Writer Trefusis is best remembered today for her love affair with the wealthy poet Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf described this by analogy in her novel 'Orlando'. In this romanticized biography of Vita, Trefusis is represented by the Russian princess Sasha.
The two women both wrote fictional accounts that referred to this love affair ('Challenge' by Sackville-West and 'Broderie Anglaise a roman à clef' in French by Trefusis). Sackville-West's son Nigel Nicolson wrote the non-fiction 'Portrait of a Marriage', based on material from his mother's letters, and adding extensive "clarifications," including some of his father's point of view. Such works explored other aspects of the affair. Trefusis was also featured as a pivotal fictional character in other novels, including as Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford's 'Love in a Cold Climate' and Muriel in Harold Acton's 'The Soul's Gymnasium'.
Each of the participants left extensive written accounts in surviving letters and diaries. Apart from the two central players, Alice Keppel, Victoria Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Denys Trefusis and Pat Dansey also left documents that referred to the affair.
Diana Souhami's 'Mrs Keppel and her Daughter' (1997) provides an overview of the affair and of the main actors in the drama. When Violet was 10, she met Vita (who was two years older) for the first time. After that, they attended the same school for several years and soon recognised a bond between them. When Violet was 14, she confessed her love to Vita and gave her a ring. In 1910, after the death of Edward VII, Mrs Keppel made her family observe a "discretion" leave of about two years before re-establishing themselves in British society. When they returned to London, the Keppels moved to a house in Grosvenor Street. At that time, Violet learned that Vita was soon to be engaged to Harold Nicolson and was involved in an affair with Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet made it clear that she still loved Vita, but became engaged to make Vita jealous. This did not stop Vita from marrying Harold (in October 1913), nor did he curtail his own homosexual adventures after marriage.
In April 1918, Violet and Vita refreshed and intensified their bond. Vita had two sons by then, but she left them in the care of others while she and Violet took a holiday in Cornwall. Meanwhile, Mrs Keppel was busy arranging a marriage for Violet with Denys Robert Trefusis (1890–1929), son of Colonel Hon. John Schomberg Trefusis and Eva Louisa Bontein. A few days after the armistice, Violet and Vita went to France for several months. Because of Vita's exclusive claim, and her own loathing of marriage, Violet made Denys promise never to have sex with her as a condition for marriage. He apparently agreed as, on 16 June 1919, they married. At the end of that year, Violet and Vita made a new two-month excursion to France: ordered to do so by his mother-in-law, Denys retrieved Violet from the south of France when new gossip about her and Sackville-West's loose behaviour began to reach London. The next time they left, in February 1920, was to be the final elopement. Sackville-West might still have had some doubts and probably hoped that Harold would interfere. Harold and Denys pursued the women, flying to France in a two-seater airplane. The couples had heated scenes in Amiens.
The climax came when Harold told Vita that Violet had been unfaithful to her (with Denys). Violet tried to explain and assured Vita of her innocence (which was in all likelihood true). Vita was much too angry and upset to listen, and fled saying she couldn't bear to see Violet for at least two months. Six weeks later Vita returned to France to meet Violet. Mrs Keppel desperately tried to keep the scandal away from London, where Violet's sister, Sonia, was about to be married (to Roland Cubitt). Violet spent much of 1920 abroad, clinging desperately to Vita via continuous letters. In January 1921, Vita and Violet made a final journey to France, where they spent six weeks together. At this time, Harold threatened to break off the marriage if Vita continued her escapades. When Vita returned to England in March, it was practically the end of the affair. Violet was sent to Italy; and, from there she wrote her last desperate letters to their mutual friend Pat Dansey, having been forbidden from writing directly to Vita. At the end of the year, Violet had to face the facts and start to build her life from scratch.
The two former lovers met again in 1940, after the progress of World War II forced Trefusis to return to England. The women continued to keep in touch and send each other affectionate letters.