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Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West review

Is this the biography that the brilliant gardener, once-popular author and masterly self-inventor deserves?

Vita Sackville-West, who wanted terribly to be remembered as a poet, but is better known for her experimental domestic arrangements and her garden at Sissinghurst, was the subject of one of the most stylish and experimental biographies in English. In 1927, Virginia Woolf asked permission to write about the woman who was no longer her lover: Suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita Shall you mind? Of course Vita didnt mind (this was better than sex, though she wanted more of that than Woolf was offering). In any case, it would have been hard to stop Woolf once the idea had sprung upon her that in writing a fantastical life of Sackville-West as the embodiment of all her ancestors across 400 years, she could revolutionise biography in a night.

The example set by that first book must be daunting for anyone thinking they might follow Woolfs lead. Matthew Dennison ignores the challenge, which is one way of dealing with it. As an established biographer who specialises in grand women the Empress Livia, Queen Victorias daughter Beatrice, and (just last year) Queen Victoria herself it is strange that he does not show more interest in the history of his chosen genre. Not that theres any need to write lives backwards or condensed into five minutes or stretched across centuries, but is Dennison really content to say that winter gave way to spring and March faded into April when Woolfs game-changing skits prodded the conventions for conveying that time passes? Woolfs fun with clouds has not successfully curbed the number of looming shadows in this book (or unlooming shadows. Take this bizarre sentence: The war alone clouded the horizon).

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