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Hite: Virginia Woolf's lover Sackville-West had profound influence on gardens

Say the name Vita Sackville-West and some will instantly think of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando." Others will picture Sackville-West's magnificent garden at Sissinghurst, said Molly Hite, Cornell professor of English.

On Aug. 24 in Call Auditorium, Hite and noted garden photographer David McDonald brought the two strands of Sackville-West's life together in the 15th annual Cornell Plantations William H. and Jane Torrence Harder Lecture, "Literature, Life, Gardens: The Influence of Vita Sackville-West."

Hite reminded the packed auditorium that Sackville-West was a best-selling novelist, though she is remembered now for her garden-related writing. But despite winning Great Britain's Hawthornden Prize for the year's best work of fiction or poetry, said Hite, in the final analysis Sackville-West was less a writer than what Woolf termed a "personality."

The class privilege that Sackville-West grew up with was central to her enormous self-confidence, and the "shady family" she came from, said Hite, "gave her an amazing absence of sexual shame … she didn't mind at all that she did not conform to 'respectable' gender roles or sexual identities." And though Sackville-West might have been the great love of Woolf's life, Sackville-West had other liaisons during their relationship. "Woolf got very irritated over those other women -- not only that they were there, but also that they weren't in her league: She felt Vita should have better taste," said Hite.

Inspired by Sackville-West's larger-than-life personality, Woolf wrote the faux-biography "Orlando," using "the particular sexual complexity and sinuosity that Vita embodied in the character of Orlando," said Hite.

In 1930 Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicolson bought Sissinghurst Castle in England, and she spent the next 25 years transforming its seven acres of walled gardens. "It's hard to imagine an English-style garden that has not been influenced by Vita," said McDonald in an interview.

Woolf's most experimental novel, "The Waves," shows the influence of Sackville-West's gardens, said Hite, in the way the house in the book is bounded by a garden like Sissinghurst and the way Woolf used the garden as an essential structural element.

During the lecture, McDonald demonstrated Sackville-West's enduring influence through photographs of modern gardens, including that of the late Steven Antonow, who adapted her ideas in a relatively small urban space. Like Sissinghurst, Antonow created occluded vistas so "there was always another corner to go around that would provide new surprises and new plants," said McDonald. "That idea of breaking your space up into different smaller spaces and giving them particular themes is one of her enduring legacies."

McDonald has photographed gardens throughout the United States and Canada, with work appearing in every major American gardening magazine and numerous books over 20 years. His photographs for "The Jewel Box Garden" won the Bronze Award for Achievement in Photography from the Garden Writers Association.

Hite specializes in experimental fiction, mostly of the 20th and 21st centuries, and has authored two novels. Her most recent academic book is on Woolf, and she wrote the introduction and annotations to the new Harcourt edition of "The Waves."

The William H. and Jane Torrence Harder Lecture was endowed by Torrence Harder '65.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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