When women’s destiny is marriage, what is one to do with the unassuming wife of a Very Great Man when she is widowed at 88 years of age? Here is the opening paragraph of All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband was an exceptionally eminent and venerated man (former Viceroy of India, former prime minister), and she was his exemplary wife.
Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, find reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise old age as a sign of excellence. (p5)
The dilemma concerning Lady Slane’s last years is faced by her six children (in their 60s themselves). They decide that she will stay with each of them in turn. She has other ideas. She is in for the long game. She waits until p33 to become active in decisions about her own life, even in the novel of which she is the protagonist. We already know, however, that she has thoughts concealed from her adult children. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid.
This decision brings three new friends. The owner of the house, Mr Bucktrout, is a rather other-worldly man, with unusual ideas about the imminence of the end of the world, and about Lady Slane’s needs in the house. They become friends, along with the handyman, Mr Gosheron. Mr Bucktrout is rather a comic figure but kindly towards his tenant. Here is Lady Slane’s first encounter with her landlord. She had entered the house before him and was upstairs when she heard him arrive.
… peeping over the bannisters, she saw, curiously foreshortened to her view, a safely old gentleman standing in the hall. She looked down on his bald patch; below that she saw his shoulders, no body to speak of, and then two patent-leather toes. He stood there hesitant; perhaps he did not know that his client had already arrived, perhaps he did not care. She thought it more possible that he did not care. He appeared to be in no hurry to find out. Lady Slane crept down a few steps, that she might get a better view of him. He wore a long linen coat like a housepainter’s; he had a rosy and somewhat chubby face, and he held one finger pressed against his lips, as though archly and impishly preoccupied with some problem in his mind. What on earth is he going to do, she wondered, observing this strange little figure. Still pressing his finger, as though enjoining silence, he tiptoed across the hall, to where a stain on the wall indicated that a barometer had once hung there; then rapidly tapped the wall like a woodpecker tapping a tree; shook his head; muttered ‘Falling! Falling!’; and, picking up the skirts of his coat, he executed two neat pirouettes which brought him back to the centre of the hall, his foot pointed nicely before him. (p51-2)
Her third old gentleman friend is Mr FitzGeorge, a rich connoisseur and collector. They met years before in India, and each had very favourable reactions to the other, but took things no further. He has waited, and she has cherished her memories. After a brief rekindled friendship FitzGeorge dies leaving his fortune to Lady Slane. Her children are excited about the prospects of inheriting in their turn. She confounds them again by donating it to the nation.
Years before, she sacrificed her desire to be a painter to her marriage, and in her peaceful retreat in Hampstead she has time to reflect on what might have been if she hadn’t slipped accidentally into marriage. Her family, it is revealed, know nothing of her interior life, her youthful ambitions, or indeed of her desires now she is a widow.
So what are we to make of the title: All Passion Spent? Lady Slane has not indulged hers. Perhaps the title refers to the effects of ageing to disperse passion over time. Lady Slane’s passions were for painting and – unacknowledged – for the young FitzGeorge. Both were sacrificed to the Very Great Man.
All Passion Spent presents an attractive picture of an old woman. She confounds the expectations of everyone. She strikes out on her own (albeit with her maid) and finds new friendships. She spends her time as she chooses. These are all good things for an old woman to do. But she is hardly a role model, however as she has had to wait until she was 88.
Perhaps the best thing she does is free the next generation but one from the same fate. Her donation of FitzGeorge’s fortune to the nation frees her grand-daughter from the expectation of a good marriage based on her prospects. Deborah comes to see her and reveals that she would like to be a musician and, no longer seen as an heiress, can realise her hopes for her future.
There is much pleasure in this book, like the three gentlemen’s characters. They are depicted with humour and more than a touch of caricature. The same is true of Lady Slane’s French maid Genoux. She says ‘Miladi’ to everything, but plays no real part except to expedite and account for the smooth running of the domestic stuff. She too is an old woman, but her situation is not of concern to Vita Sackville-West. The author’s attitude is perhaps typical of her time and class – the novel was first published in 1931. And Lady Slane’s charm, despite all those years in the great man’s shadow, is genuine. I finished this book with a sense of a life squandered by the social expectations of the time, and only a little pleasure at the heroine’s resolution.
One more observation about Vita Sackville-West – she looked good in hats! I think she knew.
This novel was recommended by Emily and you can find her enthusiastic review on her blog EmilyBooks. Thank you Emily.
Book Snob also reviewed it on her blog, in 2011, and found that the novel confounded her expectations that it was going to be a light read. She highlights the loneliness of Lady Slane in her marriage.
All Passion Sent, by Vita Sackville-West republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1983. Introduced by Joanna Lumley.
Next in Older Women in Fiction series is The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, published in 2009. It will be posted in October 2014.
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