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All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West.

July 30, 2015
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All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West.  Little, Brown Book Group (1983), New Edition. 192 pages

5 stars

The warm, compassionate account of an elderly woman who rejects the noise and competition of her children’s world to find grace and happiness in the small details of her life.

Few enough books chronicle the lives of old women, and even fewer convey how they find joy and happiness as they age. All Passion Spent does just that and more. Lady Shane is eighty-nine when her illustrious husband dies. Her six children, all elderly themselves, assemble to make plans for her care, but she has her own ideas about her future. After having lived her life in her husband’s shadow, she seeks time alone where she can put down her responsibility to others and reminisce. She rents a small house in Hampstead, near London, makes a few friends, and takes pleasure in little things that make up her life.

All Passion Spent was written in 1931 by Vita Sackville-West, a close friend of Virginal Woolf. She was in the thirties when she wrote it, and in many ways, unusually perceptive of what it means to be elderly. Like Woolf, Sackville-West was appalled at the way upper-class English women were expected to submerge themselves in their husbands’ needs and wants. Although fictional, her book evokes Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Age allows Lady Shane to pursue her own desires and to reject the restrictions under which she has lived her life. She can remember her own dreams of self-expression and becoming an artist, dreams that were sacrificed with her marriage. Although she remains gentle and charming, she is finally able to rebel.

While there is much a contemporary feminist can celebrate in Lady Shane’s critique of the expectations which women face, I found some of her attitudes troubling. Her children may be hide-bond and dull, but they are right about their mothers’ passivity and impracticality. She finds an alternative to submersion in her husband by withdrawing, not in finding a way to participate in the larger world around her. She remains dependent on the maid who has served her for most of her life and even turns to one of her children to help her resolve a major financial matter.  Her new friends are men who, while eccentric and amusing, also assist her.  Few of us today would be willing to give up so much. For women today, safety has come from self-reliance. Part of my problems with aging concerns my increased dependence on others. And I refuse to believe that all my passions are over.

Yet whatever my complaints, I loved reading about a woman who found a way to grow and cherish her life as she aged. All Passion Spent was a book that helped me understand how to deal with my own aging.  I strongly recommend it to other readers—women and men, young and old.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2015 4:12 pm

    This is on my classics club reading list but I hadn’t realised it would be quite so splendid a book. I shall look forward to this one

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