efandrich (efandrich) wrote,

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

In Sackville-West's books, more often than not, a house is as much a character as people in the novels.  This is especially true of All Passion Spent.  The novel opens with the Slane family gathered together to observe the rites of death.  Their father, a former Viceroy of Indian and ex-Prime Minister, has died.  As his widow keeps vigil over his body in a bedroom, his children discuss the future of Lady Slane in the drawing room.  They come to the conclusion that their 88-year old mother should spend a few months with each of her six children after she gives up the family house.   These siblings are an unpleasant lot, full of self importance and more than a touch of avarice.

Lady Slane, however, has other plans for the rest of her life.  Thirty years ago she saw a little house in Hampstead, not far from the heath, and if it is available she plans to lease it.  After much hand-ringing, her children agree.  They will establish a rota of visits and between children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Lady Slane should have at least one visitor a day.  Lady Slane, however, quietly disagrees.  She wants no visitors, especially anyone young.  She has done her duty for 70 years and now she wants her own space.  She will retire from society with her cat and her maid.

The house she has chosen is owned by a genuine eccentric who has kept it more or less vacant for years just waiting for the perfect tenant.  Obviously, Lady Slane and Mr Bucktrout are kindred spirits.  He flatly states that she will only occupy it a short time and that it would be senseless for her to put in central heating.  Fireplaces and oil lamps will suffice.  Since he also believes that the end of time is only two years away, he  isn't necessarily being cynical about her death from old age.  With Mr Bucktrout and the tradesman he hires to bring the house up to snuff, the building becomes an island of serenity, a place where Lady Slane finally comes to a resolution about her life.

And here is the crux of the novel.  This is the first time in her entire life where she is where she wants to be.  Since she married an up-and-coming man at 18, she has deferred  to the wishes of her parents, her husband, her country.  She gave up the dream to be an artist in order to be the perfect wife.  And she was the perfect wife.  She created a perfect home; raised a perfect family by Edwardian standards; hosted perfect embassy dinners.  When, early on in her engagement, she mentions that she would like to be an artist, her fiance is delighted.  She can make watercolor sketches of their travels and the albums can be shown at gatherings.  At her statement that she meant to do more, he patted her cheek and said that married life would soon cure her of any outside distractions. Years later, sitting under a peach tree in her Hampstead garden, she realizes that this is when her soul began to die.

Not much happens in the book. Lady Slane becomes close to Mr Bucktrout, Mr Gosheron the tradesman who renovated her home, and surprisingly, Mr FitzGeorge, one of the wealthiest and most enigmatic art collectors in London. He is a small part of her past because when he inherited his fortune (from whom V S-W deliberately keeps vague) his trustees sent him on a world tour which included India. There he fell in love with the young Vicereine for the few days he was in her presence. Lady Slane, after a while, remembers their innocent encounters. Mr. FitzGeorge pulls the final veil away from her eyes and she accepts the facts that she loved her husband and children, but loathed her life.

As a character Lady Slane is a product of the Victorian and Edwardian age.  She did nothing in her entire marriage to change her life.  She was her husband's beautiful property and she did him proud.  If she though unkind thoughts, she never put them in words.  Only in the last years of her life, did she regain a sense of self and find satisfaction in her own company and the company of her three ancient friends.

And in the end, there is hope.  Her great-granddaughter breaches her security with the news that she is breaking her engagement to  the heir to a dukedom in order to seriously study music.  What Lady Slane could never have done,  her descendant is able to do.
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