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Mumbo-jumbo and plocking: Vita Sackville-West in the OED

By birth Vita Sackville-West was a Victorian, born in 1892, but she spent her life railing against the stifling conventions of her parents’ generation. She and her husband Harold Nicolson enjoyed a famously open marriage; one of Vita Sackville-West’s many lovers was the novelist Virginia Woolf, who wrote the longest love letter in history for her, in the form of the faux-biography Orlando (1928). In later life Vita Sackville-West became well known for her gardening books; she conceived one of the finest gardens in England at her Kentish home, Sissinghurst Castle, and had a particular passion for roses.

When she wasn’t floating around being a bohemian or donning her wellies, Vita Sackville-West certainly wasn’t resting on her laurels. She wrote several novels, many of which have slipped into the unfortunate obscurity shared by so many mid-20th century female writers.

Despite her unconventional nature, Vita Sackville-West was inherently domestic, and her novels are preoccupied with the way homes shape their owners’ lives. Quotations from her two most famous novels The Edwardians and All Passion Spent feature as sources for illustrative quotations in the OED, and her vocabulary revolves around domestic relationships and activities. Interestingly, one of the words for which Vita Sackville-West provides the current earliest source is the fantastically onomatopoeic plock, referring to the sound a needle makes when entering fabric. Many of Vita Sackville-West’s characters are Victorian women, confined to drawing rooms with their needlework, and her depiction of their often beautiful, peaceful surroundings is at great odds with the turmoil inside their minds as their needles plock in and out, in and out, afternoon after afternoon after endless afternoon.

Vita Sackville-West has a talent for choosing just the right word to capture a thought; taking a look in the OED under some of my favourite words, I found apt quotations from her writing: reverberate, perfunctory, mumbo-jumbo, languished . . . I could go on. Reading her work is a real treat for the linguist, and she truly is an undervalued talent as a novelist.

Why not give one of Vita Sackville-West’s novels a try this month? If time is short, The Heir contains barely 100 pages and is a spectacularly good story about the magic a beautiful home weaves on a man who has sunk beneath the weight of his existence. It will lift your weatherbeaten spirits and put a spring in your step!

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