Rebel Girls: the (written) lives of Vita Sackville-West and Viv Albertine


Vita and Viv: what polar opposites. One born into immense wealth and privilege, blessed with an unhealthy arrogance, unblinkingly forging her own path on her own terms, the other brought up without money or connections, lacking in self-confidence, but equally determined to make her mark on the world and stay true to herself. Both pioneers of their age. Vita could never be her true self in public while Viv lived in boundary-smashing times. The age of punk was also a time of squats, art colleges and student grants, when living on the dole while honing your art or music or simply personal style was a viable, nay commendable, lifestyle choice.

I have to say Viv is the more sympathetic character of the two – Vita reminded me of Vivienne Westwood, who Viv describes as “scary, for the reason any truthful, plain-talking person is scary – she exposes you… She’s uncompromising in every way: what she says, what she stands for, what she expects from you and how she dresses.” That could just as easily have been written about Vita.

Maybe it’s unfair, not truly comparing like with like because in Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys Viv is telling her story in her own words, while in Behind the Curtain: The Life of Vita Sackville-West Matthew Dennison is telling Vita’s for her. But Vita wrote her life story many times over and it doesn’t sound like she could ever be completely honest – not with herself and certainly not with her audience. She was too obsessed with mythologizing her life story, identifying her great words and deeds with those of her ancestors and other heroes and heroines of history. She viewed herself as a grand figure and any tiny creeping doubts were firmly squashed before they could take root.

In contrast, Viv is endearingly honest about her failings and thwarted ambitions, which makes her achievements even more impressive – because she was battling against her own self doubt and lack of musical skill as well as the immense sexism of the music industry. She wanted to be the girl in the band, rather than the girl who sleeps with the band – surely not much to ask, but apparently an astonishing ambition then and sadly, I fear, now.

Viv doesn’t have reams of poetry and prose stuffed in her brain, nor the ghostly ancestral inhabitants of Knole to draw on like Vita, so instead she cast about closer to home for subject matter to sing about – she wrote what she knew. In her songs for the Slits as in her autobiography, she understands that total, fearless honesty is a powerful thing. In admitting weakness she is brave and strong. She also lets us in on a secret: the creative process is often boring and frustrating. It takes her months to make her fingers get a noise out of her guitar. That made me feel SO much better.

One thing the two women share is the desire, even need, to express something about themselves through creating something – a song, a poem, a garden. They are both creators and this for me is what links the two women, although I think Viv is often too hard on herself – she writes “You have to be selfish to be an artist; your family just have to accept that. It’s not personal, it’s not that you don’t love them. what an artist gives their family isn’t routine and their constant presence, they give vitality and ideas, independence and creative thinking” but her love for her daughter and her daughter’s love and pride in her burn off every page.

Another is they are both endlessly looking for love – hoping that the next affair will satisfy some deep inner craving or lack – moving restlessly from one relationship to the next, trying to maintain the threads of human contact after lust or romance has faded, succeeding in establishing deep, long-lasting relationships with some, while others only leave bitterness and recriminations.

In CCCMMMBBB I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that so happily gives you the goss (cos lets be honest, all we really want to know about is fashion and sex, right?) so skillfully interspersed with profound insights into the state of being a woman. Musings on death, our fragile, messy bodies and motherhood mixed with chat about Westwood boots and boys – poignant and perfect.

One other thing: I don’t think I’d really appreciated what we have lost in terms of social mobility and cultural creativity until I read Viv’s book. To be poor and young now without grants and courses taught by inspiring tutors at art colleges is a bleak prospect indeed. All those working class kids of Viv’s generation who were given the time and space to mess about until they produced something new and exciting – how could that happen today when simply surviving is a challenge?

Reading this book gave me a very straightforward, matter of fact example of how different things were just a few decades ago, and how much we’re missing if today’s Vivs and Syds and Micks have no hope, no chance to carve out something of their own. We need those people – we may sometimes find them pretentious and annoying and childish and we may not like the work they produce, but we need them nonetheless.

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Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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