“I should hate forever to be a burden to you”: Lessons in Love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
I don’t want to take time away from your book, she said, but the book could wait. My writing was always there. She might not be.
I love Mrs Woolf with a sick passion
’ll call her Mara—when I was in the middle of reading the published volume of Vita and Virginia’s decades of letters. I had taken a year off of dating since my last serious relationship. I was convinced that I wanted friendship first, like the one Vita and Virginia had nurtured for years before becoming lovers. If the universe wanted me to have a girlfriend, it was going to literally have to drop one out of the sky. Or into my inbox—which is exactly how Mara arrived, seemingly out of nowhere.
Mara had discovered my writing, read all of it, and invited me to be a guest on her podcast. We scheduled the interview, but she messaged me shortly after, saying that she wanted to get to know me in real life and couldn’t wait until we met in the studio to record a month later.
The “friend date” she asked me out on turned out to be a date-date, of course, and when I first saw her in person—all six feet of her, with short hair, in a blue button down—I was nearly dizzy with desire.
“Can I kiss you?” I asked, not even two hours into Saturday night dinner at an Italian restaurant in the West Village.
“Fuck yeah,” she said, and I went for it.
I joked that I had gone to a “Build a Butch Workshop” and made her from scratch. Everything about the two of us seemed ideally suited to the others’ preferences and desires. She was masculine-presenting, and I was femme. We were both creatives from working class Midwestern families who had picked up and moved to the East Coast to follow our dreams.
You were made for me, and I was made for you, she said to me in the darkest dark when the candle flickered against the walls of her bedroom. I believed her—or, I wanted to. I had questions, chief among them one Virginia had written to Vita long before Mara and I were even born: Do you realize how devoted I am to you?
Vita and Virginia first met in person, but they saw each other sparingly. Virginia was reclusive, and she and her husband Leonard lived between their homes in Rodmell and London. Vita was busy with her children, with her own writing, with an active social life, and she traveled often—to Persia (where her husband served as a diplomat for several years), to Spain, to France. Still, in the midst of these hectic lives, their letters were utterly devoted, and only became more so, in late 1925, in the months leading up to the start of their romantic and sexual affair.
1 September 1925
My dear Vita
How nice it would be to get another letter from you—still better, to see you.
2 September 1925
My dear Virginia
How much I like getting letters from you.
With what zest do they send me to meet the day.
So much do I like getting them, that I keep them as the last letter to open of my morning post, like a child keeps the chocolate for the end.
I understood the tension between a letter, or a text, and the pull to see the beloved in person. Let’s take things slow, Mara and I said, even as it felt impossible and painful to spend time apart. I would journey from my Harlem apartment, on the A train down to 14th Street, transfer to the L, which sometimes ran on time and sometimes was terminally late, making the trek out to her Williamsburg basement apartment.
The book could wait. My writing was always there. She might not be.
Mara wooed me by heaping praise on my writing in a way no one I’d dated ever had before, by seeing me—really seeing me. I couldn’t get enough of it, of how she would pick her favorite sentences out of my essays and ask me for recommendations on what she should read to better understand what inspired me. Her assurances soothed my deepest vulnerabilities. Here was someone who would sit with me in the rawness of making.
When we met, I was finally finishing the first draft of a book I’d had in my head for years, and I felt my creative energy splitting in two. I was finally in a place, professionally, where I had confidence in myself as a writer, in my discipline and skill, but a new relationship takes tending, like a new garden. I often think of you, instead of my novel, Virginia wrote to Vita. I want to take you over the water meadows in the summer on foot, I have thought of many million things to tell you. I didn’t think, didn’t hesitate, before pouring my energy into her. I don’t want to take time away from your book, she said, but the book could wait. My writing was always there. She might not be.
Vita and Virginia were both married, and everyone was aware of the affair as it developed. In Vita’s case, it was anything but unusual, as she and her husband were both bisexual and had an open marriage. Vita was also friends with Virginia’s husband Leonard, as she often published her work with the Woolfs’ Hogwarth Press. But Virginia struggled with jealousy over Vita’s other lovers. Virginia—who was sexually inactive but for her relationship with Vita—also resented Vita’s travels, and the lovers she met during them. She wrote to Vita,
I’m not afraid of your not wanting me; only of what one calls circumstances. So please say honestly . . . My questions about your past can wait till you’re in London. I should hate forever to be a burden to you.
There is inevitable friction and anxiety in a relationship, in two people’s histories and habits and wants and wounds clashing against each other. And there are two outcomes, really: that, like water running over a stone, the edges will smooth, time creating a learned ease; or, well, the alternative.
Mara talked about her ex often, the woman she’d broken up with mere months before. She had a need for space so real and potent that it almost vibrated off the walls.
Am I being clingy? Am I needing too much? I thought, constantly, in the early weeks. It was still the honeymoon stage, we were supposed to be unable to get enough of each other, but what I asked her was, “How can I give you more space?” I was afraid of being too much, of wanting her so much that she resented me for it. I should hate forever to be a burden to you.
I related to Virginia’s insecurity over Vita’s other attractions, to how her confidence in their relationship was destabilized by the simultaneous pressure and presence of other threads in the beloved’s life. At times, it felt like an overwhelming cloud of past relationships hovered between Mara and me, a thick fog in the apartment obscuring our view of each other.
The morning always cleared the doubts from the night before: creaky stretches in bed and languid kisses and, every day, breakfast at the same coffee shop before she walked me to the train.
“Do you guys live around here?” a barista asked us one day.
“She lives in Harlem. I live around the corner,” Mara said.
“Oh god, I’ve lost so many boyfriends to Harlem,” he said.
“Yeah, finding cheap flights to Harlem is a pain.” Everyone laughed, me most of all, enthralled by Mara’s humor and confidence.
The joke masked what all of us knew: It was a nightmare, coordinating between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and between my traditional 9-5 and her late-night bartending schedule. You have no idea how physically and emotionally tired I am at the end of a shift, she said, and she was right. I didn’t. All I knew was that if I had to stay up until two in the morning to see her—and then get up before eight in the morning myself to get on the train for work—I would. She was worth it.
One night, while I was sitting in Mara’s apartment at midnight, up far past my bedtime, waiting for her to come home from a late shift, I read a famous letter Vita wrote to Virginia. I had read this letter before, but not in the context of all the letters that came before it, not in the context that this was Vita writing to her lover after she had left England on one of her many travels. What made this particular trip different was that they were in the early days of their affair, the distance throwing unwelcome strain onto the ecstasy and vulnerability they both felt.
21 January 1926
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way . . . I miss you even more than I could have believed, and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and standoffish with you; I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how standoffish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.
The night Mara gave me the keys to her apartment, she gave me a long, handwritten letter. She reflected on how we met, on the earliest days of our relationship:
One month and a few days later, and my entire life is literally rearranged, she wrote.
I was speechless, mostly because I felt the same. Rearranged. So little time had passed, but life felt so rearranged. You have broken down my defenses, and I don’t really resent it.
Virginia was convinced Vita would hate what has come to be regarded as her masterpiece, To the Lighthouse. When she wrote Vita a letter accompanying a galley, she said as much. Vita’s response was dizzying, defensive, the overall theme of which was, how could you think I would hate it? She was awed as ever by Virginia’s intellect and skill: Darling, it makes me afraid of you. Afraid of your penetration and loveliness and genius.
Reading Vita assuage Virginia’s fear was a balm. It felt like what I was experiencing, in real time, with Mara (on a different scale, of course). I had always been afraid to date other creatives, especially other writers—afraid of jealousy in one or both of us. I was pursuing my craft more regularly than Mara was, but I encouraged her screenwriting; she, in turn, was enthralled with my essays. We were convinced of each other’s inevitable success.
Your writing was what drew me to you in the first place, she said. Why I reached out to you for the podcast, and why I knew I had to meet you as soon as possible. Why I felt like I was inviting someone special into my life.
I sent Mara early chapters of my book project, and old papers I’d written years before from my PhD program that she asked to read. I let her consume my work; consume me. I’m your biggest fan, she said.
You know I’ll write about you, I said.
I’m counting on it. She winked at me. Too charming by half, always.
Woolf’s Orlando, based on and dedicated to Vita, was a novel that doubled as an epic love letter. It also marked a distinct turning point in their relationship. Their letters from this period are desperate and heavy, the start of a slow dissolution of the romantic and sexual component of their relationship. In October 1927, Virginia wrote to Vita, Never do I leave you without thinking, it’s for the last time.
When I first read those lines, I thought, how lucky am I, to finally be in a relationship where I’m not constantly checking for an exit door.
The week after Mara introduced me to her parents, we had a fight: our first real fight. I needed her to be there for me; she needed space. The fight was deeply preventable, as so many fights are, but then, she sent a text: Yeah I think this is over.
I don’t even think I felt the tears falling down my face or my hands shaking. I just sat on the bed, numb. She ended things in such a casual way, breaking off a relationship that both of us had treated as anything but casual.
“I think you’ll agree with me when I say that love is not enough,” Mara said to me when we got drinks to discuss our breakup. I wanted to get back together. She didn’t.
Still, she said, “I want you in my life, somehow.”
“Why?” I asked, reeling. “We weren’t friends first.”
I thought of Vita and Virginia, who had been friends first: a queer couple I thought of as an idyllic model of a relationship, whose romance was still not forever. After Orlando, Vita took up with other women more often, even submitting love poems about women to Hogarth Press which Virginia knew were not intended for her. By all accounts, their romantic relationship seems to have ended by 1933, at the latest. Yet they remained close friends, and continued writing letters of deep intimacy and affection until Virginia’s suicide in 1941.
My prediction had been correct: The book was still there when Mara wasn’t. I threw all of my time and effort into my memoir, and I finished the first complete draft in the two weeks after our breakup. It is convenient, when funneling emotional energy into a creative project is a primary coping mechanism.
After I finished the first draft, I crash-landed into all the heartache I had been avoiding. I couldn’t stop thinking about one thing Mara said during our last conversation: You’ve accomplished so much. As if it was a reason that we were wrong for each other.
Darling, it makes me afraid of you, Vita wrote to Virginia. You’ve just done so much with your life, Mara had repeated variations on this line, over and over. The writing, and everything that came before it—what first drew her to me—became one of the things that pushed her away.
I am still convinced of Mara’s inevitable artistic success. And even as she pushed me away, she assured me she was convinced of mine; it was just not something that would be achieved with togetherness.
But one lesson does remain. Before Mara, I was completely closed off to the idea of being with another creative person. I didn’t understand how my work could be appreciated in a relationship. In the aftermath, I realized that, in spite of everything, I was still interested in creative collaboration, in partnership with another disciplined creative mind. Most of all, I was reminded that creativity and love come from the same wellspring: vulnerability. Reading Vita and Virginia’s decades of letters taught me that we are uniformly changed, often for the better, by the creations born from witnessing each other at our most bare.