Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Dark Island by V. Sackville-West

A curious and at times ridiculous work, this 1934 novel careers through suburban domesticity, London high society, overwhelming passion for a place, and a fatal love triangle, with a substantial portion of sadomasochism on the side.  The heroine Shirin, sixteen when the novel opens, is the youngest daughter of a middle-class suburban family residing in Dulwich.  Shirin nurses a secret passion for the island of Storn, off the coast of Port Breton (not clearly located in the text, but presumably in Cornwall)  where the family habitually take their holidays.  That summer, she meets by chance Venn le Breton, the heir of Storn and agrees to go with him to the island.  Venn is strongly attracted to her but also fearful of her and expresses in words and deeds his desire to hurt and control her.  When she leaves Storn at the end of the day, Shirin agrees to return - but the death of her grandmother cuts short her holiday, and it will be another ten years before she and Venn meet again.  In their twenties, Shirin now divorced and the mother of four children, they make a precipitous marriage.  Shirin does not love Venn, but she loves Storn, and when he realises this is the reason she has agreed to the marriage, he cruelly asserts his ownership of the island, killing the chance of any real intimacy between them.  The marriage endures, but Shirin needs help, and summons her friend Cristina, a sculptor, on the pretext of needing her for secretarial work.  Cristina loves Shirin, and this love is eventually returned, leading to a complicated triangular relationship in which both women attempt to balance the increasingly unstable and violent Venn.  As Venn's health deteriorates, the position of all three becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Added to this already complex plot are Mrs Jolly, a reformed prostitute turned housekeeper who has more than a maternal affection for Shirin; Lady le Breton, Venn's charismatic but malicious grandmother; Shirin's father, blinded by the Persian dust; and, always off the page but nonetheless a dramatic factor, Shirin's eldest son Luke who suffers from a congenital mental disorder and is confined to an institution.  Sackville-West has a rich melodrama with the basic plot, but cannot resist adding to it, stretching the reader's credulity long past breaking point.  She also breaks out into some astonishingly awful prose: "Now that he had let go of her wrist he felt that he had no more contact with her; she was separate; cut off.  They were both separate; cut off.  Their lives were separate and could never join,  So he was sad; not angry; just sad."  I feel sure I can hear Stella Gibbons laughing somewhere in the ether.  Other readers of my library copy have shared my irritation with the style: next to the paragraph in which Venn and Shirin consummate their marriage to the sounds of Wagner's Liebestod being played on an organ in the next room, someone has written WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH.

Among the better things about this novel are the evocation of Storn itself, remote and enigmatic, and the understated way in which the reserved and secretive Shirin is identified with the island.  There is also a rather interesting spiritual strand: to cope with the intense difficulties of her life, Shirin develops a faintly Buddhist approach of non-attachment and loving-kindness.  The depiction of the affection between the two women is frank, accepting and without prurience.  Other sexual behaviours - including sadomasochistic ones - are dealt with in a similar way.  But the increasingly purple episodes, particularly those relating to Venn's sadism, and the slightly clunky way in which each plot development is heralded by the same thing nearly happening, always portentously, a few chapters earlier, combine to make this a rather tiresome read.  The couple of contemporary reviews I've found seem to generally agree;  Vita Sackville-West's cousin Edward included The Dark Island in a list of recommended books for the library list in the Saturday Review, which was generous to her if not to the potential readershipThe book now seems to be only in print in French, although there are fairly inexpensive second-hand copies around.  If you would like to try VSW, I'd suggest starting with All Passion Spent or The Edwardians, or, best of all, her writings on gardening.


  1. well that's one to remove from my wish list then. Well done for getting to the end.

  2. Goodness -- I'm tempted to read this by the sheer awfulness of it. I've read the two of hers you mention here and felt a bit lukewarm about them -- I'd probably like the gardening better.

  3. It is thematically interesting, particularly in its treatment of sexuality which is why I read it - and I've left out some of the most astonishing scenes to avoid spoilers - but I can't honestly recommend it. I've just been reading Jeannette Foster's commentary on it (in the splendidly named Sex Variant Women in Literature) and she suggests the last section of the novel is of a similar quality to Orlando, and detects aspects of Mrs Dalloway in Shirin's reserved character, so there have been more positive endorsements.

  4. Gosh! I have read three VSW novels - No Signposts in the Sea (dull), All Passion Spent (v.g.) and The Heir (absolutely brilliant) - but this one I clearly won't read! I must try The Edwardians though, given what a success it was.