Visitors to the National Trust’s Sissinghurst — the decayed Elizabethan castle transformed by Vita Sackville-West in the early 1930s — are regaled by picturesque extracts from Vita’s landscape poems, and moving professions of love to and from her husband Harold Nicolson. Matthew Dennison’s title, Behind the Mask, indicates his ambition to get beyond such projections to something more real. But the metaphor is unfortunate. There was no single image that Vita adopted or which others imposed on her — nor a single real self which has been concealed until now.
Dennison knows this. He interprets Vita in terms of a split between the reserve inherited from her English father Lord Sackville and the passion inherited from her mother, the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish dancer and another Sackville (Vita’s father’s uncle).