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‘As a body hers is perfection’: Alison Bechdel on the love letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West

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The great literary love affair not only fed the visionary novel Orlando, but staked out new ground for women – and inspired the graphic novelist’s own hunt for the ideal relationship

When I was an undergraduate and just coming out as a lesbian, I slunk to a dimly lit, out-of-the-way place where I knew I would find other people like me – the stacks of the library. Vita Sackville-West was not the first companion I encountered there, but she was certainly the most indelible one.

I found her in Portrait of a Marriage, her son Nigel Nicolson’s 1973 book about his parents’ enduring and open relationship. I learned that both Vita and her husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, had numerous affairs, mostly with people of their own sex, while remaining otherwise devoted to one another, their children and their famous garden. The book also includes Vita’s own account of her obsessive love affair with Violet Keppel in the early days of her marriage to Harold. I was spellbound by the image of Vita in Paris, passing as a man by wrapping her head with a khaki bandage – not an unusual sight just at the end of the first world war – and strolling the streets with her lover. Who was this woman?

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