Perhaps best known for her passionate affair with Virginia Woolf and for her creation of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Vita Sackville-West's writing is often overlooked. But if All Passion Spent is any indication of her talent as a writer, she deserves to be considered as one of the finest female British authors of the 20th century.
The novel is divided into three parts: first, we're introduced to the children, then the widow of the newly deceased Henry Holland, first Earl of Slane, dead at age 94. Lady Slane's children are debating what should be "done" with their mother who, at age 88, they consider flighty and unable to take care of herself. They're shocked when she reveals that she wants to live alone - with her maid in attendance - in a cottage in Hampstead, one that she'd dreamed of for 30 years.
The second part of the novel takes us to Lady Slane's now simple life in Hampstead, where she realizes she will spend her final days. She has plenty of time to reminisce about her life, her dream of being a painter and her lack of choices as a woman in the 19th century. Though her marriage and exciting life would be the envy of most women of her class, she faces the fact that she gave up her one true passion to do what was expected of her by society and her family. But she isn't angry about her fate; she is resigned to life as it is in her era:
Yet she was no feminist. She was too wise a woman to indulge in such luxuries as an imagined martyrdom. The rift between herself and life was not the rift between man and woman, but the rift between the worker and the dreamer. That she was a woman, and Henry a man, was really a matter of chance. She would go no further than to acknowledge that the fact of her being a woman made the situation a degree more difficult. (Page 164)In the third part of the novel, a person from Lady Slane's past makes an appearance. Their conversations are frank and startling to her. But she is relieved to have a confidant with whom she can be honest about her feelings of having given up her dreams all those years ago.
This is a beautifully written novel with some finely drawn characters (though her children, portrayed as despicable vultures, are a bit over the top). I enjoyed reading some of the insights this aged woman had and about the surprising relationships she developed with people she encountered late in life. Highly recommended.