Violet Trefusis

Violet Trefusis

Violet Keppel, the elder daughter of Alice Keppel, was born at 2 Wilton Crescent, London, on 6th June 1894. Keppell was the mistress of Edward VII but it was later established that her real father was Ernest William Beckett (1856–1917), the Conservative MP for Whitby.

Violet Keppel educated by a French governess and at Helen Wolff's school for girls, in Park Lane. Other pupils at the school were Vita Sackville-West and Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet described Vita as "tall for her age, gawky, dressed in what appeared to be her mother's old clothes."

While at school Vita began an affair with Rosamund, who was 4 years her junior. Rosamund wrote to Vita: "Promise not to sit next to me tomorrow. It is not that I don't love you being near me, but that I cannot give my attention to the questions, I am - otherwise engrossed." Vita recorded in her diary "What a funny thing it is to love a person as I love Roddie (Rosamund)". Later she wrote: "Oh, I dare say I realized vaguely that I had no business to sleep with Rosamund, and I should certainly never have allowed anyone to find it out".

Vita Sackville-West then turned her attention to Violet. They spent a great deal of time at Vita's house, Knole House, near Sevenoaks. They also went on holiday to Pisa, Milan, and Florence together in 1908. The girls lost contact for a while but when they were reunited a few years later, the relationship became even more intense. Violet wrote in her autobiography, Don't Look Round: "No one had told me that Vita had turned into a beauty. The knobs and knuckles had all disappeared. She was tall and graceful. The profund, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted. A peach might have envied her complexion. Round her revolved several enamoured young men."

The love affair came to an end when Vita Sackville-West married Harold Nicholson in October 1913. Violet told her: "The upper half of your face is so pure and grave - almost childlike. And the lower half is so domineering, sensual, almost brutal - it is the most absurd contrast, and extraordinarily symbolical of your Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality."

Vita was briefly engaged to Lord Gerald Wellesley before he married Dorothy Ashton. She had a more serious attachment to Julian Grenfell, who was killed during the First World War. In April 1918 she resumed her affair with Vita Sackville-West. Vita later wrote: "She lay on the sofa, I sat plunged in the armchair; she took my hands, and parted my fingers to count the points as she told me why she loved me... She pulled me down until I kissed her - I had not done so for many years."

The lovers travelled around Europe and collaborated on a novel, Challenge (1923), that was published in America but banned in Britain. During this period her marriage came under great pressure but as T. J. Hochstrasser points out: "However, this crisis in fact proved eventually to be the catalyst for Nicolson and Sackville-West to restructure their marriage satisfactorily so that they could both pursue a series of relationships through which they could fulfil their essentially homosexual identity while retaining a secure basis of companionship and affection."

In March 1919 Violet wrote to Vita Sackville-West to explain that she was being forced to marry Denys Robert Trefusis, an officer in the Royal Horse Guards: "It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself.... I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else... Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you... a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining.... Darling, whatever it may cost us, my mother won't be cross with you any more. I suppose this ridiculous engagement will set her mind at rest."

Violet gave in to pressure from her mother, Alice Keppel and agreed to marry Trefusis on 16th June 1919. She did so on the understanding that the marriage would remain unconsummated, and she was still resolved to live with Vita Sackville-West. They resumed their affair just a few days after the wedding. The women moved to France in February 1920. However, Harold Nicholson followed them and eventually persuaded his wife to return to the family home.

Violet Trefusis moved to Paris where she become the lover of Princesse Edmond de Polignac (formerly Winnaretta Singer), daughter of the inventor of the sewing machine and heir to a massive fortune. Cyril Connolly said she had "magnificent’ eyes working in close support of her smile to produce an ironical, rather mocking expression" with a voice that was "low and quite bewitching, equally at home in French and English and seldom rising above a husky murmur". She rarely saw her husband, Denys Robert Trefusis, who died of tuberculosis in 1929.

Like her lover, Vita Sackville-West, Violet began writing novels. Sortie de Secours (1929), the first of her novels in French, was about a woman who sought to make her lover jealous by seducing an older man with whom she falls in love. In the end she learns the value of independence. This was followed by Écho (1931) and Tandem (1933). Broderie Anglaise (1935) is Trefusis's response, in French, to Orlando, a novel about Vita that had been written by her new lover, Virginia Woolf.

Hunt the Slipper (1937) is considered to be Violet's best book in English. Lorna Sage described it as a "splendidly malicious commentary on England, and on the aristocratic culture that she'd escaped". This was followed by Les Causes Perdues (1941), her final novel in French and Pirates at Play (1950), her last in English. In 1952 she published her memoirs, Don't Look Round.

Violet Trefusis died on 1st March 1972.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Violet Keppel, Don't Look Round (1952)

No one had told me that Vita (Sackville-West) had turned into a beauty. The knobs and knuckles had all disappeared. She was tall and graceful. The profund, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted. A peach might have envied her complexion. Round her revolved several enamoured young men.

(2) Vita Sackville-West, Autobiography (1920)

I hate writing this, but I must, I must. When I began this I swore I would shirk nothing, and no more I will. So here is the truth: I was never so much in love with Rosamund as during those weeks in Italy and the months that followed. It may seem that I should have missed Harold more. I admit everything, to my shame, but I have never pretended to have anything other than a base and despicable character. I seem to be incapable of fidelity, as much then as now. But, as a sole justification, I separate my loves into two halves: Harold, who is unalterable, perennial, and best; there has never been anything but absolute purity in my love for Harold, just as there has never been anything but absolute purity in his nature. And on the other hand stands my perverted nature, which loved and tyrannized over Rosamund and ended by deserting her without one heart-pang, and which now is linked irremediably with Violet. I have here a scrap of paper on which Violet, intuitive psychologist, has scribbled, "The upper half of your face is so pure and grave - almost childlike. And the lower half is so domineering, sensual, almost brutal - it is the most absurd contrast, and extraordinarily symbolical of your Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality." That is the whole crux of the matter, and I see now that my whole curse has been a duality with which I was too weak and too self-indulgent to struggle.

(3) Violet Trefusis, letter to Vita Sackville-West (March 1919)

My own sweet love, I am writing this at 2 o'clock in the morning at the conclusion of the most cruelly ironical clay I have spent in my life.

This evening I was taken to a ball of some good people. Chinday had previously told all her friends I was engaged so I was congratulated by everyone I knew there. I could have screamed aloud. Mitya, I can't face this existence. I shall see you once again on Monday and it depends on you whether we shall ever see each other again.

It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself. 0 Mitya, what have you done to me? 0 my darling, precious love, what is going to become of use

I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else... Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you... a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining.... Darling, whatever it may cost us, my mother won't be cross with you any more. I suppose this ridiculous engagement will set her mind at rest....

Nothing and no one in the world could kill the love I have for you. I have surrendered my whole individuality, the very essence of my being to you. I have given you my body time after time to treat as you pleased, to tear to pieces if such had been your will. All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn't a recess in my brain into which you haven't penetrated. I have clung to you and caressed you and slept with you and I would like to tell the whole world I clamour for you.... You are my lover and I am your mistress, and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination - the most powerful in the world.

(4) Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage (1973)

She (Vita) didn't know how strong and dangerous such passion could be, until Violet replaced Rosamund. Of course she knew that "such a thing existed", but she did not give it a name, and felt no guilt about it. At the time of her marriage she may have been ignorant that men could feel for other men as she had felt for Rosamund, but when she had made this discovery in Harold himself, it did not come as a great shock to her, for she had the romantic notion that it was natural and salutary for "people" to love each other, and the desire to kiss and touch was simply the physical expression of affection, and it made no difference whether it was affection between people of the same sex or the opposite.

It was fortunate that both were made that way. If only one of them had been, their marriage would probably have collapsed. Violet did not destroy their physical union; she simply provided the alternative for which Vita was unconsciously seeking at the moment when her physical passion for Harold, and his for her, had begun to cool. In Harold's life at that time there was no male Violet, luckily for him, since his love for Vita might not have survived two rivals simultaneously. Before he met Vita he had been half-engaged to another girl, Eileen Wellesley. He was not driven to homosexuality by Vita's temporary desertion of him, because it had always been latent, but his loneliness may have encouraged this tendency to develop, since with his strong sense of duty (much stronger than Vita's) he felt it to be less treacherous to sleep with men in her absence than with other women. When he was left stranded in Paris, he once confessed to Vita that he was "spending his time with rather low people, the demi-monde", and this could have meant young men. When she returned to him, it certainly did. Lady Sackville noted in her diary, "Vita intends to be very platonic with Harold, who accepts it like a lamb.' They never shared a bedroom after that.