 52 staircases, and 355 rooms, is the largest private house in England. It sits there still, surrounded by a deer park of 1,000 acres. It is its own world; a world apart. When she lost Knole, Vita — like a jealous lover — left, never to return.
Instead she spent her life writing about the land, about houses, about home; creating fictional embodiments of the dream of Knole. Until she finally made it flesh at Sissinghurst: her own world apart, surrounded by what may well be the most famous garden of the 20th century.
KNOLE HOUSE/COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/BRITANNIA ILLUSTRATA 1709
Virginia Wolfe transformed Vita and Knole into "Orlando," while Vita herself used the historic house to great effect in her 1930 novel, "The Edwardians." But it is in "All Passion Spent," the story of the "quietly defiant" Lady Slane and the house she's held in her memory for thirty years, that Vita creates a home suited to the rest of us. She calls that little house "an entity with a life of its own."
The life of the house and the old woman who retreats there after the death of her diplomat husband, make "All Passion Spent" a charmed tale. Vita's subtext, as always, is a subtle anger at the way her world treated women. But mostly this is a book full of irony, humor and warmth; the traits of the engaging Lady Slane.
"When can one please oneself if not in old age?" asks 88-year-old Lady Slane?