Violet Trefusis

Violet Trefusis

Violet Trefusis "née" Keppel (June 6, 1894 – March 1 1972) was an English writer and socialite. She is most notable from her lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, which was featured under disguise in Virginia Woolf's "".

Early life

Violet Trefusis was the daughter of courtesan Alice Keppel, a mistress of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. Although she bore this surname until she married, she was said to be the daughter of William Beckett, a banker and MP for Whitby [cite encyclopedia | first=Clare L. | last=Taylor | title=Trefusis, Violet (1894–1972) | encyclopedia=Oxford Dictionary of National Biography | publisher=Oxford University Press | date=2004 | url= | accessdate=2007-11-29] , but her mother had taken several lovers during that time, and there are several possibilities. Throughout her childhood Trefusis was witness to her mother's numerous lovers, all prominent powerful men of the day.citation |title=Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter |first=Diana |last=Souhami |year=1998 |publisher=St. Martin's Press |isbn=0312195176]

Trefusis lived her early youth in London, where the Keppel family had a house in Portman Square. When Trefusis was four years old, Alice Keppel became one of the favorite mistresses of Albert Edward (Bertie), the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII on January 22, 1901. He paid visits to the Keppel household in the afternoon around tea-time (while her husband, who was aware of the affair, was conveniently absent), on a regular basis till the end of his life in 1910. Discretion was a hallmark of Alice Keppel.

In 1900 Violet's sister, Sonia, was born.

Her affair with Vita Sackville-West

Trefusis is best remembered today for her love affair with the wealthy Vita Sackville-West, having figured in Virginia Woolf's novel "". In this romanticized biography of Vita, Trefusis appears in it as the Slavic princess Sasha.citation |title=Orlando: A Biography |first=Virginia |last=Woolf |year=1955 |publisher=Wordsworth Editions |isbn=1853262390 In the introduction, p. vii, by Merry Pawlowski.]

This was not the only account of this love affair, which appears in reality to have been very much more strenuous than Woolf's enchanting account: both in fiction ("Challenge" by Sackville-West and Trefusis, "Broderie Anglaise" a roman à clef in French by Trefusis) and in non-fiction ("Portrait of a Marriage" by Sackville-West with extensive "clarifications" added by her son Nigel Nicolson) further parts of the story appeared in print.

There are still the surviving letters and diaries written by the partakers in the plot. Apart from those of the two central players, there are records from Alice Keppel, Victoria Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Denys Trefusis and Pat Dansey.

Probably the most conclusive overview of the whole story can be found in Diana Souhami's "Mrs Keppel and her Daughter". In headlines:
* When she was 10, Violet met Vita (who was two years older) for the first time. After that they went to the same school for several years, and soon recognised bond between them. When Violet was 14, she confessed Vita her love, and gave her a ring.
* In 1910, after the death of Edward VII, Mrs Keppel made her family observe a "discretion" leave of about two years, before re-establishing themselves in British society: upon returning the Keppels moved to another address (Grosvenor Street).
* By the time Violet returned to London, Vita was soon to be engaged to Harold Nicolson, and frequented her love atffair with Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet made clear that she still loved Vita, and got engaged herself to make Vita jealous. But all Violet wanted was to get rid of hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy of marriage (and all that went with it in those days). This didn't stop Vita from marrying Harold (October 1913), who, in his turn, didn't stop his homosexual adventures for marriage.
* April 1918 Violet and Vita refreshed and intensified their bond. Vita had two sons by now, but these were left in the care of others when Vita and Violet left for a holiday in Cornwall. Meanwhile Mrs Keppel was busy arranging a marriage for Violet with Denys Trefusis. A few days after the armistice Sackville-West and Trefusis went away to France for several months. Because of Vita's exclusivity claim, and her own loathing of marriage, Trefusis made Denys promise never to have sex with her, as a condition for marriage. So, in June 1919 they married. The end of that year Trefusis and Sackville-West made a new two-month excursion to France: ordered to do so by his mother in law, Denys got Trefusis back from the south of France when new gossip about Sackville-West's and Trefusis's loose behaviour began to reach London.
* The next time they left, in February 1920, was to be the final elopement. Sackville-West might still have some doubts, and probably hoped that Harold would interfere. Harold did arrive with Denys in a two-seater airplane, which led to heated scenes in Amiens. The climax came when Harold told Sackville-West that Trefusis had been unfaithful to her (with Denys). Trefusis tried to explain and assured her innocence (which was true in all likelihood). Sackville-West was much too upset and in rage to listen and fled, saying she couldn't bear too see her at least for two months. It was after six weeks when Sackville-West finally came back to France to meet Trefusis.
* Mrs Keppel desperately tried to keep scandal away from London, where Trefusis's sister, Sonia, was about to be married (paving her way to become, together with Roland Cubitt, a grandparent to Camilla Parker Bowles. That meant Trefusis spent much of her time in 1920 abroad, clinging desperately to Sackville-West via continuous letters.
* In January 1921 Sackville-West and Trefusis made a final journey to France, where they spent six weeks together. At this time Harold threatened to break off the marriage if Sackville-West still continued her escapes. When Sackville-West returned to England in March, it was practically the end of the affair. Trefusis was sent to Italy, and from there she wrote her last desperate letters to their mutual friend Pat Dansey; she was forbidden to write directly to Sackville-West. At the end of the year Trefusis had to face the facts, and start to build her life from the scratch.

A few years, and some postludes, later it becomes increasingly clear that Trefusis's fantasy of romantic love lived to the fullest in an accepting social context were not to come true. The more traditional concept of an upfront marriage with hidden extramarital adventures to complete it - as it had been lived by Mrs Keppel, and would continue to be lived by Sackville-West and Harold - proved immensely stronger for many years to come.

An essential difference between Mrs Keppel and Sackville-West seems to be that Mrs Keppel made a trade of never distressing her lovers (and their marriages), thus advancing her family socially and financially, while Sackville-West caused broken hearts more than once: for her marriage was rather the refuge she could always come back to after periods of abandonment.

As a side-note it might appear not so surprising that, notwithstanding some general changes in social context by that time, the inherent unresolved tensions of all three models (Trefusis's, Mrs Keppel's and Sackville-West's) - including mothers taking sides in view of a socially acceptable solution - reappeared in the Diana - Camilla - Charles triangle - surely not so exceptional in this respect.

The two former lovers met again in 1940 after the war had forced Trefusis to come back to England. They continued to keep in touch and send each other affectionate letters.

Further Reading About the Affair

There have been extensive writings on the affair, many reflecting what is believed to have been the mistreatment of Trefusis by Sackville-West. Most reflect that Trefusis was completely engulfed and overwhelmed by the affair, as was Sackville-West, but that it was Sackville-West who was ultimately in control. Jullian Phillipe wrote "Violet Trefusis: A Biography, Including Correspondence with Vita Sackville-West", which was released in paperback in 1985. Other writings on the affair include the Jullian Phillipe and John Phillips book, "The Other Woman, A Life of Violet Trefusis", and "Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter" by Diana Souhami. []

Later life

From 1923 on Trefusis became one of the many lovers of the Singer sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, daughter of Isaac Singer and wife of the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac, who introduced her to the artistic "beau-monde" in Paris. Trefusis conceding more and more to her mother's model of being "socially acceptable", but at the same time not wavering on her sexuality.

Singer, as Sackville-West had, dominated the relationship, though apparently to mutual satisfaction. The two were together for many years, and seemed to have had a healthy and happy relationship. Trefusis's mother, Alice Keppel, did not object to this affair, most likely due to the wealth and power of Singer, and the fact that Singer carried on the affair in a much more disciplined way. Trefusis seemed to prefer the role of "submissive", and therefore fit with Singer well, as she was typically "dominant" and in control in her relationships. Neither were completely faithful during their long affair, but unlike her affair with Sackville-West, this seemed to have had no negative effect on their relationship.

In 1924 Mrs Keppel bought L'Ombrellino, a large villa overlooking Florence, where once Galileo Galilei had lived. Eventually, after her parents' death in 1947, Trefusis would become the chatelaine of L'Ombrellino, till the end of her life.

In 1929, Denys Trefusis died, completely estranged from his seemingly unfeeling wife. After his death, Violet published several novels, some in English, some in French, that she had written in her medieval "Tour" in Saint-Loup-de-Naud, Seine-et-Marne, France - a gift from Winnaretta.

During the Second World War, in London, Violet participated in the broadcastings of ( [] ) "La France Libre", which earned her a Légion d'Honneur after the war.

Nancy Mitford said that Violet's autobiography should be titled "Here Lies Violet Trefusis", and partly based the character of "Lady Montdore" in "Love in a Cold Climate" on her.


François Mitterrand, who later became President of the French Republic in 1981, in his chronicle "La Paille & le Grain" (Ed. Flammarion 1975 ISBN 2080607782 mentions his friendship with Violet Trefusis under the 2nd of March 1972, when he received "the dreaded telegram" informing of her death. He goes on discussing how before Christmas 1971, he went to Florence to visit her as he knew she was in her last months of life and spent a dinner with Violet Trefusis and a "Lord L.S", who was a member of the British Government at the beginning of the 2nd World War, at her house in Florence.

Further reading


External links

* [ Biographical notes and bibliography]
* [ Nerina Milletti, "Due Violette a Firenze"] It
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