Most of us do not write letters as memorable as those of Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, or Vincent Van Gogh. Instead of artistic theories, closely argued philosophical theses, or eyewitness accounts of significant social and political events, our letters usually are casual notes, dashed off to fill a void, to say, "I haven't forgotten you."
Such were Vita Sackville-West's letters to Andrew Reiber. As collected by Mr. Reiber, this correspondence -- from one of Britain's foremost writers -- lacks both drama and historical significance, the qualities we expect from personal letters made public.
"The weather here has been. . . . What are you doing with yourself these days? Our eldest son is being married, and we are so pleased. . . ." This is hardly the sort of fare to keep a reader spellbound, and we may close this quiet book feeling mildly disappointed. Disappointed -- but. There's something else here, something that has been revealed in these seemingly commonplace letters from an aging writer to a fan, turned pen-pal.
Reiber, a former actor, an avid gardener, a self-styled mystic, and, from the evidence one discovers between the lines of the one- sided correspondence he has authorized, a most thoughtfully sincere and affectionate man, struck up the transatlantic correspondence because, for years, in reading Vita's published work he had sensed "a bond, a common interest." It is debatable whether Sackville-West shared that feeling, but respond she did, and with increasing warmth, to Reiber's frequent notes and considerate gifts of US flower seeds and Maine pine- needle pillows.
The letters addressed to Reiber by Vita Sackville-West could have been written by any busily engaged and engaging woman of a certain age and a certain comfortable situation. They could have been, but they weren't; they were written by the poet, the novelist, the aristocratic Edwardian of the stormy youth now grown old. This, perhaps, is the poignant, tender charm of the book.
That Vita Sackville-West could have reached an evening of balance, harmony, and peace in which she could compose these unaffected chronicles of gentle concerns -- gardening, family, dogs, remote world events -- that she should give gracious appreciation for an unmet correspondent's solicitations, joys, and sorrows, this lends the book its elusive significance. The book is an affirmation of humanism, a tribute to personal growth -- from the torments of youthful self-empathetic concern which come with the recognition of the universality of human experience.
One of the letters, written when she was 62, expressed concern that Mr. Reiber had been unable to obtain a book of her poetry in the US. To help remedy the matter, Sackville-West transcribed a poem, "Evening," which reads in part: -- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet Old age might sink upon a windy youth, Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth, Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.
This book of gentle letters and snapshots shows Sackville-West "gracious in retreat," and it shows all who read it, in truth, "how sweet Old age might sink upon a windy youth." A taste of things to come.