‘All Passion Spent’ but New Obsessions Found.

Reading one of Jane’s delightful A to Z blog posts at Beyond Eden Rock, I decided to explore the monthly ‘Author Reads’ in the Virago Modern Classics group on Library Thing. I wasn’t sure what LibraryThing was or how it worked (to be honest, I’m still a little in the dark on both of these) but from the bit of mooching around the site I have so far enjoyed, it appears to be a vast and wondrous universe of book-love just waiting to be explored. Bearing in mind my current ban on book-buying, I intend to fill that void with creating a virtual archive of my own personal library. If that doesn’t fill up every waking hour for the foreseeable future, there’s a wealth of book reviews to read, and other people’s libraries to nose around to my heart’s content – bingo!

Luckily for me, the Virago Modern Classics group’s chosen author for this month is Vita Sackville-West, whose books have been languishing on my shelves, as yet unread – until now that is. Of the three I had to choose from, I was drawn to All Passion Spent (1931) and quickly became engrossed in Sackville-West’s wry observations of family dynamics as siblings Edith, Herbert, Carrie, Charles, William and Kay gather together after the death of their father, Lord Slane, to discuss what is to be done with their mother.

Mother was a changeling, they had often said politely, in the bitter-sweet accents reserved for a family joke; but now in this emergency they found a new phase: Mother is wonderful. It was the thing they were expected to say, so they said it, several times over, like a refrain coming periodically into their conversation and sweeping it upwards on to a higher level. Then it drooped again; became practical. Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of……

Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make. Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not enough brain to be self-assertive. “Thank goodness,” Herbert sometimes remarked, “Mother is not one of those clever women.” That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate.

While the children make plans for their mother’s future, Lady Slane has other ideas. Having sacrificed her entire life to the service of her husband and children, she has no intention of being parcelled around between her duty-bound children. In fact, she feels the time has finally come for her to do her own bidding. She rents a house in Hampstead, that she had set her heart on twenty years previously, and banning visits from all the overly energetic younger members of the family, settles down to enjoy her remaining years pleasing herself, and enjoying the company of a select few eccentric gentlemen – Mr Bucktrout, Mr Gosheron and Mr FitzGeorge, and her trusted elderly maid, Genoux.

As Lady Slane remembers her girlish dreams of being an artist, dreams which remained unfulfilled due to her duties as a wife to an ambitious and successful husband, the novel brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which covers such similar territory. While the novel is full of dry wit, the novel quietly, but powerfully demonstrates the sacrifice made by women for their families, both in the upper eschelons of society, like Lady Slane, and of those in service, like her maid, Genoux.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect Vita Sackville-West to be so very funny. I expected earnestness and more than a touch of anguish. I think it was Lucy’s post about Vita Sackville-West’s penchant for writing in a turreted castle that did it. She must have been made of sturdy stuff if she could still see the funny side of things after tackling a tower’s worth of stairs first thing in the morning. I take my hat off to her!