Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Dark Island by Vita Sackville-West

published 1934







He stared at her very intently. She is young, he thought; not more than 25 or 26; but beyond her obvious youthfulness of years there is a curious mix of ages: caught at certain angles she looks almost childish,… but caught at other angles she looks fashionable and sophisticated, able to cope with life that may have treated her well or harshly.

Scantily dressed in brown satin, from which her arms and shoulders emerged rounded and gleaming, without a single jewel beyond their own transparent lightness, she enjoyed some quality which made her appear even more naked than she actually was. She had, he noticed, a trick of sitting with her hands clasping either shoulder, as though by her crossed arms she defended her breast from assault, and leant her cheek against her own shoulder, as though no flesh but her own had the right to caress her flesh. 



observations: So isn’t Vita Sackville-West full of surprises. When I read The Devil at Westease I was surprised by how conventional it was. The Dark Island is quite different: it starts out like Enid Blyton (whom I did mention in relation to the other book, and who also writes about a Secret Island) and turns into Anais Nin, with a very strange sexual feeling to it: there is strongly implied Lesbianism and some sadism. According to James Lees-Milne the book is ‘an astonishing revelation of the sadistic practices of love-making’ and the theme ‘much disturbed’ her husband Harold Nicolson.

The heroine, Shirin, seems a lot more attractive to VS-W than to the reader. All men fall in love with her, but she has an untouched and manly soul, and is apparently close to illiterate. Eventually she marries a man who is hereditary ruler of a small island (something on the lines of Sark one assumes). The marriage is not very happy, though improved when a woman called Cristina comes to live with them in a form of ménage a trois (Cristina very definitely there for Shirin rather than the cruel husband). But then everything goes wrong again. It’s very overblown, and although in general sex in books doesn’t bother me at all, there was something horrible about this one (not, in case you are busy rushing off to order it, detailed descriptions of perversions – just a slimy atmosphere). I still can’t decide what this bit means: ‘He moved closer towards her, following the line of his physical desire. She, experienced as she was, recognised the movement and shrank from it.’

Everyone has deep and important feelings which they start to express then fade away, no-one is ever honest or tells each other anything properly. There is just one moment where VS-W seems to see this and almost makes a joke. In a moment of deep emotion Shirin says to her suitor “if you really want to marry me you must….”

“Yes, must what?”

“Throw away that tie.”

James Lees-Milne, who was plainly very fond of Vita Sackville-West, is one of those friends who writes as her champion, and seems to have no idea how eminently dislikeable he makes her sound. Or perhaps that’s just me. I find her snobbery and ruthlessness very unattractive, and could do without the endless discussions of who is common, who hates democracy, and who is really worthwhile. But then, I have managed to read quite a few books by her.

The picture is from the Dovima is Devine photostream.

14 comments:

  1. Vita Sackville-West is another figure for whom there is much curiosity. I've been curious about her life, but not enough to read her books.

    And having read what I just saw posted, I am certainly not spurred on to read her works.

    This is an interesting conundrum: Why read her books if one is sick of her "ruthlessness and snobbery," and the other negative traits she presents. What is the attraction then?

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    1. I'm very interested in the world she portrays, so even though I find some aspects of her unpleasant, I can still enjoy other traits....

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  2. Hmm.....not in the least bit tempted by this one. Is the bottom half of the photo actually depicting part of the gown, as it seems to me more like she grabbed a sheet off the bed before getting up? Roll on Wednesday!

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    1. No, not designed to appeal to you - especially as you do not appreciate a proper voluminous evening gown!

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  3. Moira - Yes, this is definitely a different sort of book. And I know exactly what you mean about the difference between a book with sex in it, and a book with a slimy, creepy atmosphere. Sounds like all sorts of psychological things are going on too, in people who aren't particularly likeable. Hmmm..not sure this is my sort of thing. Still, an interesting look at Sackville-West's range, if you want to call it that.

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    1. Yes - I can't exactly say I'm recommending that anyone else should read it, but I did find it interesting in its own way.

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  4. Not sure I am ready for a cross between Blyton and Nin - that's just all wrong! But thanks for that 'fish finger and custard' moment Moira, I think ...

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    1. The analogies are top-notch today Sergio... I think this is one of those books where I say 'I read it so you don't have to'.

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  5. "I read it so you don't have to" is a great line.

    I've been fascinated with the Bloomsbury group on and off over my reading years. And I gather Vita Sackville-West was tangentially tied to it via Virginia Woolf. I have watched BBC productions over here that have included her and they're interesting.

    Now, how did you find a photograph that so matched the description of that dress? It's uncanny, as if the book included photographs.

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    1. Thanks Kathy! Sometimes when I'm looking for a picture I just hit on one and feel that the matching of description and photo is almost uncannily right, I just stare and think 'no need to look any more.' And this was one of those cases....

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  6. Blond Dovina? I haven't seen that before.

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    1. Thanks for visiting. You're right - it isn't Dovima herself: it's just that the photo came from a photostream called 'Dovima-is-divine' - it's on Flickr, an amazing collection of 30 000 fashion photos.

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  7. A tiny bit interested, but there are other authors you have introduced me too that call to me more so... I will let you inform me on this author that I was not aware of. Great picture to illustrate that extract.

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    1. Thanks Tracy, and I do think this one is a case of 'I read this so you don't have to'.

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