Scholar finds writer's poem to mistress Violet Trefusis as it falls out of book during conservation work at her Sissinghurst home
When Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the palatial family home at Knole in Kent in 1913, the society column-writers enthused over the 21-year-old bride's beauty and her magnificent wedding gown. But as a poem going on display this week for the first time makes clear, there was more to the marriage than a conventional fairytale romance.
Sackville-West's erotic verse, written in French to her lover Violet Trefusis and translated by Harvey James, the scholar who found it, contrasts daytime strolls through floral meadows with "intoxicating night" when "I search on your lip for a madder caress/ I tear secrets from your yielding flesh."
Nicolson and Sackville-West went on to create one of the most famous gardens in England at their home at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now, like Knole, in the care of the National Trust, but both had many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which only ended with her death in 1962.
Their tangled love life overlapped with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists. Sackville-West's most famous affair was with Virginia Woolf, who immortalised their relationship and her family background in the 1928 novel Orlando.
Knole, said to have a room for every day of the year, including one with silver furniture, was lost to an uncle because Sackville-West's parents had not produced a son – a loss Nigel Nicolson, who wrote a classic account of his parents in his book Portrait of a Marriage, described as the tragedy of her life.
Sackville-West also wrote extensively and the poem, which fell out of a bookin her writing room at Sissinghurst as her library was being catalogued, was written just five years after her marriage, when her on-off affair with Trefusis resumed. Trefusis, daughter of Alice Keppel, the lover of King Edward VII, also had literary pretensions, and described how her lover's "profound, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted".
The poem was only found in February by James, a bookmark in a gift from Trefusis. "It literally just fell out from between the pages of an old book that was being catalogued as part of our conservation work. It's a really poignant reminder of the challenges and crises that Vita and Harold's relationship endured," he said.
The garden has been open to visitors since 1 May 1938, and on Wednesday, the anniversary, visitors will again pay just 5p – worth far less than when Sackville-West called her visitors the "shillingses".
The family heirlooms displayed for the first time have been lent by her grandchildren, novelist and historian Juliet and Adam Nicolson. Only the skirt survives of the sumptuous wedding gown, which was described by the Lady's Pictorial as "'the colour like the tassel of Indian corn, the silk shimmering bright like the silk on the cocoon".
The wedding outfit was made by Reville & Rossiter, whose clientele included Queen Mary. Her trousseau also included a dress by one of the most important and influential designers of the day, Mariano Fortuny, whose pleated silk gowns transformed Edwardian women into Grecian goddesses.
Juliet Nicolson has transcribed some of her great-grandmother's journals for the exhibition, recording the fabulous expense of the wedding: they went with Nicolson to choose the ring and inspected "over 100 emerald and d[iamond] rings" before he settled on "a lovely one" for £185. On 14 October she settled the bill at Reville & Rossiter, "nearly £400, the wedding dress cost 50 guineas".
The exhibition, along with one on the creation of the garden, whose quintessentially English style remains influential, runs until the end of October.
When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
Through great floral meadows of open country
I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
I search on your lip for a madder caress
I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress
• Courtesy of the beneficiaries of the Literary Estate of Vita Sackville-West, 2013