All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Sometimes it seems that everyone wants to tell older women how they should behave, what their role is, what their life is for. It seems that the experience of 60+ years of life is not expected to assist older women in managing their own lives. Fiction can challenge these expectations. Here is an older woman, Lady Slane, who having patiently lived in the shadow of a ‘great man’ takes her own decisions when she becomes a widow. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West was published in 1931.

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First edition cover by Vanessa Bell 1931

All Passion Spent

When women’s destiny is marriage what is one to do with the unassuming widow of a Very Great Man? Lady Slane’s husband was an exceptionally eminent and venerated man (former Viceroy of India, former prime minister), and she was his exemplary wife until she was widowed at 88 years of age.

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, find reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise old age as a sign of excellence. (p5)

However, old age in a woman is not so well regarded. The dilemma of Lady Slane’s last years is faced by her six children (in their 60s themselves). They decide that she will stay with each of them in turn.

She has other ideas and makes her own decisions. To the consternation of her children she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid.

This decision brings three new friends. The owner of the house, Mr Bucktrout, is a rather otherworldly man, with unusual ideas about the imminence of the end of the world, and about Lady Slane’s needs in the house. They become friends, along with the handyman, Mr Gosheron.

Her third old gentleman friend is Mr FitzGeorge, a rich connoisseur and collector. They met years before in India, and each had very favourable reactions to the other, but took things no further. He has waited, and she has cherished her memories. After a brief rekindled friendship Mr FitzGeorge dies leaving his fortune to Lady Slane. Her children are excited about the prospects of inheriting in their turn. She confounds them again by donating it to the nation.

Years before, she sacrificed her desire to be a painter to her marriage and in her peaceful retreat in Hampstead she has time to reflect on what might have been if she hadn’t accidentally slipped into marriage. Her family, it is revealed, know nothing of her interior life, her youthful ambitions, or indeed of her desires now she is a widow.

All Passion Spent presents an attractive picture of an old woman. She confounds the expectations of everyone. She strikes out on her own (albeit with her maid) and finds new friendships. She spends her time as she chooses. These are all good things for an old woman to do. Readers may regret that she has had to wait until she was 88.

Perhaps the best thing she does is free the next generation but one from the same fate. Her donation of FitzGeorge’s fortune to the nation frees her grand-daughter from the expectation of a good marriage based on her prospects. Deborah comes to see her and reveals that she would like to be a musician and, no longer seen as an heiress, can realise her hopes for her future.

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There is much pleasure in this book, like the three male characters. They are depicted with humour and more than a touch of caricature. The same is true of Lady Slane’s French maid Genoux. She says ‘Miladi’ to everything, but plays no real part except to expedite the smooth running of the domestic stuff. She too is an old woman, but her situation is not of concern to Vita Sackville-West. The author’s attitude is perhaps typical of her time and class. And Lady Slane’s charm, despite all those years in the great man’s shadow, is genuine. I finished this book with a sense of a life squandered by the social expectations of the time, and only a little pleasure at the heroine’s resolution.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, first published in 1931 and republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1983.

Posted by Caroline Lodge of  Bookword

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