Photo courtesy Ryan Maxwell Photography
When Amber asked me if I would come on as dramaturg for Orlando, I was thrilled. The book has long been on my “must-read” list, and what better time to start? Little did I know that working on the show would not only expose me to an amazing piece of literature, but would also send me down the most exquisite rabbit hole of research. From Virginia’s marriage and love affairs to the exploits of the Bloomsbury group and an invented style of literary biography, I’ve learned so much during this process. (The delicious life of a dramaturg!)
The book is Virginia Woolf’s hundreds-of-pages love letter to Victoria (“Vita”) Sackville-West, and its characters reflect locations and people in Vita’s life. None, it seems, was more influential to the person Vita grew to be than Violet Trefusis, portrayed in Orlando as the Russian princess Sasha.
The pair met one another in 1904, when Vita was 12 and Violet was 10. Their relationship began when they were teenagers, and they ran off to France several times together—usually during these trips, Vita passed as a man—much to the chagrin of Violet’s mother. Violet and Vita both married men, but continued their affair (as well as affairs with other women) for several years. In fact, when Violet slept with her own husband, Vita felt betrayed.
Both women were well-known writers: Violet mainly wrote novels, and Vita was a poet. Unlike our play’s Orlando, who struggles for hundreds of years to find the right words to write one master-work, Vita was recognized as a poet in her own time, made a Companion of Honour for her literary work in 1947, and winning the Hawthornden Prize for the “imaginative literature” of authors under the age of 41 twice (1927 and 1933), the only writer to do so. Last year, during conservation work at Vita’s home, Sissinghurst, a poem fell out of a book. The poem, written in French and translated by the scholar who found it, was written just five years after Vita married her husband Harold Nicolson.
When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
Through great floral meadows of open country
I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
I search on your lip for a madder caress
I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress
In Portrait of a Marriage, Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson wrote about his mother, “She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?” How appropriate to the story of Orlando, and how wonderful to find a new poem that illuminates these feelings.
Check out Jenn’s blog HERE!