Scandalous Love - The Life of Violet Trefusis

"Across my life only one word will be written: "waste" - waste of love, waste of talent, waste of enterprise." Violet Trefusis

She was the daughter of the mistress of the King of England but for a few short years, she caused a scandal the likes that England had never seen before, and almost caused the break-up of two marriages. Nowadays she is just a footnote in the larger lives of Vita Sackville-West and Mrs. Keppel. Her name was Violet Trefusis.

She was born Violet Keppel on June 6th 1894. At the time of Violet's birth, Mrs. Keppel was four years away from meeting the Prince of Wales. Although his name was on her birth certificate, in all probability, George Keppel, was not her biological father. It is speculated that he was in actuality William Becket, MP for Whitby. From the time of her marriage, Mrs. Keppel had cultivated the company of wealthy powerful men. Her husband, the Honorable George Keppel, the third son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle, after resigning his commission in the Gordon Highlanders, joined the Norfolk Artillery, the year she was born. As a third son and a soldier, he had very little money to keep Alice in the style to which she was accustomed. Each of Mrs. Keppel's lovers brought her higher and higher on the social ladder and finally into the future Edward VIII's orbit. Violet once wrote about her mother "I wonder if I shall ever squeeze as much romance into my life as she had in hers."

Violet and her younger sister Sonia from an early age were in awe of their mother. Mrs. Keppel was known for being discreet and extremely charming. George Keppel was a rather shadowy figure in their lives, willing to step aside for his wife's relationship with the Prince of Wales. The King would come to visit Mrs. Keppel at her house in Portman Square every day at tea time. When Violet's sister Sonia was born in 1900, there was speculation that her father was the King himself. The girls would be paraded out for a brief visit, they came to regard the Prince as a sort of grandfatherly figure who used to allow them to race buttered toast down his immaculate trouser legs.

At first they were unaware of the exact nature of their mother's relationship with the monarch, but they soon were aware of the rumors. Violet was brought up by a series of governesses while her mother attended house parties with the King and traveled abroad on holidays with him. From an early age, Violet was revolted by the hypocrisy of her mother's life, and determined that her life would be different. At the same time, she also saw it as wonderfully romantic.

At the age of ten, she met the love of her life, Vita Sackville-West, a party. Vita was two years older, they bonded over their mutual love of books and horses. Like Violet, Vita was the daughter of an exotic and charismatic mother, Victoria Sackville-West. Vita's mother was the illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Baron Sackville and a spanish dancer named Pepita who he never married (Pepita was already married to another dancer). Victoria married her first cousin Lionel who became the 3rd Baron Sackville. After giving birth to her only child Vita, her mother determined never to go through the sordid business again. She eventually banned her husband from her bed, sending him into the arms of other women while she pursued a platonic relationship with a rich Scotsman, Sir John Seery, who lavished money and gifts on her. Vita grew up at Knole in Kent, the biggest heartbreak of her life was that she wasn't born a man and couldn't inherit Knole.

The two young girls wrote each other intermittently over the next several years and met occasionally. Violet, from the beginning was the pursuer. She wrote ardent letters to Vita sevearl times a week, while Vita's letters were shorter, filled with her life of books, horses, and Knole. When Violet was 14 and Vita 16 they spent time together in Italy, where Violet had been sent to perfect her Italian. Violet declared her love to Vita and gave her a ring with the head of a doge.

After the death of Edward VIII in 1910, the Edwardian Age was over and with it Mrs. Keppel's reign as La Favorita. The new King and his Queen ushered in a more conservative age with a less glittering court at which Mrs. Keppel was not welcome. For the next two years, she spent increasing time abroad as sort of 'discretionary' leave before re-establishing themselves in British society. Violet spent time in Germany, Italy and France, developing her fluency for languages, and a life long love of France. After two years abroad, the Keppels moved to another address in London, this time in Grosvenor Street.

By the time Violet returned to London, Vita was engaged to Harold Nicolson and also having a love affair with Rosalind Grosvenor. Violet made it clear to Vita that she still loved her, she flirted with men outrageously at parties trying to make Vita jealous, she even got engagedtwice to Gerald Wellesley and Osbert Sitwell. Despite this, Vita married Harold Nicolson in October of 1913 and settled down to the life of a country matron, giving birth to two boys Benedict and Nigel (another son was still born). Violet was distraught although she sarcastically agreed to be Benedict's godmother. After her marriage, Vita discovered that Harold had contacted a sexually transmitted disease from a man he had had a brief affair with at a country house party. While Vita was shocked, she and Harold came to an understanding that they would both be allowed to pursue outside affairs as long as their own bond was paramount.

That agreement was tested in 1918. Violet came to stay with Vita at Long Barn, the Nicolson's home in the country while Harold was spending the night at his club. Violet once again declared her love, counting off on her fingers all the reasons why, but this time Vita reciprocated. In her diary which her son later published as Portrait of A Marriage, she paints Violet as a seductress that she couldn't resist as if Violet were the elder of the two with endless experience. The reality was that Violet had been pretty much under lock and key with Mrs. Keppel. She was in love but had no idea what to do about it until Vita.

While homosexuality between men had been criminalized (which would have been career suicide for Harold Nicolson if he had ever been caught), lesbianism was not. In fact, Queen Victoria had struck out all references to women in the bill that criminalized the male homosexuality. Still, the very idea that two women could be involved that way was something that most people couldn't wrap their minds around. If good women were still seen as having no sexual desires for men, how could they possible have desires for their own sex?

The two women became lovers, going off on holiday together to Hugh Walpole's cottage in Cornwall. Violet wrote at this time, "Sometimes we loved each so much that we came inarticulate, content only to probe each other's eyes for the secret that was secret no longer." They pretended to be gypsies, called each other Mitya and Lushka.

The two women spent increasing time together much to the dismay of Vita's husband Harold and Violet's mother Mrs. Keppel. It was soon fairly clear that the two women weren't just good friends. In the autumn of 1918, Vita and Violet began work on Vita's novel Challenge in which she depicted herself and Violet as the lovers Julian and Eve. Vita took to wearing corduroy trousers, with her short hair, she looked like a man. They went out together, Vita in her man's garb with Violet as Eve. Harold was incensed at the idea of Vita going off without him. Vita wrote him a letter, uncomplimentary towards Violet, telling him that she needed new experiences and horizons but it didn't dim her love for him.

Vita and Violet went abroad to France for several months. Gossip about the two women wormed its way into all the smart drawing rooms in London. In the meantime, Mrs. Keppel determined that it was time that Violet got married a soon as the war was over. Society dictated that no matter what one's proclivities were, one married, particularly in the case of upper class women who depended on marriage to support them. Violet had no skills in order to support herself independently, her only income was derived by the allowance that Mrs. Keppel gave her. No marriage, no allowance.

Enter Denys Trefusis, the poor sap who found himself in a situation that was completely over his head. He was 28, attractive with reddish gold hair and blue eyes, the son of an old aristocratic family. He was an officer in the Royal Horse Guards who had served heroically during the war. He was also unusual in that he had lived in Russia for several years before the Revolution, teaching the children of an aristocratic family. He had learned to speak Russian fluently and longed to go back. He was awarded the military cross for his services during the war. He was kind and intelligent, and suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Violet wrote lively chatty letters to him while he was at the front, seducing him by post.

Violet and Vita's relationship continued. Vita was now obsessed with Violet. She told Violet that she loved her, that they had been made for one another. She promised not to sleep with Harold and took of her wedding ring as a symbol of fidelity. Violet was equally obsessed, spending her days in agony until the next time that she could see Vita or receive a letter from her. She and her mother fought, when Mrs. Keppel caught her writing to Vita. "I hate lies," she wrote to Vita. "I'm so fed up with lies." Violet's dream was for Vita to leave Harold and go off to France with her to live openly as a couple.

But the dream kept being deferred. Denys Trefusis was now involved. Despite his lock of money, Mrs. Keppel wanted him to make her daughter respectable. Violet wanted him only to get her mother off her back and to provoke Vita to leave Harold. Vita, however, hoped that Violet would gain more liberty by marrying, as long as the marriage didn't preclude fidelity to her. "Violet is mine," she wrote in her confession. Mrs. Keppel tried to still the gossip by taking Violet away until Denys was back in London. Harold Nicolson, trying to be a good husband and reasonable, suggested that Vita buy a little weekend cottage in Cornwall where she could do whatever she wanted, he wouldn't ask questions. This was exactly the type of life that Violet abhorred and wanted nothing to do with, but circumstances were spiraling out of control.

Vita continued her dual life, writing long passionate letters to Harold, at the same time pursuing her relationship with Violet. Denys proposed to Violet but she put him off. Instead, she and Vita went off to France. Ironically, Harold Nicolson helped to arrange the permits that they needed. Since he was busy with the Paris Peace Conference, he told her that he didn't mind if she went. Mrs. Keppel agreed soley because Denys would be in France. In Paris, they scandalized everyone by dancing together at a the dansant. They were gone for four months finally returning to London the next year, 1919 in March.

Mrs. Keppel sprang into action, demanding that Violet stop dithering around and marry Denys Trefusis. The engagement was announced, Violet in a quandary. Her life was about to become the very thing that she loathed. She wrote to Vita, "Are you going to stand by and let me marry this man. It's unheard of, inconceivable..." Poor Denys was completely clueless as to what was going on with his fiancee. He believed that Violet was in love with him, she had accepted his marriage proposal. But in reality it was Mrs. Keppel pulling the puppet strings, offering him an income, an undemanding office job, travel, her daughter was the prize, his reward for the awfulness of war.

Soon after the engagement was announced, Denys agreed that the marriage would be platonic. He viewed women as pure and less corruptible than men. After Denys insisted that Violet could come and go as she pleased, and that he would be happy to only spend 3 months of the year with her, Violet eventually gave in and married Denys on the 16th of June 1919. On the day of her wedding, she wrote to Vita, "You have broken my heart, goodbye." Vita went off to Paris with Harold to keep herself from stopping the wedding. Violet had learned a hard truth, that society would never condone the love that she shared with Vita, it led to social ostracism, and self-loathing. One of Violet's flaws was that she found it impossible to care for anyone else once she had given her heart to Vita.

The marriage was doomed from the beginning. Denys and Violet went to Paris for their honeymoon and guess who was there? Vita and Harold. While Harold was at the Peace Conference, Vita met Violet at the Ritz where they resumed their relationship. "I treated her savagely. I had her. I didn't care, I only wanted to hurt Denys," Vita wrote later. She promised Violet that in the autumn they would go away together. The next day, the two women confronted Denys and told him the truth about their relationship. The poor man was heartbroken and shocked. He had been used and tricked in the worst possible way. Leaving Violet to deal with the wreckage of her marriage, Vita went off to Geneva with Harold.

Back in London, Denys and Violet tried to end their marriage but Mrs. Keppel was adamant that the marriage continue. Denys meanwhile was starting to show signs of tuberculosis and needed nursing. Violet didn't want to go but it would have looked bad if she had abandoned a sick husband. Meanwhile, Violet's sister Sonia (grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles) was in love and wanted to marry. Her future husband was Roland Cubitt, heir to the title of Lord Ashcombe and to a huge building fortune. The Cubitts had built much of Belgravia, Pimlico and Eaton Square and rebuilt Buckingham Palance. Marrying Roland Cubitt was a coup that Mrs. Keppel was not about to let slip out of her daughter's fingers. The Cubitt's were already against the relationship because of Mrs. Keppel's relationship with the late King. A scandal with Violet would ruin everything.

She kept a close eye on Violet to make sure that she was not sneaking off to meet Vita or writing to her. Vita couldn't make up her mind what she wanted, leaving Violet in a painful limbo. Harold, had affairs with other men including the couturier Edward Molyneux, hoping to make Vita jealous. The marriage between Violet and Denys continued to disintergrate as Violet heaped emotional abuse on the poor man, declaring that she would never care for him. In October, Vita and Violet went off together again for two months, playing their familiar roles of Julian and Eve. Back in London, people gossiped about the two women. Harold Nicolson was furious and threatened divorce while Mrs. Keppel demanded that Denys act like a man and bring his wife back.

This train wreck was heading down a fast track to nowheresville. Vita again told Violet that she would elope with her in February of 1920, that she would leave her old life behind. But to Harold, she wrote that although she found it impossible to have sex with him, she loved him so much and so deeply that it couldn't be uprooted. Finally the day came for the two women to leave. The night before she left Denys, they engaged in some kind of sexual exchange that neither would explain. Although she tried to tell Vita, she didn't want to hear it. While Violet went ahead to France, Vita sent frantic telegrams to everyone to rescue her.

Denys arrived first and he and Vita crossed the channel together. Violet refused to return with Denys so humiliated once again, he went to Paris. Vita and Violet stayed in Amiens while Vita waited for rescue. It came in the form of Harold Nicolson who told Vita that Violet may not have been as faithful to her as she said. This was the excuse that Vita needed to break things off. She told Violet that she couldn't see her for two months.

Denys and Violet again begged for annulment and Mrs. Keppel again said no way. Violet was not going to disgrace the family anymore than she already had. Sonia needed to be married off, Violet was not going to ruin her sister's happiness with her selfishness. More to the point, although she would give Violet 600 pounds a year allowance, she would have nothing to do with her emotionally or financially if she and Denys split up. Colonel Keppel, Violet's father had had enough though. He refused to speak to his daughter and left the room if she entered it. Even Sonia refused to speak to her. Violet was beginning to have a taste of her life as a pariah.

So Violet and Denys struggled on in a marriage of inconvenience complete with scenes and recriminations. He began seeking solace from other women all the while tormenting Violet by burning her letters from Vita and checking her alibis whenever she went out. Vita and Violet went on one finally journey together for two months, but the handwriting was on the wall for Violet. She realized finally that Vita was never going to leave her life in England for good to be with her.

While Vita was everything to Violet, Vita had a life independent of her with Harold, their sons, her garden and her writing. Her life was full and there was only ever going to be around 20% available for Violet. Violet would need to find a new life that didn't include Vita. She and Denys settled in France, where they lead seperate lives until his death in 1929. By the time of his death, they were completely estranged. However, he did do one good thing for Violet, he introduced her to the Princess de Polignac. Born Winaretta Singer, one of a multitude of children of Isaac Singer, whose fortune was made in sewing machines, she had married the much older Prince Edmond de Polignac who was a discreet homosexual.

Violet modified her behavior but not her sexuality, becoming more socially acceptable. Mrs. Keppel approved of the relationship, it more closely mimicked her own with the King. Violet wrote books in both French and English, while they sold well enough, the critics agreed that they were not great literature. Violet's life increasingly became a pale copy of her mother's. She threw dinner parties, told witty stories, was charming in an increasingly brittle way. She even began telling people that her father was King Edward VII. Completely incapable of taking care of herself, Violet would lose money constantly or trip and fall down the stairs. After her parents death, Violet inherited Ombrellino in Florence, where she spent most of her time. She and Vita reconnected briefly during the war, after Violet fled the Nazi invasion. Violet passed away in 1972, ten years after Vita.

Although their affair had ended, it continued to have a lasting influence on both women. Although Vita continued to have affairs with other women, no one ever came close again to affecting her so deeply. She and Harold continued to live together, their bond growing deeper as the years passed. Virginia Woof based the character of Sasha, the slavic princess on Violet in Orlando. Violet wrote her own account of their love affair in Broderie Anglaise, mainly as a reaction to Orlando. In both cases, the love affair was written as heterosexual.

If Violet had a fatal flaw, it was her inability to see anyone else's point of view but her own. She had no concept of her husband's feelings or understanding of the bond that Vita had with Harold Nicolson. Once she had made her mind up that Vita was the love of her life, nothing would stand in her way. She gave no thought at all to the damage that she caused her parents, her sister, or particularly Denys. She never once realized how much she had wronged him or hurt him, or even apologized for what she did to him. In her romantic fantasy, love should have conquered all. But there was the reality fo real life. The life that she envisioned for herself, a life without hypocrisy, she never achieved. The world wasn't quite ready for that. Nor really was Violet. As much as she deplored the hypocrisy of her mother's life and her aristocratic set, she also longed to emulate her mother and please her.

Sources include:

Mrs. Keppel and her daughter - Diana Souhami
Portrait of a Marriage - Nigel Nicolson
World's Wickedest Women - Margaret Nicholas

There is a splendid TV movie starring Janet McTeer, David Haig and Cathryn Harrison based on Portrait of a Marriage.


What I've always found fascinating about Violet's life is that there is no evidence of Alice condemning her daughter's sexual orientation. Alice only desired discretion. Another facet to this story that is equally interesting is the lesbian society in Paris. It's just really amazing how Victorian/Edwardian sexuality and society worked. It seems that a lot of things were accepted as long as one--in the words of Mrs. Patrick Campbell--didn't do it in the streets and frighten the horses!
She was very accepting of her relationship with the Princesse de Polignac, because it was discreet, and it didn't hurt that the Princesse was rich. I plan to write more about the lesbian society in Paris, because I do find it fascinating all the women who moved to Paris precisely because they were able to be free to live their lives without censure.

Whereas in England, there was such a to-do about Radclyffe Hall's book The Well of Loneliness (which ironically Vita hated). I've always found it interesting that in Victorian society, people preferred to believe that women were incapable of the same vice as it were of homosexuality, but then women weren't supposed to have any sexual desires at all.
Rover said…
Conventional morality has always been for the bourgeoisie, not the upper classes.

It is a good example of the inbred world of the English upper classes, that Prince Charles, the great-great grandson of King Edward Vll, should take as his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, the great-granddaughter of Mrs Keppel, who was the mistress of Charles' great great grandfather!!!
I've always found that amusing. Even Camilla's supposed opening line (which is now part of the legend although Tina Brown says its untrue) that they should get it on because their ancestors did!

What Violet hated the most was the fact that even though the Upper Classes indulged, they hid behind this veneer of respectability.
John Hopper said…
It is interesting to note that the only reason that Queen Victoria took any reference to lesbianism off of the bill against homosexuality, was because she couldn't believe that women were capable of such behaviour, rather than some people surmising, wrongly, that she was herself a lesbian or had lesbian leanings - she wasn't and didn't.
That's very interesting! I had no idea that there were people who believed that Queen Victoria might have been gay, and that was the reason why she struck out the references. Considering her great love for Albert, her appreciation of sex between a man and woman, and her later infatuation with John Brown, I'm not sure how someone could come to that conclusion. Her grandson Eddy and later Edward VIII were considered to have leanings in that area thought.
John Hopper said…
We live in a world where historical figures sexuality are constantly being re-evaluated.

I don't think anyone seriously believes that Queen Victoria was gay - that would take a wild stretch of the imagination, but there are always people out there who are happy to stretch their imaginations that far.

By the way, I love your blog and am reading everything with interest!
Thanks John for the compliment. I agree with you, that nowadays we seem to be constantly focused on our public leader's sex lives, the sex lives of celebrities, so it is only natural that we turn to the past.

It also shows just how far we've come and just how far we still have to go.
anka said…
wonderful post! feel free to visit my vita sackville-west site:

Popular posts from this blog

The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret