Lovers and Literature: Uncovering the Queer past of Knole House through the lens of Orlando (Reprint)
Updated 12 March 2022
By Hannah McCann
The grand country house of Knole is situated in 1,000 acres of Kent countryside near Sevenoaks and has been around since the 14th century. Knole is the setting of our story.
With its long, winding driveway that snakes through the ancient deer park, which leads to the castle-like turrets of Knole, it’s not hard to imagine Henry VIII arriving with his hunting party, the dogs barking, the patter of the horses. Nor is it hard to imagine Elizabeth I pulling up to the archway in her carriage, with the trumpets echoing across the land. One can also easily imagine a Victorian cab arriving, or a 1920s car chugging up the slopes. Knole has a timeless quality. While Kent has changed around it, Knole has remained.
However, to understand the significance of this country house in queer history, we first need to understand the two main characters of our story, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West.
Virginia was born in 1882 and her childhood was plagued by the deaths of close family members. Despite these hardships, she attended King’s College’s Ladies’ Department in 1897 where she studied the classics and history. Perhaps her love of history is what would later draw her to Knole House and its timeless beauty.
After university, Virginia became a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group. This was a group of artists and writers who lived near each other in Bloomsbury, London and would meet to discuss art, feminism and sexuality - amongst other things. She would meet her husband, Leonard Woolf, through this circle of friends and they married in 1912.
Virginia published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915 despite struggles with her mental health.
In 1922 she met Vita Sackville-West through Bloomsbury connections. The two formed a loving relationship which coincided with, or even fuelled, a creative breakthrough for Virginia. She published a string of novels which would change the literature landscape forever - including Mrs Dalloway in 1925. Orlando was published in 1928.
Now to introduce our second character - Vita Sackville-West. Vita was born in 1892 and grew up in her ancestral home of Knole House. Unlike Virginia she lacked a formal education, but nevertheless she spent her teenage years writing. While at Knole she wrote eight novels, though they were unpublished. She would later become friends with many in the Bloomsbury group but often appeared shy due to her lack of formal education. In 1913, she married Harold Nicolson at Knole house in the chapel. Their marriage was an open one, and both had same sex relationships.
After the two women met for the first time in 1922, they became close, bonding over their similar lonely childhoods and their love of writing and literature. Vita persuaded Virginia that writing would improve her mental health, unlike the doctors who told her it was damaging. These two women loved each other deeply and their love can clearly be seen in their letters to one another. Both were masters of the written word which makes their letters beautiful examples of queer love.
In 1926, Vita went travelling across Europe and the letters between the two clearly convey their longing for one another. Vita wrote to Virginia, saying that she had been ‘reduced to a thing that wants… It is incredible how essential to me you have become… But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.’
Virginia replied, ‘I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you.’
There was no denying that their relationship was a turbulent one. In 1927, after Virginia discovered Vita’s affair with another woman, her letters became filled with desperation. She wrote ‘Look here Vita - throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head’.
During the 1930s their relationship drifted towards a platonic friendship more than lovers - but their love for one another was still strong - regardless of the form it took.
This can clearly be seen in letters from 1940. During the Blitz, Virginia’s London home was destroyed so the Woolfs moved to their Sussex home called Monk’s House. Here Virginia always kept a room ready for Vita and kept it filled with flowers.
In September 1940, Virginia wrote to Vita: ‘It’s perfectly peaceful here… I’d just put flowers in your room. And there you sit with the bombs falling around you… What can one say - except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange quiet evening thinking of you sitting alone. Dearest - let me have a line… You have given me such happiness’.
To this Vita replied, ‘Oh dear, how your letter touched me this morning… I love you too; you know that.’
Now, you may be wondering how their relationship links to Knole House. It was not only Vita’s ancestral home but the setting for Virginia’s novel Orlando. Orlando is the love letter from Virginia to Vita. Vita’s son described it as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”.
Orlando, written in 1928, is the tale of an Elizabethan nobleman, whose life spans 500 years, following him as he falls in and out of love during his travels across Europe. The narrative moves swiftly through his adventures until the defining moment of the novel - when Orlando is transformed into a woman.
Orlando then lives through the 19th and 20th centuries, navigating life as a woman in London, but finally returns to her ancestral home at the novel’s close.
The character of Orlando represents the strong nobleman that Virginia saw within Vita, as she was in awe of how she took command and became the centre of attention when she entered a room. Virginia once wrote of Vita, ‘her capacity… to take the floor in any company, to represent her country… to control silver, servants… her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman.’
There is no ambiguity about who Orlando was based upon. Vita’s image is used when Orlando becomes a woman - shown here on this slide. They are one and the same.
Virginia expressed her love for Vita through the character of Orlando. Virginia’s love for Vita is clear when Orlando, now a woman, reflects on her past loves. Virginia writes, ‘Though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.’
Despite this clear same sex attraction, Orlando was not judged to be obscene. The Well of Loneliness written by Radclyffe Hall, published in the same year and also about queer women, lost its obscenity trial and the judge ordered all copies to be destroyed. Some argue that Orlando escaped this fate as the plot was so intricate. It existed outside time, and gender, thus outside society so it wasn’t a ‘threat’ to the reader.
This brings us to Knole House’s place in this story.
Knole House began as a property of the Archbishops of Canterbury, but was taken over by the crown during the reign of Henry VIII. Mary I stayed at Knole as a child and it is also thought that her sister, Elizabeth I, visited Knole too. Many of the treasures inside Knole are from the reign of James I and Charles I, due to the Sackville’s positions in the royal court. From the 1730s, parts of the house became showrooms.
Vita, as a Sackville, grew up at Knole but by the 1900s the house had almost become a museum. Due to the generations of powerful connections to the royal court, Knole was full of priceless furniture and art. Vita once wrote, ‘I often long to brush my hair with what I wrongly supposed to be King James’ brushes but having been strictly brought up not to touch anything in the showrooms, I didn’t dare.’ She also acted as a tour guide of Knole, showing guests around the many rooms including Virginia when she visited for the first time in 1924.
Virginia was amazed by Knole, writing of the ‘endless treasures - chairs that Shakespeare might have sat on - tapestries, pictures, floors made of the halves of oaks’. Knole has a vast collection, from tapestries from Mary I and Whitehall Palace, to furniture from Hampton Court Palace, family portraits mixed with portraits of royalty, state beds for kings, Charles II’s rare silver furniture.
Virginia asked Vita for a copy of Knole and the Sackvilles, a history of the house. She was equally amazed by Vita’s ancestry, ‘I trace her passions five hundred years back’ she wrote. Vita was descended from Thomas Sackville, the first earl of Dorset whose father was Anne Boleyn’s cousin.
It is difficult to comprehend what losing Knole must have been like for Vita when her father died, as the house passed along the male line to her uncle and cousins. This was her ancestral home of half a millennium, the faces of her ancestors adorned the gallery walls, their riches the halls. Not only was there the legacy of her family but she had grown up within its walls. Her bedroom, her hideaways, her secret routes through the garden were all taken from her because she was a woman.
Once she wrote of how she sneaked into Knole’s gardens in the dead of night like a ‘ghost’. This was her ‘tortured treat’, her true home was forever just beyond her grasp.
The house in Orlando is the thread that holds the narrative together, despite spanning space and time. Furthermore, the house is Orlando’s, regardless of their gender. In other words, Knole was always Vita’s.
In Orlando, Virginia writes of the house,
‘The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.’
‘There stood the great house with all its windows robed in silver. Of wall or substance there was none. All was phantom. All was still. All was lit as for the coming of a dead Queen.’
However, Virginia was careful to acknowledge Vita’s pain at losing her home. It seems, to console her love, she suggests that regardless of Vita’s gender Knole was always going to be lost to time. Orlando walks the halls, the owner of her home but still history intrudes. She cannot go back to how her home was in the Elizabethan era. Times change.
“The house was no longer hers entirely, she sighed. It belonged to time now; to history; was past the touch and control of the living.”
As Virginia wrote in A Room of One’s Own, ‘Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.’ Virginia could write the truth of their love in fiction, in Orlando, a world that was safe from discrimination and homophobia. They could have the power of men and the freedom to love. Fiction was their sanctuary and preserved their love for us today.
Virginia gave Vita the original manuscript of Orlando, which was dedicated to her on 6 December 1928. It is kept at Knole, a record of their love in the place where it inspired two great literary minds. Virginia understood that history would wash them away, but Orlando and Knole would remain, together. Eternally intertwined.
Knole House inspired Virginia immensely as it reflected her love of history, of literature, of the countryside, of nature. It also reflected her love of Vita and the strength she saw within her. The house was not only Vita’s home, but represented who Vita was. It embodied her strength, her power, her beauty.
Knole House is the timeless bastion of their genius and their love, a love which was, in their own words, “unalterable” and “permanent”.