“I am my own muse, the subject I know best.” (Frida Kahlo)

Last week I wrote about Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Although she was Virginia’s muse, Vita was not a voiceless entity to be moulded by the artist, but an accomplished author in her own right. This week, I thought I’d look at the work of some famous muses: Vita, and also Zelda Fitzgerald.

Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931) begins with the death of Henry, Lord Slane, former Prime Minister and Viceroy to India. Deborah, Lady Slane, who has been married for 70 years since the age of 17, seems to be bearing up remarkably well.

“Mother was a changeling, they had often said politely, in the bitter-sweet accents reserved for a family joke; but now in this emergency they found a new phrase: Mother is wonderful. It was the thing they were expected to say, so they said it, several times over, like a refrain coming periodically into their conversation and sweeping it upwards on to a higher level. Then it dropped again; became practical. Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life.”

Although she loved her husband, Lady Slane is released by his death. She did not want to be a political wife or a society hostess, or any of the other roles she had to adopt to support her husband. She had wanted to be a painter, but instead followed the Victorian ideal and got married. Her husband was happy for her to paint watercolours as a becoming hobby, but the idea of a professional artist wife was ridiculous:

“He was not to blame. He had only taken for granted the things he was entitled to take for granted, thereby ranging himself with the women and entering into the general conspiracy to defraud her of her chosen life.”

Aged 88, Lady Slane decides that the time has come to go her own way at last:

“I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it is time I had a little holiday from them. If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”

This means she will not live alternately with each of her offspring who are all fairly dreadful in their own way. Instead she will move to a small house in Hampstead with her French maid who has been with her for the whole of her marriage, and they will live quite simply. (Much to my relief, having read the horrors of the moving-between-adult-children option brilliantly portrayed in Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven)

She ends up creating a little enclave of elderly men around her. Mr Bucktrout is her eccentric, paternalistic landlord; Mr Gosheron her decorator; and Mr FitzGeorge a man who has loved her from afar for years. They are all rather strange individuals, and all in sympathy with one another.

“But at Hampstead, thanks to Mr Bucktrout and Mr Gosheron, the proper atmosphere had been at last achieved. It was modest; there were no aides-de-camp, no princes, but though modest it was warm, and affectionate, and respectful, and vigilant, and just as it should be.”

Sackville-West has plenty to say in this novel, most obviously about the limited choices available to women, especially in regard to their professional lives:

“She supposed she that was not in love with Henry, but, even if she had been in love with him, she could see therein no reason for foregoing the whole of her own separate existence. Henry was in love with her but no-one proposed he should forego his.”

In this way, it has been seen as a fictional companion to A Room of One’s Own. However, it is also an appeal for allowing for different kinds of life and for respecting inner life as much as outward achievement. Lady Slane is ostensibly doing nothing, and wonders if the contemplative life is in fact running away from things. She decides it isn’t:

“for in contemplation (and also in pursuit of the one chosen avocation which she had to renounce) she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children who reckoned things by their results and activities”

All Passion Spent is a wonderful novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s beautifully written and has something to say, but it is never didactic. It is warm, witty, has fully-realised idiosyncratic characters and of course, Sackville-West’s sharp wit. A great read.

“For the first time in her life – no, for the first time since her marriage – she had nothing else to do. She could lie back against death and examine life. Meanwhile, the air was full of the sound of bees.”

Secondly, Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz, written in a clinic in 6 weeks following a breakdown. It’s practically impossible to read this without thinking of Zelda’s life. She and her husband F Scott Fitzgerald were seen as emblematic of generation perdu and her husband labelled her ‘the First American Flapper’. Save Me the Waltz is barely disguised autobiography as Alabama Begg marries an artist, David Knight, and the celebrated couple move around Europe after the First World War. Sound at all familiar?

The novel was dismissed by critics on its release but has been reclaimed by some scholars in recent years who argue the novel is well-written and Zelda has been overshadowed by the acclaim granted her husband. I think I fall somewhere between these two camps. I thought Save Me the Waltz was desperately overwritten:

“the swing creaks of Austin’s porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of all hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back into the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moon-vines trail dark, absorbent pads over the string trellises.”

There are loads of passages like this. Fitzgerald loves a simile and she layers image upon image without them really adding anything to one another. A few pages on is this:

“The lids of her mother’s blue eyes rose in weary circumflex as her sweet hands moved in charity through the necessities of her circumstance.”

At this point I was at page 29 and wondering if I should give up. As I say, it’s difficult to read this separate from Zelda’s legend but I’m pretty sure that even if I didn’t know about her, this writing would still strike me as coming from someone with something to prove, desperate to be a Good Writer.

But I’m glad I persevered. Fitzgerald seemed to get into her stride later into the novel; similes became more coherent, the use of Big Clever Words lessened and she got on with the story and some interesting observations:

“Alabama and David were proud of themselves and the baby, consciously affecting a vague bouffant casualness about the fifty thousand dollars they spent on two years’ worth of polish for life’s baroque façade. In reality, there is no materialist like the artist, asking back from life the double and the wastage and the cost on what he puts out in emotional usury.”

Alabama decides to train as a dancer as the Knight’s marriage starts to disintegrate. It’s hard not to read it as Zelda’s take on her relationship with Scott and it’s sad:

“They had thought they were perfect and opened their hearts to inflation but not to alteration.”

Of course the main interest in reading Save Me the Waltz is that it was written by Zelda Fitzgerald, and that  it is her life with Scott thinly-disguised. Yet I think it shows unfulfilled promise. It’s not a great novel but it has excellent moments. I felt if she had only had an editor take an artistic, nuturing interest in her, someone who would advise, guide and mentor, Zelda Fitzgerald could have become the accomplished writer she so clearly wanted to be.

“Alabama swung off in imitation of some walk she had once admired. ‘But I warn you’ she said, ‘I am only really myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.”

To end, I recently saw a repeat of a documentary where Marianne Faithfull described becoming Mick Jagger’s muse as “not a high self-esteem choice”. She survived, she’s laughing and she’s still working, even if her voice these days is a bit of an acquired taste. Take it away Marianne:

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21 thoughts on ““I am my own muse, the subject I know best.” (Frida Kahlo)

  1. A great theme for a post, madame bibi. I’ve tried and failed to get very far with Sackville-West in the past, but your enthusiasm for All Passion Spent makes me think that I should give her another try. Sometimes it’s all about the mindset, isn’t it? Finding the right time and frame of mind to connect with a particular writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! Sometimes it’s just not the right time for an author in your life, other times they come along at the perfect moment 🙂

      I keep thinking I should give Wuthering Heights another go – I read it when I was about 12 and hated it so much that I’ve not gone near it since, but so many people love it. Maybe one day…

      I really hope you enjoy VIta Sackville-West if you give her another try Jacqui – but if you don’t like her writing at least you’re in the highly esteemed company of Virginia Woolf, who didn’t rate it either!

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      • Ha! We all have our individual blind spots. I have a bit of a mental block with Thomas Hardy as I had to study his Mayor of Casterbridge for O level, an activity which sucked all the life out that book for me!

        Have you seen Andrea Arnold’s film of Wuthering Heights? If not, it might a good way back to the story for you?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Unfortunately school can ruin authors for many people! I’ve not seen Arnold’s film but I do really like her as a director, so you may well be right – she might just get me appreciating Wuthering Heights at last 😊

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  2. A great look at these books – I don’t know the Fitzgerald, but I love All Passion Spent. I think VSW is a really underrated writer, and it’s great to see her getting more attention – particularly as a writer rather than just a muse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only read this and Family History by VSW and I’ve really enjoyed them both, so I’m rapidly becoming a fan! I have The Edwardians in the TBR mountain, and then I’ll have to seek out more of her work. It’s a shame she’s not better known in her own right, she’s got a lot to offer readers.

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  3. I’ve not read Vita but I’ve read a great deal about her! On the subject of muses there’s a great bit in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix where she has a a good old rant about Picasso and his ‘muses’ – very enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t have Netflix – I’d probably never leave the house if I did! – but I’ll see if I can hunt down that documentary. I can’t imagine being a muse of Picasso is a desirable state to be in – undoubtedly a genius but not a very nice human being 😦

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  4. Very interesting pairing Madame B. I’ve only read Vita’s shorter works and I liked them very much. As for Zelda, the passages you quote do sound a bit overwritten – I think I might struggle a bit though I do own this! I’m not sure I would do well as anyone’s muse – I’d probably get a bit annoyed…

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  5. I loved All Passion Spent and you’ve reminded me that I’d intended to dig out some more VSW to read. I’m in two minds about reading Zelda Fitzgerald as I’ve read such mixed reviews. I may well leave it to fate and see if a volume turns up in a charity shop at some point.

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    • All Passion Spent is so great & I’m also looking for more VSW to read – I have The Edwardians next, and I think once the book-buying ban is over I’ll acquire some more (and see what my library has in the meantime….)

      I can really see why Zelda attracts mixed reviews – the novel itself is quite mixed. My copy came from a charity shop (as nearly all my books do!) and orange Penguin with a groovy 1960s illustrated cover – a massive picture of a shoe for some reason 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Shame on me – I’ve read the work of the people they were muses for, but not these books. I actually started Waltz once but abandoned fairly quickly – the quotes you pulled reminded me why. But I love F. Scott so I ought to give Zelda another shot.

    Unrelated, watching that film clip I kept thinking how oddly familiar Marianne Faithfull is (apart from the obvious fame factor). I realised that she looks like one of my kids teachers… parent-teacher interviews will never be the same again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No shame – Woolf and F Scott wrote more & are much better known! Waltz definitely improves if you can stick with it. But I think the interest is undoubtedly that it’s Zelda writing it, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it otherwise.

      Are you *absolutely* sure your kid’s teacher isn’t Marianne Faithfull? 😀

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  7. I think muses are better in history, as hearing Kanye speak of Kim seems flimsy. And cringy. I do like Vita Sackville-West. I have a story about her mother, she was staying at Rufford Abbey and Notts when it was still a private house, and a ghost baby, known to the house as the ‘clammy baby’ tried to get in bed with her. Apparently she woke the house to let them know a small invisible child was pawing at her. All the best stuff happens in the past 😉

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  8. Pingback: A delightful pair of Viragos – novels by E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West | JacquiWine's Journal

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