Nigel Nicolson was born in 1917, the younger son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.
He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. During the Second World War he served in the Grenadier Guards and from 1952-9 he was a Conservative MP. He edited six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters and three volumes of his father’s diaries. The author of many books on history, politics, architecture and literature, including the biography of his parents Portrait of a Marriage, he lived in Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, where his parents made their world-famous garden.
I interviewed him in 1996 and he died in September 2004.
It is difficult for those of us who had a fairly ordinary childhood and background to conceive of what it must have been like to have been born into such extraordinary circumstances. Have you always regarded it as a privilege or have you perhaps sometimes felt it as a burden?
I’ve never felt it as a burden, and I wouldn’t call it all that extraordinary. It certainly didn’t seem so to me at the time. I had two parents who have become well known, perhaps better known after their deaths than during their lifetime. Most people have one famous parent, I had two, and that has been a great advantage to me throughout life. First of all I had a comfortable home, a very good education, and the company of extremely lively and intelligent parents and their friends. In addition I acquired from them certain moral values which stood me in good stead throughout my life, and of course I inherited material benefits. For example, I now live at Sissinghurst which they found as a ruin and transformed into one of the most famous gardens in England. The National Trust owns it, but I am their tenant, rent free. I was given a springboard in my life, not a platform exactly more a trampoline from which to bound upwards. Many of their friends were in a position to help me with my early career and that was an extra advantage. You’re right to call it a privilege.
You describe your mother and father as ‘parents such as God provides for one in a million’ and you felt that you and your brother could not have had greater advantages in terms of education and money and independence. People who are born with a silver spoon often have great difficulty in accepting it. Has your attitude towards your background been a complex one, would you say?
All children react against their parents’ attitude in certain ways, and I was no exception. To give you one example, there’s no doubt at all that my father had a strong colour prejudice, and he also admitted that he had certain reservations about Jews. It would be too much to call him anti-Semitic, but he would rather not know if one of his friends had Jewish ancestry. He was a very strong supporter of Weizmann and Zionism, but it was mainly in compensation for his dislike of the Jewish race. I reacted against all that. After all, my business partner in life was George Weidenfeld, who gained a great deal from his Jewish ancestry. And again, although my father certainly wasn’t a snob – he was more of an elitist – I found it much easier than he did to mix with people in the pub. There were other areas in which one differed from him politically. He was all for the old diplomacy, I was all for the New World and the United Nations. He felt very little sympathy for people outside certain capitals in Western Europe. London, Paris and Rome were the centres of his life and those outside were – if not exactly barbarians – trainee civilized people. My mother was very conservative. Although she had a pretty reckless youth she was in fact immensely bound by the tradition of her own family. She believed in the aristocracy very strongly. She wasn’t exactly a snob, but she did believe in lineage and in ancestry, and all of these things meant less to me than they did to her.
You write in Portrait of a Marriage that your mother was guiltily conscious that she never managed to establish an intimacy with her sons and thought herself a failure as a mother, but you say it was as much your fault as hers. What did you mean by that exactly?
I regret very much that I didn’t make any greater effort to know her better. She didn’t easily form intimacies. She was very private about the things that meant most to her which were her poetry, her garden, her friendships with women. None of these things did I ever discuss with her. She never wanted to talk about her current book, for example, whereas my father would talk about what he was writing the whole time, openly. And so I felt that I responded to her privacy with a sort of privacy of my own, and that established a gap between us which was never bridged. There were only one or two occasions in my life when we broke through that barrier. I might have been in distress about something, or she might suddenly have felt passionately keen upon some activity in my life, and those were the only occasions when for an hour or two we managed to establish any intimacy.
Were you in awe of her?
Slightly. She could be rather formidable and I was very careful not to trespass on ground where I was not allowed. For instance, I only went up to her room in the tower two or three times in thirty-two years. None of her family went up there. It was her sanctum, and only one or two friends like Virginia Woolf went there.
You say that your mother felt only a distant affection for you and your brother. That is the kind of attitude which modern psychologists would claim to be deeply scarring in later life. Have you suffered in that way at all?
I wasn’t conscious of a lack of maternal love. I understood that she was different, that she couldn’t be much interested in the activities of little boys, and later in life when I went into the war, into politics, into business, these were all areas with which Vita had no familiarity. Psychologically, I suppose, if one dug deep enough, one could discover that faults in my character were due to the lack of maternal love, but I’m not aware of it.
You wrote that for your mother babies were ‘an interruption, a reminder of duty, a reminder of their innocence compared to her guilt’ and so on. Presumably this was something you became conscious of only much later. Did you find it shocking?
No. We’re talking about the 1920s and early 1930s and life was very different then. Most people of our generation and class had governesses and nannies, and we would spend 95 per cent of the day with them, and for 5 per cent of the day we were allowed down to see our parents. Often I would come down and find my mother deeply absorbed in her current book, writing poetry, something which required intense concentration, and the eruption of two little boys was a great disturbance to her, just as it was when we were at school and it was e3xpected that parents would visit their children for sports day or half-term. Vita hated doing that. We felt perhaps a little guilty in obliging her to come, wanting her to come. Because she was a woman with far greater gifts than most mothers, we assumed we would have a different relationship from that which our friends had with their mothers. It was a special situation which we accepted and didn’t mind. Vita felt guilty about not being a better mother, and she wrote to my father about it. I didn’t read these letters till long after her death; at the time I didn’t realize that she felt like that about us.
Was your father a good father?
Our closeness to our father was another reason for the distance between us and my mother. I don’t know if it’s true of other children, but my brother and I certainly chose one parent rather than the other, and in our case it was Harold, because of his greater openness with us, his interest in us, in our school work. He would read a play by Aeschylus in the original Greek, just because it was our set book at school that particular term, and he wrote us wonderful letters. And although he wasn’t really a great countryman himself he taught us how to shoot and how to make a lake by diverting a stream, and so on. All these activities cumulatively made us much closer to him than to our mother.
Did Vita resent the fact that you were close to your father?
No. I know that she didn’t because her life and her thoughts were so extensively documented in her letters to my father. They wrote to each other every day when they were apart, and they were apart a very great deal. There are over twelve thousand letters, six thousand from each side, and I’ve read every one of them. I don’t think there was a single indication that she was jealous of our relationship with him. There was a slight element of self reproach but never of envy.
During the war you served with the Grenadier Guards. Your brother was at heart a pacifist and his attitude to winning the war was described by your mother as ‘deplorable’. Did you have similar doubts? Did you perhaps feel pressurized to fight because of your brother’s weakness in that respect?
I never did. My brother Ben was very much under the influence of certain intellectuals like Philip Toynbee who tended to be left wing and not exactly pacifist, but contemptuous of the idea of glory of empire. My brother was in intelligence, not in the front line. I don’t think his pacifism lasted very long with him, and he came to accept the war. I was very different. The Grenadiers was a combative battalion in Africa and Italy, and I did engage in active welfare. I never killed anybody, I wasn’t wounded myself, but these things could have happened to me, and I didn’t feel any sense of shame. In fact my shame came retrospectively, because I enjoyed a great deal of it, and I remember writing to my father when we were advancing up Italy saying, ‘There is nothing more enjoyable than conquering a country.’ He wrote back and said, ‘Hitler feels exactly the same.’ It was a very salutary reminder that war is a horrible experience.
Would you say you were a natural soldier?
I don’t think I was because I wasn’t a natural leader and I had a certain feeling of distaste for killing young men of my own age on the other side. But I had a very interesting war, and I was present at many of the most dramatic occasions, like the surrender of the Afrika Korps, Rommel’s army in Tunisia, the Battle of Monte Cassino, and so on. The war for me was very exciting and at moments even a pleasurable experience, which it never was for my brother.
Victoria Glendinning wrote in her biography of your mother: ‘Just as Ben had to free himself from Vita’s projections, so Nigel needed to free himself from Harold’s.’ Was Glendinning right in this assessment, and did you free yourself?
She’s certainly right about Ben. He freed himself not just from my mother but from both parents, quite early on. His chosen profession of art historian was not either of their professions, and his friends were in the world of art, many of them were Jewish people, and certainly the great majority were not British. All this was new to Harold and Vita, particularly to Vita. I followed rather closely in my father’s footsteps, by going into politics and writing books. My interests by and large were his interests, in literature and politics and history. I also took from him certain moral values. He would say that an honourable life is more enjoyable than a dishonourable life – which makes him sound rather platitudinous – but he did teach me that honesty is a desirable and beneficial quality. So on the whole I’ve been rather pious, not in a religious sense, but a good pagan as Harold called himself. All that came from him, and in no way did I ever feel I wanted to liberate myself from it.
Your father wanted you to go into the House of Commons as he had done, and yet you thought it would be ‘too soft a life’, as you put it. What was it that made you change your mind when you stood for Parliament in 1950?
I don’t remember feeling that. My hesitation was much more whether I had the capacity for it, whether I could speak to large audiences, and whether I knew enough about other people’s lives. I had a certain mistrust of myself which diminished as I got a little more experience. Fortunately I was adopted for Bournemouth which was a very safe Conservative seat. But before then I didn’t really have much of a political philosophy – I just followed the leader and doled out to my constituents bowls of soup from the party tureen. It was only after I became a member of parliament that I found my own position within the party, which was to the left of centre.
Was it clear from the start that you would stand as a Conservative?
Yes, and here again I was guided by my father. He himself had never been a Conservative and swore that he never would become one. But he felt that he had always been tied up with minority parties which meant very unsafe seats, and he said that one of his mistakes was never having joined one of the major parties. He advised me to join the Conservative party because, after all, my background fitted that – it hardly fitted the Labour party – so I did that without any very strong conviction that I was a Conservative, and it turned out that in many ways I wasn’t. I was much more of a Liberal. I believed in the abolition of capital punishment, for example, and I was very much at variance with my party over the Suez crisis. Eventually I was de-selected, which was perfectly justified, and they chose somebody else who was more in tune with the party.
But have your politics changed over the years?
They haven’t changed since then. What happened was that they changed when I was between the ages of thirty and forty. It was then that I began to feel more of a Liberal than a Conservative, and to dislike some of my Conservative colleagues in the House of Commons very much, and to like some of my opponents very much. My admiration, I always found, was for the other side…Nye Bevan, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, people of that calibre.
Would you describe yourself today as a Conservative?
I’ve come back to the Conservative party. I’ve never voted Labour, though I’ve often voted Liberal, but in the last six months I have rejoined the Conservative party, partly because I think that John Major has been given such a raw deal by his own erstwhile supporters. He is a very remarkable man capable of great grace, resilience, intelligence, foresight, and I believe he has qualities which will be recognized in the future. There’s no issue of Conservative policy today with which I disagree.
Was it an embarrassment to you that when you contested the election of 1950, your father was by this time in the Labour party?
Yes. He was a Labour candidate at North Croydon when I was the candidate for Leicester. His was a by-election and not a general election, so we didn’t actually clash, but I had some difficulty explaining the situation to my constituents.
Did you understand his wanting to change his colours?
He disliked what he called the selfishness of the Conservative party very much. Remember that these were days long before Butler and Macmillan transformed it into what is virtually a liberal party today. It was then still rooted in the old aristocracy, which my father disliked and wanted to dissociate himself from. People call him a frightful snob, but they might remember that he became a Labour candidate specifically in order to distance himself from the Ascot set. He and I were not really too far apart. The idea that he was standing as a Labour candidate and I as a Tory candidate amused people a great deal, but didn’t do either of us any harm.
You were in Leicester with your mother the day your father lost his seat in the election of 1945. What were your feelings for him then?
Oh, great sorrow, disappointment, sympathy from him. He loved being in the House of Commons, and when he lost his seat to Barney Janner he could barely walk through Westminster Square and see the light on above Big Ben signifying that the House was sitting, with him no longer there. It was really painful for him. But he had a second string with his books, and he never really made up his mind whether he was a writer who dabbled in politics, or a politician with an interest in literature. Perhaps the same could be said of me.
In 1959 you were unseated in Bournemouth, most probably because you abstained from the vote of confidence in the government during the Suez crisis. Did you ever come to regret your abstention?
Oh no, on the contrary, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I opposed Suez because it was based upon a lie, and because it was quite obvious that it wouldn’t work. I knew, and most other members of parliament knew, that Israel would invade Egypt but encouraged them. We would join in with the excuse that we were ending the war for the Egyptians when we had actually stimulated it. I believe a democratic nation like ours should never go to war unless they have at least 90 per cent of the support of their own people, and Eden had barely 50 per cent. The whole of the opposition united against him on the grounds of the feasibility and morality of the operation. That’s why I abstained, and I’m very glad that I did. Most people, even Conservatives, have come to agree that I was justified in what I did. And the fact that it meant the end of my political career added a note of semi-nobility to my action.
Some people suggested at the time that your losing the constituency poll might have had something to do with your father’s friendship with Guy Burgess…was there anything in that, do you think?
I never heard that said before. I knew Guy quite well, and disliked him very much. He was a drunkard, and when he was drunk he was extremely offensive, and he was not the sort of person that I felt able to cope with. My father was amused by him since he was a very witty man and an iconoclast, always attacking the establishment. My father sympathized with a lot of that and felt a certain loyalty towards him. He was the only person to write to Guy when he defected to Moscow, and they had quite a correspondence. Of course, as a patriot my father was shocked by treachery, but also he had a strong sense of loyalty, and he felt sorry that Guy, having made an idiot of himself should be exiled for life to this distant hostile capital, and he wanted to give him a link with his own country.
Was the publishing of Nabokov’s Lolita a good political move, do you think?
No, because it contributed to the loss of my seat. I don’t think that many people in Bournemouth had read Lolita, nor were they interested in the support the book gained from leading literary critics; all that mattered to them was that here was a novel about a middle-aged man seducing a teenage girl, and this was shocking. It caused me a great deal of trouble at the time, because we were publishing a book which had been banned in America, and in England too in an earlier edition. Reading it now, it all seems very innocent, but it didn’t at that time. At my suggestion we published a single copy of the book, sold it to a secretary in our office, and then sent the copy and the receipt for the sale of the book to the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, saying, if you want to prosecute us for an obscene publication, do so on the single copy; if we win the case, we will publish the full edition the following day; if we lose it, we will destroy the entire edition the following day. We leaked this proposal to the press, and it caused a great deal of amusement, and seemed to most people eminently fair. Apart from an acknowledgement, we heard nothing from the Attorney-General, although three months passed. And then on the eve of publication we gave a party at the Ritz Hotel for all our friends and journalists and also Nabokov himself, and in the middle of the party I had a letter from the Attorney –General saying that he had decided to take no further action. We published the book next day and it sold eighty thousand copies in two weeks.
Has your partnership with Lord Weidenfeld been a stimulating one?
Enormously so. He was and remains quite an amazing man. When you consider that he arrived in this country from Austria on the eve of war with his own country, with no friends here, no money at all, and not even speaking English, and now here he is a peer of the realm, founder of an important publishing house, and his portrait is about to be unveiled in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s quite amazing what he has achieved. I often wonder what I would be doing if I had been exiled for some reason to Vienna in 1939, with no money or prospects. I expect id be sweeping the streets.
But how did you cope with his Zionism…because although he has mellowed and is now a man of peace, he was an extremist at one time. I certainly remember clashing with him in the past…
Remember that I myself was in favour of the Zionists. I wasn’t a Zionist because I wasn’t a Jew, but it seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, a very noble cause. I admire very much what they have done. And I was only anxious in a selfish way not to lose my partner to Israel. He spent a whole year there soon after we founded the firm as the right-hand man of Weizmann, and I think it was one of the finest things he ever did, out of loyalty to me very largely, to return to England when he had a future made for him in Israel. He might not have become prime minister, but he would perhaps have become ambassador in the UN, and he would have done that job marvellously.
How can you call Zionism a noble cause when it entailed uprooting people who had been living there for hundreds of years?
Oh, you mean the Palestinians…well, there is another side to it, I suppose. Are you Jewish yourself?
No, I’m Palestinian…
Ah, you’re Palestinian…well, I can understand your feeling about it. But remember I was much influenced by my father’s support of Zionism, his friendship with Weizmann from a very early age, so I started out that way. I never had an equivalent Arab or Palestinian influence. I recognize that, but I am still a Zionist. The Israelis have had to fight for the retention of their country and they were right to do so, because they had been given it by the Balfour Declaration which my father had helped to draft.
Except it was not something they were entitled to give…
Well, that’s how it all began…
Yes, I know. Moving on, it must have been an extremely difficult, not to say a courageous, decision to publish Portrait of a Marriage. Did you come to have any regrets?
No, but I had considerable apprehension about whether it was the right thing to do or not. As I expected it did arouse criticism from some people like Bernard Levin, Rebecca West, Cyril Connolly and other leading intellectuals, but on the other hand it had support from people who knew my father very well, starting with my brother Ben who was all in favour, and people like James Lees-Milne. I did feel that if my mother’s autobiography was published by itself it would cause even more controversy, and I would be accused of matricide, so I decided to write another two thirds on top of what she wrote explaining what happened, elaborating it, and telling the rest of the story, how her affair with Violet Trefusis and her autobiography stopped at the point when their affair ended. Vita behaved during those three years (1919-21) very badly indeed. She was going to desert her family, her loving husband, her children, and live the rest of her life, so she said, with a woman who was in a sense a seductress. I don’t think that Violet was actually evil., but I believe that she was even more crazy than Vita in wanting to destroy their whole lives for the sake of a passion which would be ephemeral. My thesis was that the rest of Vita’s life showed that she had acted in a fit of madness – her own words – and that her marriage subsequently was more successful because she and my father had jointly survived the crisis. Indeed both Vita and Violet had no domestic happiness, it’s quite true, but she made many friends. And Vita’s domestic life was supremely happy from that moment onwards.
One of the most difficult aspects must have been the question of loyalty, but you say in the foreword that your mother trusted your judgement on that. However, Suzanne Raitt argues in her book about your mother and Virginia Woolf that the form in which you published Portrait is differently accented from the text your mother wrote. She says that you guide the reader’s attention away from her affair with Violet, and on to her marriage which, she argues, in Vita’s own text comes over as a mere prelude to her affair with Violet. Do you accept that criticism in any degree?
No, I don’t. The woman is making it up. She thinks Portrait of a Marriage was misinformed because I concentrated on the marriage more than the affair, but I wanted to show that Vita really spent the rest of her life making up for the cruelty that she had directed towards Harold for three years. I felt that was quite legitimate and would put the autobiography which she left in the context of her whole life; that was my purpose. I believe it was right to do it that way, though of course the critics concentrated on the affair and not on the marriage.
Frank Kermode called Portrait of a Marriage an ugly story with a happy ending, and you yourself say that without the ending it would have been simply ugly. Despite that, it does seem that you go out of your way to be kind in your account, extolling your parents’ virtues, playing down their faults, excusing their prejudices and snobbery on the grounds that they were natural to them. Did you feel a need not just to tell the story, but to defend your parents?
Yes I did, particularly against the charge of snobbery. I’ve tried, mostly without success, to draw a distinction between snobbery and elitism. Snobbery is a vicious quality, it’s cruel, but elitism is a very natural and beneficial one. Vita had a certain feeling of kinship with the aristocracy, but why not? She would select from the aristocracy those worthy of being aristocrats. She didn’t give the benefit of the doubt to people simply because they held a title; they had to prove themselves worthy of that title, and as often as not, they didn’t. Harold and she felt very much the same about this. Harold once wrote in his diary – I can quote it to you because it was only yesterday that I reread the passage – ‘I have always been on the side of the underdog, but I’ve also believed in the principle of aristocracy. I have hated the rich, but I have loved learning, scholarship, intelligence and the humanities. Suddenly I’m faced with the fact that all these lovely things are supposed to be class privileges.’ To call him a snob is simply a tabloid method of abusing him because he happened to be intelligent and have high standards, and required high standards of intelligence among his friends.
It is a sad irony, is it not, that despite the great love between your parents and the sexual passion outside the marriage, that there was nevertheless a singular lack of intimacy within the family?
But then it happens to everybody, as they become adults themselves, marry and have children of their own, that a distance opens between them and their parents. Their own children and ultimately grandchildren become more important to them than their parents, and so you could say the older you get the weaker the intimacy becomes.
To take the point a little further, Victoria Glendinning suggests that although the family bonding seems to have been strong there was a sense in which it was merely notional. She says: ‘The platonic ideals of relationship, however dearly held in the heart, are not a substitute for reality.’ Do you disagree with that?
I think she was imagining a family relationship which has never really existed. She is not only demanding the impossible, she’s demanding the undesirable. You have at some point to cut the umbilical cord, you have to venture out into the world on your own, and while you are indebted to your parents for what they’ve given you in the way of an education and companionship and comfort and support, after a bit you have to work life out for yourself and try to pass on some of the advantages which you have had to your own children.
I understand there was no common family sitting-room at home, everyone had his own space, and it was not an easy place for you to bring friends back to…
That’s true. But the fact that we had our own sitting-rooms meant that it was the family habit to work. Both my parents were writers, they had to earn money, they had to keep us at school and they expected their sons to work, which we did. We began writing very early on in our lives. First it was letters and diaries, and then it was short stories and essays. We were a literary family, and a literary family doesn’t sit all in one room unless they are the Brontë sisters.
Do you think that all the letter writing in your family was perhaps a substitute for something else? What I mean is, in all the outpouring of feeling between your parents and their lovers, the letters themselves somehow take the place of actually living the feelings and emotions they describe?
Our family relationship, it is perfectly true, was largely made by correspondence and not conversation. We would pour into our letters all our experiences and ideas and hopes and fears and disasters and triumphs, which we would never do to the same extent when we met face to face. With letters you can think out ahead what you’re going to say which you can’t always do when you’re talking. Virginia Woolf used to say to me that nothing has really happened until it’s been described in writing. She urged me to keep a diary, and I followed that advice. I was very shy when I was young and she once said to me, ‘You mustn’t wonder, what is this person thinking about me?, you must ask yourself, what am I thinking about him?’ That was a wonderful; piece of advice which I passed on to my own children.
Would you say your relationship with your own children is much warmer than the one you had with your parents?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Again I make the distinction between Vita and Harold. The relationship I have with my daughters is much warmer than that between Vita and me, but I don’t think my son Adam has quite the same feeling of intimacy with me that I had with Harold. Much earlier on in his life he saw faults in his father, in me, whereas I took time to see faults in Harold. Adam reacted pretty strongly against my political views; he was very much a more natural Labour man that I am. He’s not a person who gives his admiration very easily, although he gives his affection very strongly to his wife and to his children whom he really adores. He gives them his time and his care much more than I ever did with him. That was another thing that he might feel that I lacked as a father, that I didn’t take enough interest in his life. I have two daughters. Rebecca, who is a very successful journalist and a very private person, but my other daughter, Juliet, is much more open. Of my three children, she is really the closest to me. I’m a little scared of Adam. He has enormous abilities as a writer, as a father, and as an action man, and in some ways I envy his gifts, meaning I wish I’d had them, not that I’m jealous of them. I feel no resentment towards him, he’s a very remarkable man, and I think that he will become an important figure in English letters and writing.
Would you prefer to have had a closer relationship with him?
Yes, I suppose so. I feel a certain deficiency as a father, that I failed to have that closeness with him, but we remedied it to some extent in an extraordinary way by writing a book together called Two Roads to Dodge City. In 1988 we set off on the same day for the United States in separate aeroplanes. He flew to Los Angeles and I flew to Miami, and on arrival we each hired a car, and we drove for the next three months all over the United States, I over the eastern half, Adam the western half, all the way up the two coasts to Canada, then down again to the Gulf, and at the end of the three months we met in the centre of the United States – Dodge City in Kansas. We wrote to each other every day, posting the letters collectively once a week to prepared addresses by express mail. He wrote as a young man who had never been to America before, I as a much older person who had often been there, and gradually our correspondence turned into dialogue about what sort of people we were and how we differed. It wasn’t intended like that but it evolved like that, and in a curious way we got to know each other much better by this correspondence, which was a public not private correspondence, than we ever had in conversation between the two of us.
Victoria Glendinning talks about the ‘insulating effects’ of your upbringing. To what extent were you aware of those?
She probably means that it was an aristocratic upbringing. But it is as well to remember that I had the whole war commanding men who came from very different backgrounds, and as a member of parliament one was constantly dealing with people who hadn’t had one’s advantages, and here at Sissinghurst I’m on the best of terms with our tenants, our gardeners, and so on. It is quite true that my friendships are made among people who share my tastes and interests, but then that is true of everybody.
In your thirties you wrote to your mother: ‘I grew up slowly, met the real difficulties so ridiculously late, and still remain strangely immature in some ways…’
I think that one of my immaturities was sexual, though I don’t want to go into this in any detail. Having no sisters, being at a boys’ school only, then in Oxford where one knew very few girls, and in the army which was a masculine occupation, I knew very few women until I was in my late twenties, and that held me back as it would hold anybody back. I was a virgin until after the war, until I was twenty-seven years old.
Did you make up for it afterwards?
Not very vigorously. I always adored women and I’m not in any way indifferent to the charm and beauty of young girls. I still feel great tenderness towards young women, and not only young women, but I don’t have affairs with them; I just like their company and the presence and the sight of them very much.
But don’t you ever feel a sexual tension if a woman is attractive?
Well, no. When you’re my age, and remember I am seventy-nine. I don’t think that one does. Lust is something which diminishes to the point of extinction. Admiration for feminine beauty, on the other hand, does not. I have a great many women friends…
But you haven’t inherited the passion of your mother?
No, I certainly haven’t. I never never had feelings of desire such as she felt. I was more like Harold in a way; although he was homosexual, I think his sex was pretty casual and intermittent and really relatively unimportant. And it’s been the same with me.
Your brother Ben at one point had a man friend but your parents resented it, they didn’t want the man to come to the house, and yet they were supposed to be very liberal…
Firstly it wasn’t just at one point. Ben was in fact gay. I think my parents felt sad that he wasn’t heterosexual because they wouldn’t have grandchildren. Both Ben and I were married late in life – I was thirty-six and Ben was nearly forty. Ben was gay, there was no question about it, and his marriage didn’t succeed, but he did have a daughter. I was never gay and all my affections were for women, but sex has never played a great part in my life as it did in Vita’s. You’re quite right to say that I lack Vita’s passion. Thank goodness.
In Portrait of a Marriage, you write of yourself and your brother: ‘Ben and I both married and had children, but our marriages did not succeed, nature having endowed us with a greater talent for friendship than for cohabitation, for fatherhood than for wedlock.’ Do you feel sure that it was nature rather than your experience and upbringing?
The reason I wrote that was because both Ben and I were divorced by the time I wrote Portrait and since our wives were still alive, I wanted to include a single sentence in as tactful and truthful a manner as possible. (Louisa, Ben’s wife, is still living, but my wife had died.) I showed them this sentence before publication, and they approved it, and so it was written with a certain guile, but at the same time it was true. I didn’t have a great capacity for wedlock, even though I had had a very good example in front of me in Vita and Harold. They made a success of marriage, I made a mess of it, and the same with Ben, so it wasn’t an inherited incapacity. In the case of my marriage I lacked Harold’s patience with what I saw as the failings of my wife, and she was exactly the same with my failings, and so the marriage dissolved, not in acrimony but in mutual indifference. I was really quite happy to be left a bachelor again.
Was it important to you that there should be no divorce while your parents were still alive?
Yes, I think so. I didn’t want to wound my parents by divorce. My wife went off with another man, but she wouldn’t have done so if we had been happily married, so that was the occasion, but not the cause, of our separation. Fortunately it was after the death of both Harold and Vita, so they never knew. They knew about Ben and his wife and were very distressed by that.
Your first real love was Shirley Morgan who went on to marry someone else. Was that a crisis in your life?
Unrequited love is probably the most painful experience which men and women undergo in their lifetimes. Not everybody has experienced it but I would say that most people have, so they will sympathize with me when I say that I was shattered by it, and felt myself unmarriageable, unlovable, useless, hopeless, weak. All the self-reproach which I’d ever felt about myself was concentrated upon this disappointment when Shirley married Henry Anglesey, and it lasted quite a long time. But we’re still very great friends. I’m godfather to one of her children and she’s my oldest and closest friend.
When you married your father cautioned you that the physical side of marriage could not be expected to last more than a year or two at most. How did you view that advice?
Harold, being a homosexual, didn’t attach much importance to the physical side of his marriage to Vita. I think it was quite remarkable that he managed to produce two children – in fact three, because we had a brother who was stillborn – but after my birth I don’t think he had any physical relationship with Vita. When he gave me that advice he was really thinking of his own experience and not of the generality of mankind. For most people the physical side of marriage lasts almost a lifetime, but not with me, because I was never very highly sexed. I was perfectly faithful to my wife – and I’m not going in to this in too much detail because it’s really too intimate – but I really had a pretty tepid sexual life; my energies were concentrated elsewhere. So Harold’s advice was really rather comical, based on his own experience, but it happened to hit mine as well.
A large part of your own literary life has been devoted to writing about your parents and editing their letters to each other…
Yes, but I have of course written on many other things – Jane Austen, Napoleon, Curzon. It is true that my best-known book is Portrait of a Marriage, and it’s made me financially secure. It was a bestseller in America and England for months and had dozen of foreign editions. All my finances are really based upon the success of that book, so I cant deny that it was a very important part of my life, but I do sometimes wonder whether having been the son of such famous parents has been a handicap or not, and I think it has been a bit, because people like yourself probably associate me more with Harold and Vita than with anything else. It is a certain disadvantage to be the son of a famous father and mother. It’s just like Mary Soames; she is not herself, or even the wife of Christopher Soames; she’s Winston Churchill’s daughter.
Your mother’s reaction to the possibility of Sissinghurst going to the National Trust was passionately negative. ‘Never, never, never,’ she said ‘il y a des choses q’on ne peut pas supporter.’ It didn’t pass to the National Trust till after she died, but did you sometimes think it was a betrayal nevertheless?
No, for one very simple reason. She left a letter for me with her will, which said that although she would never have given Sissinghurst to the Trust in her lifetime, she realized that I would have no alternative after she died, because of the death duties, but to sell the place or give it to the National Trust. There was no question in my mind which of the two to choose. If I’d sold Sissinghurst the money would have gone mostly to the Treasury, and it would have ruined one’s life and destroyed this place, so I had no hesitation whatsoever.
Your mother wrote of you as a young child: ‘If Nigel stays as he is, he will be happy and everybody will love him.’ Did that turn out to be prophetic?
I don’t think any man or woman can say of themselves in old age, ‘Everybody has loved me.’ I do have enemies. I have Lord Aldington, against whom I gave evidence in the great Tolstoy trial. He doesn’t love me. And I turned a man out of a cottage which belonged to me, because he was destroying it. He doesn’t love me. I don’t think I have excited among a great many people what you could call love, though I wish I had. As for being happy, I’ve had great failures in my life and they don’t make me happy on relocation. I lost my seat in Parliament, never got another one, I’ve never written a book which is regarded as a work of literature, as opposed to one of sensational interest. When I read my father’s essays now, as I sometimes do, I wish I could write as well as he did, I wish I had his wit. But there are other things with which I feel moderately satisfied, like my standing over the Suez crisis and publishing Portrait of a Marriage, both of which I think were the right things to do.