Monday, November 15, 2010

Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson

Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson is the memoir and biography of his mother, Vita Sackville-West, a turn of the century socialite, daughter of one of England’s elite, wife of an ambassador, and scandalous lover to both Violet Trefusis (nee Keppel) and Virgina Woolf.  Her husband, Harold Nicolson, was also bisexual and the two maintained a marriage of mutual respect and allowed for several discreet indiscretions.  Only when Vita and Violet took things too far, eloping to Paris with one another, did the two spouses step in and insist that the women end their relationship, although it seems to have been unnecessary by the time the men stepped in.

I wanted to read this book after I saw the BBC production, curious about what liberties might have been taken with the story.  An author of novels and poetry, history and biographies, she endeavored to write about her affair with Violet, a highly passionate relationship that began before either of the women were married, and a love that became volatile before it came to an inevitable end.

The book is divided into five parts, the first and third parts the memoir that Sackville-West aspired to write.  The other three parts are by her son, Nigel Nicolson, who quotes liberally from journals, letters, and other primary sources to tell the story of a remarkable marriage.

I won’t go into details about the story for it is one you can easily read abbreviated in wikipedia.  I commend the son for sharing such an intimate story, for allowing the reader a compassionate look at an arrangement between two strong individuals that comments upon social mores while also celebrating the power of love.

What makes this book so interesting is to see who beautifully these two were able to compromise their lifestyles and yet live fulfilled lives.  No doubt, in a more tolerant society, neither of them would have been bisexual and both would have lived openly homosexual lives.  The question is:  Would either or both of them have found as perpetual and pure a love as they shared with one another?  There is no doubt that they did not live as full husband and wife for most of their married life, although there re three pregnancies to vouchsafe that the marriage bed was not celibate.

And I wouldn’t have read this book had I not watched the BBC miniseries, Portrait of a Marriage.  The casting for this drama is stunningly perfect, the various actors so perfectly embodying the personas that it is tempting to forget that these are merely players on a stage, or screen, strutting their stuff.  The acting, the costuming, everything is glorious.

Except for one significant change to the story that I found so utterly distasteful that I had to first see for myself.  Did a man write this script?  No.  A woman did but the script was based on a book written by a man.  Could that explain this vulgar scene?  I hoped not, after I learned that the book was written by the son of the titular couple being portrayed.

Again, it seems silly to say that I want to avoid giving away any spoilers because the story is history, meaning you can research the truth for yourself.  But if you wish to judge the miniseries for yourself, want to compare the text with the film, I suggest you read no further because I simply must share my outrage.  Feel free to return after you have indulged or read on if you are already familiar with both.  Or if you have no wish to see or read Portrait of a Marriage then read on with impunity.

*** Here Be Spoilers***

A rape scene?  Really?  Is this necessary?  I read the book for the sole purpose of seeing if Vita Sackville-West recorded a moment, any moment, in which she rapes her lover Violet Trefusis and this is what I found.  A vague reference to her dragging Violet off and a very passionate “savage” night of love making.

"I took her there, I treated her savagely, I made love to her, I had her, I didn’t care, I only wanted to hurt Denys [Violet's husband], even though he didn’t know of it."  (114)

There is a difference between passion and rape, anger and rape, and just because two people have passionate sex out of anger over their situation and perhaps, to some degree, towards one another, does not suggest that this is rape. Vita says she wanted to hurt Denys, not Violet.  Rape is painful.  Rape is hurtful.  No woman, especially no woman being as candid as Vita is being in her own writing, would ever euphemistically refer to rape as anything but what it is.

And yet the BBC production makes this moment a rape, in no uncertain terms.  I could have even forgiven this had the relationship ended there, on a vicious and terribly destructive note.  I would not have been happy that the screenplay writer chose to add a violent rape into a dysfunctional love story but I have become callous, perhaps, expecting drama for drama's sake especially when the historical facts are simply too boring.  But Vita's relationship with Violet is not boring so the only justification I could see for adding a rape would have been to have this relationship end dramatically.

It does not.  Instead, Vita gets dressed in the morning in the apathetic manner of a post-date-rape aggressor, telling her victim to get out of bed and clean up.  Her back to Violet who is curled up on the bed, she doesn't even look at her lover as she orders her to get up.


Disgusting if it were true.  But that there is no indication that this scene is based on a true event; it is vulgar, perverse, and so insultingly unnecessary as to demand why.  Why was this scene added?

This choice by the screenwriter adds an implication to the relationship that is precisely the type of innuendo one would hope to never witness on or off the page.  When will we stop pretending that adding these scenes is not a homophobic choice?  How can one say something is a celebration of same-sex relationships when, all the while, there is something insidious being portrayed?  I had hoped to see a couple struggling with their sexuality and against society as comrades and even compassionate spouses.  I did not expect nor hope to see a condescending and self-righteous husband trying to control his heartless, narcissistic, and unrelentingly selfish wife.

What disturbs me is that I have seen more than the occasional lesbian BBC production that I thought would be more compassionate and, yet, what I end up watching too often leaves a distaste in my mouth I cannot shake.  If I were on the fence about such things, unsure how to feel about same sex relationships, programs with women raping one another would not make my sympathetic.  Yes, it is foolish and narrow for anyone to watch a drama and project one story upon everyone’s reality.  The truth is, some people do this, think like this, and if one lesbian couple can be so obsessive with one another, have a relationship that is so unhealthy and extreme as to even have rape, then these “some people” will believe that it is something one will find in all lesbian relationships.  And programs like Tipping the Velvet or Amee and Jaguar are only adding fuel to the erroneous flames.

Again, let me reiterate that if this scene had been part of the memoir, although I would have found it distasteful I would have stepped back and admired Vita Sackville-West’s candor.  Because it is manifestly not in her memoir and obviously a perverse addition made by the screenwriter I am disgusted, appalled, and even angered.  It changes nothing.  But I obviously need to find some lovely and loving lesbian movies because I’m tired of this manipulative woman crap I keep finding.


  1. I am watching Portrait of a Marriage as I type, and when I got to the rape scene, I was so appalled and skeptical of its reality that I paused to Google "did Vita Sackville-West rape Violet." Your blog is my reply. Thanks for posting this. I completely agree with you about the inherent homophobia in such a decision. I don't understand why Vita is portrayed as borderline psychotic and her husband as whiny and kind of idiotic to begin with, but add in the rape scene and I think this adaptation is nothing short of abysmal. I wish there were some way to prosecute those who perpetrated this crime on the memory of Vita Sackville-West.

  2. Lily, I am always surprised by how people stumble upon my blog and rarely am I more pleasantly surprised than in reading your comment. Yes, it was reprehensible for the screenplay writer to add this scene. A vulgar and unnecessary choice. The relationships as they appear in the BBC special are certainly different from what is on the page and I would recommend the book, if you haven't already read it, so you can read Vita's own words which are inspiring and very interesting. So much was left out, which I assume will always happen when print is turned into film, but I refuse to accept the choice to add a rape scene to the story.

    And thank you for taking the time to drop me a comment. I appreciate it.

  3. Dear Satia,
    thank you for this post. but Vita has admitted that she treated Violet savagely, Does it mean rough sex? Thanks in advance.

    1. ویتا, My assumption, and I cannot say my assumptions are ever correct, was that she was speaking about the emotional way she treated Violet and not the physical. Those who indulge in rough sex typically call the experience savage in a positive manner and Vita was not saying her treatment of Violet was good. Plus, the scene itself did not look like nor does it feel like a mutually consensual sex scene whatsoever. It is filmed in a manner that leaves it squarely in an aggressor/victim mode and can only be seen as a rape. Mutually loving partners may indeed act out a fantasy in role-play where one is an aggressor and the other a victim but that is not what this scene implied at all. But that really is only my assessment at the time and I here we are talking about it over 2 years later so my memory is also a bit fuzzy.

  4. Agreed! Thank you for voicing the very concerns we had while watching the film. We turned the film off and are wont to finish watching it. Now will read about Vita and "Hadgie" (sp?), Violet and Denys in order to assuage concerns. Thanks again.

    starr, philosophy teacher and writer in San Diego

    1. I really enjoyed the book very much. It was easier to read than I would have expected and it gave me some wonderful insight into how a non-traditional relationship can work while being terribly messy. I still see no reason, no excuse, for the rape scene. What Vita describes is passionate. Treating someone "savagely" does not immediately translate as "rape." All things considered, I can't imagine that she would not be specific in how she phrases things because the precision in her language throughout is apparent. Nor do I see any reason to believe she would tone down the reality of her experience. She does not say she rapes Violet and, after reading the rest of what she herself said about the relationship, there is no reason to believe she would not be fully candid had she done so. If you remember to do so, I would love to read your thoughts about the book after you read it. Both Tipping the Velvet and Aimee and Jaguar were better as books but that's usually the way of such things.