21 JANUARY 1995, Page 55


Dear Mary. . .

Q. I would greatly value your advice on how to find a discreet solution to a pressing dilemma. If not managed with some delica- cy, the situation will bring unpleasant, unwanted publicity to my family and to me. In the 1940s Vita Sackville-West gave my grandmother a box containing papers, MSS and some small objets, and stipulated that it should not be opened until 1996. The two women sealed the box elaborately, Vita using a seal from Knole, and bound it with baling twine which itself was sealed with crimson wax. I, as a child, am said to have been present at the sealing, though I have no memory of the event. My grandmother stored the box — a weighty cube 2-ft high — at Coutts through the 1950s, after which it was taken to the west coast until her death. It was willed to me, her only grand- daughter, on the express understanding that it should be opened in England in 1996 to fulfil Vita's trust: I gladly accepted. Both Eddie Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf knew of the box. It is said to contain note- books and diaries of Vita's, a small painting by Carrington, plans and notes relating to the genesis of Sissinghurst and plans for gardens there never realised, Woolf s MSS of Mrs Dalloway and an abandoned novel which Vita co-authored over a summer entitled Tower of Lift, a title I think she later used in a poem. I have every intention of fulfilling my own commitment and yet I now also very badly need the money which the careful sale of the box could perhaps bring. The dilemma is this: is there any way in which I could discreetly sell the box to an English university, say, on the understand- ing that my anonymity would be preserved for some decades, and on the understand- ing that the box would not be opened until the appointed year? What would be the best way to do this? Is there a better solu- tion? How could I find an agent to deal with this for me? I do not want the box to end up at Austin, and yet I do need to sell it before about Easter. I will have no truck with the Nicholson [sic] family. I will peruse The Spectator in the hope that you may be kind enough to find space to advise me. Please do not publish or record my name.

A. Thank you for your intriguing query. The general consensus among the literary giants and academics I have consulted is that no English university could hope to match the price which would be paid for such historic material in America. The pub- lication of your letter may excite offers from gamblers, yet it is unlikely that anyone would pay a worthwhile price for the box without some sort of proof that it contains what it is rumoured to contain. The once famous Joanna Southgate box, opened years after her death, proved to contain nothing, and I am told that there is a three- volume holograph manuscript of Mrs Dal- loway already in the possession of the New York public library. This does not necessar- ily mean that your box is bogus, however, so may I suggest you take the advice of Dr James L,eFanu, who proposes that the box be invaded by a fibre optic endoscope of the type used in surgical procedures. International security adviser Ian Johnson informs me that a device for use in non- medical scenarios already exists. Both fixed and flexible endoscopes are regularly used for searching inaccessible areas of build- ings, ships, aircraft, etc. — Johnson is also security adviser to the president of British Airways. He tells me that a hole of no more than 6 mm should be bored in your box for the introduction of a flexible endoscope which can be fitted to either a video or still camera for recording all-round viewing or detailed photography. You may show the results to prospective bidders. If you wish to take this matter further please contact Ian Johnson of Ian Johnson Associates on 0252 782664.