Born Violet Keppel, she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, a mistress of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, and her husband, the Hon. George Keppel, a son of an Earl of Albemarle. Her biological father, however, was considered by members of the Keppel family to be William Beckett, subsequently 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, a banker and MP for Whitby.
Trefusis lived her early youth in London, where the Keppel family had a house in Portman Square. When Trefusis was four years old, Alice Keppel became the favorite mistress of Albert Edward (Bertie), the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII on 22 January 1901. He paid visits to the Keppel household in the afternoon around tea-time (while her husband, who was aware of the affair, was conveniently absent), on a regular basis till the end of his life in 1910. In 1900 Violet's only sibling, Sonia, was born.
Orlando: A Biography was not the only account of the love affair between Violet and Vita, which appears in reality to have been very much more strenuous than Woolf's enchanting account: both in fiction (Challenge by Sackville-West and Trefusis, Broderie Anglaise a roman à clef in French by Trefusis) and in non-fiction (Portrait of a Marriage by Sackville-West with extensive "clarifications" added by her son Nigel Nicolson) further parts of the story appeared in print.
There are still the surviving letters and diaries written by the partakers in the plot. Apart from those of the two central players, there are records from Alice Keppel, Victoria Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Denys Trefusis and Pat Dansey. The Yale University Library-Collection contains correspondence, writings and other materials by or related to Violet Trefusis. The correspondence consists chiefly of approximately 500 letters from Trefusis to John Phillips written in the 1960s. Also included are letters to Trefusis from her mother, Alice Keppel, her sister, Sonia Keppel, and several governmental departments in France and England concerning Trefusis's re-entry into France after World War II, and her nomination to the Légion d'honneur. Writings include holograph and typescript drafts of Trefusis' memoirs, novels, plays and other writings. Other materials include a miniature case portrait of Trefusis as a child, and an album containing photographs of friends of the Keppels, taken by George Keppel between 1924-1939 at the family's Villa dell'Ombrellino in Florence, including many members of European nobility and royalty.
Probably the most conclusive overview of the whole story can be found in Diana Souhami's Mrs Keppel and her Daughter.
Trefusis's fantasy - of romantic love lived to the fullest in an accepting social context - were not to come true. The more traditional concept of an upfront marriage with hidden extramarital adventures to complete it—as it had been lived by Mrs Keppel, and would continue to be lived by Sackville-West and Harold—proved immensely stronger for many years to come.
An essential difference between Mrs Keppel and Sackville-West seems to be that Mrs Keppel made a trade of never distressing her lovers (and their marriages), thus advancing her family socially and financially, while Sackville-West caused broken hearts more than once: for her marriage was rather the refuge she could always come back to after periods of abandonment.
As a side-note it might appear not so surprising that, notwithstanding some general changes in social context by that time, the inherent unresolved tensions of all three models (of Trefusis, Mrs Keppel and Sackville-West) - including mothers taking sides in view of a socially acceptable solution—reappeared in the Diana–Camilla–Charles triangle.
The two former lovers met again in 1940 when the war had forced Trefusis to come back to England. They continued to keep in touch and send each other affectionate letters.
From 1923 on, Trefusis was one of the many lovers of the Singer sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, daughter of Isaac Singer and wife of the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac, who introduced her to the artistic beau-monde in Paris. Trefusis conceded more and more to her mother's model of being "socially acceptable" but, at the same time, not wavering on her sexuality.
Singer, as Sackville-West had, dominated the relationship, though apparently to mutual satisfaction. The two were together for many years and seemed to have had a healthy and happy relationship. Trefusis's mother, Alice Keppel, did not object to this affair, most likely because of the wealth and power of Singer and the fact that Singer carried on the affair in a much more disciplined way. Trefusis seemed to prefer the role of submissive and therefore fit well with Singer, who was typically dominant and in control in her relationships. Neither was completely faithful during their long affair; but, unlike her affair with Sackville-West, this seemed to have had no negative effect on their relationship.
In 1924, Mrs Keppel bought L'Ombrellino, a large villa overlooking Florence, where Galileo Galilei had once lived. After her parents' death in 1947, Trefusis would become the chatelaine of L'Ombrellino, till the end of her life.
In 1929, Denys Trefusis died, completely estranged from his seemingly unfeeling wife. After his death, Violet published several novels, some in English, some in French, that she had written in her medieval "Tour" in Saint-Loup-de-Naud, Seine-et-Marne, France - a gift from Winnaretta.
During the Second World War, in London, Violet participated in the broadcastings of La France Libre, which earned her a Légion d'Honneur after the war.
Nancy Mitford said that Violet's autobiography should be titled Here Lies Violet Trefusis, and partly based the character of "Lady Montdore" in Love in a Cold Climate on her.
François Mitterrand, who later became President of the French Republic in 1981, in his chronicle "La Paille & le Grain" mentions his friendship with Violet Trefusis under the 2nd of March 1972, when he received "the telegram" informing of her death. He goes on discussing how before Christmas 1971, he went to Florence to visit her as he knew she was in her last months of life and spent a dinner with Violet Trefusis and Lord Frank Ashton-Gwatkin who was a member of the British Government at the beginning of the 2nd World War, at her house in Florence.
Violet died at L'Ombrellino on the Bellosguardo. Her ashes were placed at Florence on the I Allori cemetery and a part in Saint-Loup-de-Naud in the monks refectory near her tower. Afterwards her ashes at Saint-Loup-de-Naud were dispensed in her Florentine garden she had had at Saint-Loup-de-Naud.
Burial: Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori, Florence, Toscana, Italy
Violet to Vita : The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921 by Mitchell A. Leaska & John Phillips
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (September 1, 1991)
Amazon: Violet to Vita : The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921
The passionate love affair between Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West ended in 1921 with their forced separation and return to their respective husbands and families. This collection of Violet's letters explores her part in the affair and provides details of the other principals involved.
Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West by Karyn Z. Sproles
Paperback: 270 pages
Publisher: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division; 1 edition (April 29, 2006)
Amazon: Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
On 23 September 1925, Virginia Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West: 'if you'll make me up, I'll make you.' In Desiring Women, Karyn Sproles argues that the two writers in fact 'made' each other. Woolf and Sackville-West produced some of the most vibrant and acclaimed work of their respective careers during their passionate affair, and Sproles demonstrates how this body of work was a collaborative project - a partnership - in which they promised to reinvent one another.
Sproles argues that in all they wrote during their affair - essays, criticism, novels, poems, biographies, and personal etters - Woolf and Sackville-West struggled to represent their desire for one another and to resist the social pressures that would deny their passion. At the centre of this literary conversation is Orlando, Woolf's biography of Sackville-West. Sproles restores Orlando to the context of Woolf and Sackville-West's discussion of gender and sexuality and demonstrates its importance in Woolf's oeuvre. Sexy and provocative, Desiring Women re-imagines Woolf and Sackville-West as daring, funny, beautiful, and bent on resisting the repression of women's desires.
Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
Paperback: 278 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 1, 1998)
Amazon: Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
Vita Sackville-West, novelist, poet, and biographer, is best known as the friend of Virginia Woolf, who transformed her into an androgynous time-traveler in Orlando. The story of Sackville-West's marriage to Harold Nicolson is one of intrigue and bewilderment. In Portrait of a Marriage, their son Nigel combines his mother's memoir with his own explanations and what he learned from their many letters. Even during her various love affairs with women, Vita maintained a loving marriage with Harold. Portrait of a Marriage presents an often misunderstood but always fascinating couple.
"Portrait of a Marriage is as close to a cry from the heart as anybody writing in English in our time has come, and it is a cry that, once heard, is not likely ever to be forgotten. . . . Unexpected and astonishing."—Brendan Gill, New Yorker
"The charm of this book lies in the elegance of its narration, the taste with which their son has managed to convey the real, enduring quality of his parents' love for each other."—Doris Grumbach, New Republic
Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter by Diana Souhami
Hardcover: 338 pages
Publisher: St Martins Pr; First Edition edition (June 1997)
Amazon: Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
Praise for Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughters:
"Fascinating...and richly textured...Souhami's style [is] vital, brave and full of flair." --The New York Times Book Review
"Vivid and fast-paced, Souhami's story is wonderful--a must for those caught up in the drama now playing itself out among the descendants of King Edward and his Machiavellian mistress." --People
"Lavishly illustrated, pungent with luxurious detail and hardheaded investigation, this is popular history to relish." --Publishers Weekly
"An electrifying study of Mrs. Keppel--famously King Edward VII's mistress--and of her daughter Violet Trefusis--notoriously Vita Sackville-West's lover.... This dark and Gothic tale of passion and cruelty, of an indomitable mother and a frail daughter, is the more shocking for its imperturbable, elegant settings--Biarritz, London drawing rooms, Florentine villas, and English country houses." --Daily Telegraph (London)