All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West


Lady Slane, in her 80s, has just lost her husband. Her children have grown up and her great grandchildren are doing well in terms of society’s standards. She is ready for retirement from the life of a politician’s wife. To the dismay of her children she decides to retire to a small house and requests that she receive no visitors-not even family. Her children are more concerned about keeping up appearances and are shocked, though none wanted the responsibility of the aging woman. This story focuses on the last year of Lady Slane’s life. Told in part through reminisces and in part through new companions and friendships, it is both funny and heartening.

All Passion Spent was originally published by Hogarth Press in 1931. My copy claims that it is the fictional companion to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I believe they say this because the book highlights, through a fictional story, society’s expectations and the roles that women must play. There are many references to feminist ideals and one woman’s eventual break with convention shows her as an unexpected powerful force. In her youth, Lady Slane wanted to be a painter but married almost reluctantly, raised her family, and supported her husband throughout his career. There seemed to be a tug between motherhood (and thus womanhood) and identity. It seemed that Lady Slane did not feel that she could be her true self as long as she was connected to her husband and children.

    But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves. She could never be the same self with him as when she was alone; and even the solitary self which she pursued, shifted, changed, melted away as she approached it, she could never drive it into a dark corner, and there, like a robber in the night, hold it by the throat against the wall, the hard core of self chased into a blind alley of refuge…She was after all, a woman. Thwarted as an artist, was it perhaps possible to find fulfillment in other ways?

Even more interesting was that Lady Slane never once picks up a paintbrush. Maybe she found her release from society in other things: creating a scrapbook of sorts to keep up with her great-grandchildren, conversations with her landlord, a new understanding of the life and the experiences of her maid, and the friendship of an interesting man that knew her long ago. Painting could have served as a symbol for expressing a part her self that she thought was missing. Maybe since she has her companions and a brief but self-fulfilling encounter with her great-granddaughter of the same name (who wants to be a pianist), she no longer needed to paint.


    Of course she [Lady Slane] would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they [her children] might choose to make. Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive-an appendage. It was assumed that she had not enough brain to be self-assertive.
    Yet, going up to Hampstead alone, she did not feel old; she felt younger than she had felt for years, and the proof of it was that she accepted eagerly this start of a new lap in life, even though it be the last.
    They were too old, all three of them, to feel keenly; to compete and circumvent and score…That was old age, when people knew everything so well that they could no longer afford to express it save in symbols. Those days were gone when feeling burst its bounds and poured hot from the foundry, when the heart seemed likely to split with complex and contradictory desires; now there was nothing left but a landscape in monochrome, the features identical but all the colours gone from them, and nothing but a gesture left in the place of speech.

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