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LECTURE: Literature, Life, Gardens: The Influence of Vita Sackville-West

William H. and Jane Torrence Harder Lecture
08/24/2011 - 5:30pm - 6:30pm
Call Alumni Auditorium, Kennedy Hall
Molly Hite, Professor of English, Cornell University
David McDonald, Photographer

Vita Sackville-West, a prolific poet, novelist, and memoirist, considered herself foremost a writer, but her enduring reputation rests on the imprint of her provocative personality on the life and writing of Virginia Woolf, and on her stirring contributions to the art of gardening, both in practice and in writing.
“Most critics concur that Vita was the great love of Virginia’s life,” says Molly Hite, who will guide us over the peaks of their powerful relationship and the works it inspired in Woolf: the renowned materialist-feminist essay A Room of One’s Own; the faux-biography and parody of literary history Orlando; and Woolf’s most experimental and perhaps greatest novel, The Waves, in which a detailed representation of a romantically wild garden expands into a whole world.

Garden photographer David McDonald will focus closely on Vita’s—and Harold’s—garden practice, a style that has sown itself into American gardens, and on how Vita came to be a revered figure in the horticultural world.


Molly Hite is a professor of English at Cornell specializing in experimental fiction mostly of the 20th and 21st centuries, and has authored two novels. Her most recent academic book is on Virginia Woolf, and she wrote the introduction and annotations to the new Harcourt edition of The Waves. Of the courses she teaches in 20th-century literature, one of her favorites is The Great American Cornell Novel, which deals with fiction by some of the many distinguished authors who were (or are) students and professors at Cornell.

David McDonald has photographed gardens throughout the United States and Canada, with work appearing in every major American gardening magazine and numerous books over 20 years. His photographs for The Jewel Box Garden won the Bronze Award for Achievement in Photography from the Garden Writers Association. He has lectured and led workshops on gardens and garden photography throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada.