The aristocratic writer and music critic Edward (Eddy) Sackville-West (1901–1965) was one of the British intellectuals who made their way to Berlin via the network of the Bloomsbury circle. He was the cousin of Vita Sackville-West, whose husband Harold Nicolson was chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in the late 1920s. Eddy was also a good friend of Virginia Woolf, who used his ancestral home, Knole, as the setting for her gender-queer novel Orlando (1928).
In 1927, Eddy’s musical interests took him to Dresden, where he immersed himself in the German language, music and literature. That Christmas he visited Berlin, where the gregarious Nicolson introduced him both to the chic social world of diplomatic circles and to the city’s nightlife. The unpretentious, open and occasionally squalid atmosphere of the Berlin gay and transsexual scene had a powerfully liberating effect on Eddy, who recorded his impressions in his diary and in letters to various literary friends. To E. M. Forster, he recounted the experience of being ‘dragged about at night from one homosexual bar to another’, and witnessing ‘large dance parties for inverts.’ He also gave Forster a colourful account of a night spent with a 20 year-old Lithuanian peasant dressed in mother-of-pearls buttons who took a loaded revolver to bed.
These exhilarating experiences convinced him to return to Berlin for a longer time in the autumn of 1928, when he moved into a pension at 109 Kurfürstenstraße. Reports from this period describe Eddy as a decadent, dandified figure, sporting heavy make-up and jewellery.
Although he wrote several novels and a biography of Thomas De Quincey, Eddy Sackville-West never gained much critical acclaim as an author. His novel Piano Quintet (1925) is about a group of chamber musicians on tour to Paris, Berlin and Vienna. His best-regarded short story, however, is set in interwar Germany and has a Berlin connection: ‘Hellmut Lies in the Sun’ (1929) describes the tough city life of three Berlin students and their escape into the Spreewald. Several of the poems inspired by his time in Berlin have remained unpublished. Together with his cousin Vita, he published a joint English translation of Rilke’s Elegies from the Castle of Duino (1931). Stefano Evangelista
1—Letter to E. M. Forster, 7 January 1928, in Michael De-la-Noy, Eddy: The Life of Edward Sackville-West (London: Arcadia, 1999), p. 117.
2—Ibid., p. 125.
Sackville-West, Edward, ‘Hellmut Lies in the Sun’, in The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, ed. Elizabeth Bowen (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), pp. 446–77
Sackville-West, Edward, Piano Quintet (London: Heinemann, 1925).
Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duisener Elegien / Elegies from the Castle of Duino, tr. Victoria Sackville-West and Edward Sackville-West (London: Hogarth Press, 1931)
De-la-Noy, Michael, Eddy: The Life of Edward Sackville-West (London: Arcadia, 1999)
Strachey, Nino, Rooms of Their Own (London: Pitkin Publishing, 2018)
‘Exploring LGBTQ History at Knole’, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole/features/exploring-lgbtq-history-at-knole