Friday, August 28, 2009

Nigel Nicolson: Portrait of a Marriage

I have no idea how this book ended up on my shelves. I'm sure Dad gave it to me, but I have no idea how it ended up on his shelves. I'm guessing the connection to current fame is Virginia Woolf, but this book isn't about Virginia Woolf at all. It's relevant right now, in an amazing, wonderful, almost must-read way, but not because of Virginia Woolf. Nigel Woolf is the son of two extraordinary English authors: V. Sacvkille-West and Harold Nicolson. Probably, you've never heard of them, like me, although they seem to have been extremely prolific. Sacvkille-West published at least 15 books, and at one point Nigel mentions Harold having written 40! But what is extraordinary about them is, not to be trite, their marriage.

The book is laid out by Nigel introducing his mother's found autobiography after her death, then a section of it, then his pieced together chronology with a more external look at what Sackville-West has just told the reader, then the second half of her autobiography, then another chronology, then a discussion of marriage. Sackville-West and Nicolson (Harold) married young, after Sackville-West's first romance with a woman. After their first blissful (by all accounts) 5 years and 2 children, Sackville-West began her long second relationship with a woman, which Harold knew about and seemed only to mind when it hurt Sackville-West or took her away from him for too long physically or geographically. He was concerned about the hearts of people his wife might break. He was not jealous physically or mentally.

The couple developed an understanding of marriage (in the 1920s and 1930s!) that they were even willing to share on BBC, based on trust:

The formula ran something like this: What mattered most was that each should trust each other absolutely. 'Trust,' in most marriages, means fidelity.. In theirs it meant that they would always tell each other of their infidelities, give worning of appropaching emotional crises, and, whatever happened, return to their common centre in the end.

Marriage was "unnatural," only for people of "strong charracter," and really, a relationship of friends that should last as long as mutually acceptable. "The husband must develop the feminine side of his nature, the wife her masculine side." Both parties had relationships with other people during their lifelong marriage, and both had relationships with same-sex partners. Sackville-West crossdressed and stated at times she wished she had been born as a man.

I don't really know anything about the UK's stance on gay marriage, or on open marriage, or even if they're particularly more advanced than the US about "deviance," but Nigel Nicolson's treatment of his parents, their lives, and their writings, paints a lovely, sensitive picture of people ahead of their time- asking for respectful treatment, regardless of the physical body parts of the objects of their love. Doing an internet search on this book, I have a feeling that it's known mostly because of the Sackville-West connection to Virginia Woolf- the two women enjoyed a mostly platonic friendship in middle age- but really, the marriage is the rightful heart of this book, and the book deserves its own look. Gay marriage, open marriage, unnamed sexuality: the downright decency of Vita and Harold and the love that their son shows them are the central themes, and this book has the power to convert. Read it, pass it on.