A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers


by Michael Holroyd


 Sobre Nigel Nicolson, filho de Vita Sackville-West, ver aqui                





Sunday 31 October 2010


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd – review


An Italian villa unites aristocratic characters from different ages in this magical book


Early in this gem of a book, Michael Holroyd points out that it marks the last volume in his "confessions of an elusive biographer", a trilogy that began with his memoir Basil Street Blues and then, in Mosaic, moved sideways to explore two enigmatic women interlaced in the family tapestry.

Here, the links with earlier volumes are all thematic and the elusiveness is hardly the biographer's alone. Life itself, this consummate writer of lives shows us, is slippery and mysterious. The atmosphere of this meditation on life and the attempt to capture it in writing is as dreamlike as the place which ties its various elements together: the magical Villa Cimbrone perched high above Ravello and the Gulf of Salerno, where Lytton Strachey, one of Holroyd's earlier subjects, had a fantasy of replanting Bloomsbury. Holroyd came here at different times with both of the present book's dedicatees, who appear in its pages as fellow searchers after ever-elusive truths.

One seeks confirmation of the hope that the father she wishes for was in fact hers and the son of the second Lord Grimthorpe, the late Victorian banker, art lover, politician and philanderer who had bought and rebuilt the villa in the early 1900s. His ashes lie beneath the stone floor of its temple. His vagrant seed and abandoned loves populate the book's stories.

Holroyd's other dedicatee is an Italian biographer, something of a foil for Holroyd himself. She came to the Villa Cimbrone in search of the spirit of her beloved novelist, who had lived in the house with her mother, Alice Keppel, mistress of the Prince of Wales. Here, Vita Sackville-West had visited the young Violet before the Great War and lived out a chapter in the passionate love affair which fed both their fictions as well as Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Lavish and excessive, Violet was, in fact, Grimthorpe's illegitimate daughter.

But the woman with whose story this "book of secrets" begins is Eve Fairfax, the sometime muse of Auguste Rodin. It was while he was a young researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum that Holroyd developed a fascination for the bronze bust Rodin had made of Eve. Its lingering air of melancholy haunted. He started to make inquiries.

Eve Fairfax, it transpires, was the fiancee of the second Lord Grimthorpe. It was he who commissioned her bust from Rodin in 1901 and sent her to Paris, complete with chaperone, for sittings. In the event, Eve's amorous friendship with Rodin long outlasted her engagement to Grimthorpe. She sat for Rodin over some eight years. They met in Paris or in London and she became for him a femme inspiratrice, the model for some of his best late work.

He paid her the greatest of compliments: "I regard you as a woman who resembles in expression as well as in form one of the 'faces' of Michelangelo." Grimthorpe, having suddenly abandoned Eve in 1904, never paid for the original commissioned bust.

Left impoverished and single, though with an illegitimate son Holroyd has retrieved from scraps of evidence, Eve lived out her life as something of an aristocratic nomad, moving from one grand house to another, until she died at the ripe age of 107 in 1978. Had he but known, Holroyd could have met her. Instead, he is left to conjure her life from her own thick book of secrets – a burgeoning tome she carried from house to house and in which those she met were asked to write.

Alice Keppel appears here. So, too, does Eve's one-time fiance, Grimthorpe, met again in 1915, two years before his death. He leaves Eve a verse from Swinburne's "Dolores", chilling in its resonance. Its last lines read: "And marriage and death and division/Makes barren our lives…"

Reading this book is a little like walking through a hall of mirrors into the final party of Proust's great opus. The rouged and powerful dowagers loom largest: the ancient Eve Fairfax herself; the corpulent Lady Sackville, who also sat for Rodin; Alice Keppel, barred from royal circles once her Prince of Wales was dead, but ever-idolised by her wild daughter; Violet's older and sadistic lover/mother, the Princess Edmond de Polignac; Violet herself, as she takes on years, rouge, and books. Their children have little idea that these women were once aspiring and amorous coquettes whose adventures subtly echo through their heir's lives and in turn down through subsequent generations.

The terrain where aristocracy and bohemia mingle is one of which Holroyd is a past master. Here, he has given us the distilled essence of biography and a fitting end to what he evokes as the "comedy of life".


Lisa Appignanesi's Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present is published by Virago.



Saturday 13 November 2010


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd – review


Michael Holroyd's tripartite biography is a triumph, says Kathryn Hughes


In A Book of Secrets Michael Holroyd takes what might be described as the scenic route, all interesting diversions and fine views. More specifically, he takes the white-knuckle ride that links Naples to Ravello in a series of crazy hairpin bends. At the end of his trail lies the Villa Cimbrone, a fairytale castle of arched windows and bell towers, which turns out to be both the site and the subject of his latest (and, he swears, his last) biographical investigation into the lives of the not-terribly-rich and only-slightly-famous of the early 20th century.

Holroyd's intention in this shimmering book, as dreamy and heat-hazed as Cimbrone itself, is to untangle the stories of three women who passed at different times through its rustling orange groves and sun-soaked courtyards. All three initially appear to be sturdily rooted in the British establishment, and arrive trailing ball gowns, impeccable vowels and a polished sense of their own importance. Yet, it soon becomes apparent, all three have in different ways become detached from the patriarchy that underpins the bohemian fantasy that is Villa Cimbrone. The solution to their insubstantiality appears to involve tracking down the lost fathers and lovers whose shades continue to shimmer above the villa's honey-coloured walls.

The first of these women is Eve Fairfax, the fiancée of the second Lord Grimthorpe. In 1904 Grimthorpe bought Cimbrone and turned it into a dreamscape so entrancing that Lytton Strachey immediately started making plans to transplant the entire Bloomsbury community to southern Italy. As part of his courtship of Fairfax, Grimthorpe commissioned a bronze bust from Rodin but then decided he couldn't afford to pay for it. The fact that he'd grown tired of Eve and married someone else probably figured, too. The bust ended up in the V&A, where its mysterious melancholy first snagged the attention of a young Holroyd in the late 1960s.

Abandoned by Grimthorpe, Fairfax never married and spent the rest of her unfeasibly long life descending on various chilly English manor houses she had known in her youth. Holroyd is never funnier than when he is on his home territory of shabby gentility, describing the redoutable Miss Fairfax being handed gingerly from one frazzled hostess to another like a battered parcel. Her only link to her more substantial past was the autograph book which went with her everywhere. On its fraying pages you would find the signatures, sometimes accompanied by game little stabs at verse, of everyone she had ever menaced for a contribution during those long, long country house weekends. It is this book of sketchy memories and fleeting presences which Holroyd takes as the working model for his own Book of Secrets. For it is not his intention here to write the kind of monumental cradle-to-grave narratives that occupied him so magnificently from the 1960s to the 1990s. Instead he is after an effect akin to the fading chatter of people whose conversations can just about be heard from several rooms away.

His second subject is Catherine Till, an elderly gentlewoman who has good reason to believe that her real father is Grimthorpe's only son, Ralph. She hopes to find proof at Villa Cimbrone. Holroyd accompanied Till on her quest in 2000, which gives him the chance to produce one of his brilliant comic set-pieces. He watches helplessly as she wrangles in Italian for her hire-car. He attempts to palliate her crazy driving by turning his yelps of terror into stirring tally hos. He even, gallantly, tries to formulate an answer to her cheery inquiry as to whether he would rather die by driving off the mountainside or by being crushed against the rockface by an oncoming lorry.

She doesn't find exactly what she is looking for at Villa Cimbrone, but that really is the point. The villa, and Holroyd's book, comprise a kind of endless hall of mirrors in which the seeker is thrown back on her own desires. Since the 1960s the Villa Cimbrone has belonged not to Lord Grimthorpe's heirs but to an Italian family who turn out to be curiously attached to the English letters and diaries that have been left behind. In fact, so pleased are they with the patina of high-class mystery that these documents impart, that they are not at all sure they want to allow the Grimthorpe archive return to its rightful home in the Yorkshire dales. Holroyd's job, as Till's expert advocate, is to delicately bully his charming hosts into releasing their mouldy treasure. The resulting negotiations are as vaporous and inscrutable as a Japanese tea-drinking ceremony.

The final life caught up in the Villa Cimbrone is that of Violet Trefusis, a woman who tends to be remembered these days for her indiscreet love affair with Vita Sackville-West rather than for the sharp, smart novels she wrote in the middle decades of the 20th century. As she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, Edward VII's "La Favorita", there has always been a rumour that Violet was actually fathered by the king. In fact the timing is off and the more likely candidate for that honour is her younger sister Sonia, grandmother to the Duchess of Cornwall. More likely altogether is that Violet was the illegitimate daughter of the priapic Lord Grimthorpe, with whom Keppell dallied on her way to a bigger bed. This thread of disputed DNA is what links the late-Victorian aesthete Grimthorpe to a later generation of Bloomsberries and explains how Strachey, Woolf, Keynes and Forster came to fall under Cimbrone's spell.

If this sounds complicated, then that's because it's supposed to. Holroyd's main point is to create one of those states that exist in dreams where fathers, lovers, brothers and mothers merge into one another and time and place collide. Villa Cimbrone, it turns out, offers very few answers to his three heroine's various lacks. In fact it stubbornly resists the part which grand houses tend to play in stories such as these, where a drawer is pulled out to reveal the hidden letter that will explain everything. Indeterminacy is what Holroyd is after here. And just as his earlier biographies captured the desire to read about lost lives in all their teeming detail, so in his Book of Secrets he has once again caught the present moment, what we might call the post-biographical mood, perfectly.

Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton is published by HarperPerennial.




Friday, 19 November 2010


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, By Michael Holroyd


Reviewed by Carole Angier


Michael Holroyd is one of our best known writers, yet one of the most mysterious. His scholarly, entertaining biographies – from Lytton Strachey in 1967 to a group portrait of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their families in 2009 – have made him famous for 40 years. But in his Lives, Holroyd is classically invisible, appearing only as an ironic smile, like the Cheshire Cat.

In the last decade he has turned to memoir with equal mastery, but still remains elusive. The first volume of three, Basil Street Blues, is a comic account of his family's decline, with him as their final failure – which we know from his list of publications can't be true. Mosaic, the next volume, develops the picture of his family as abandoned by history, and of himself as abandoning women, often before he left them ("I am beginning/ To understand at last," wrote one, " What you meant when you said/ 'I am best at absence'".) Here, and in the controlled grief of two chapters – one on an early love, the other on the death of his aunt – Holroyd's self-mockery darkens.

A Book of Secrets is the third and last volume of this series. With it he returns to biography, with a dash of autobiography. The biography is of three women: Eve Fairfax, an Edwardian beauty who inspired Rodin; the forgotten novelist Violet Trefusis, to whose life and work Holroyd is introduced by a young Italian scholar; and Catherine Till, with whom he travels to the Villa Cimbrone near Ravello, where he hopes to find traces of Eve, and Catherine to find clues to her own identity.

Around these central female figures circle several others – Violet's lover Vita Sackville West, for instance, and Luie, the American wife of Eve's fiancé Ernest Beckett. The men – who dominate most books, including Holroyd's – are banished to supporting roles. In a far outer circle revolve Violet's and Vita's hapless husbands; and in the middle, linking them all by his absence, is Ernest Beckett himself, the second Baron Grimthorpe, one-time owner of the Villa Cimbrone: Eve's abandoner, Violet's father (perhaps), and Catherine's grandfather (possibly).

In the dash of autobiography Holroyd re-dons the mask of comedy. Once or twice we glimpse the man, who has come through a long and unamusing illness. But mostly we see the biographer, and the biographer as comic failure – clutching the door, "white-knuckled", as Catherine careens up mountains to the Villa Cimbrone; leaving the Villa empty-handed; making his most important discovery by accident. This is a delightful portrait of the biographer as Inspector Clouseau; but, as with Basil Street Blues, the book itself shows that it is largely fiction.

A Book of Secrets is itself mysterious. It is written with Holroyd's characteristic charm, a combination of sympathy and gentle mockery. It is full of haunting images, starting with the magical Villa Cimbrone, palace of dreams, floating like a mirage in the sky. And underneath the charm and humour it is – as the first two volumes also were – melancholy and moving.

Holroyd sets out like a parfit gentle knight to save these lost and forgotten women – Eve, rejected by her scion of the aristocracy; Violet, abandoned by Vita, her novels no longer read; Catherine, longing for the father she never had; and behind them Luie, who dies in childbirth at 26, and Tiziana, the young Italian scholar, who loves Violet so obsessively that like Michael himself she seems to have no existence of her own.

To me Eve's story is the most moving, with her muse's beauty in youth, and her own alarming book of memories and secrets (Holroyd's accidental discovery) that was both "her pride and her penance" in age. But the others all have their own fascination. In the turbulent tale of Violet and Vita, Holroyd carries on the crusade for homosexual love he started in Lytton Strachey, and starts a new one for Violet's novels. In the sharing of Catherine's quest, he continues his adventure story of research, so brilliantly begun in the earlier volumes. And in all the portraits he explores the changing state of Britain in the last 100 years, the true decline in Basil Street Blues.

Yet several mysteries remain. What really connects these women? Ernest Beckett and the Villa Cimbrone do so only irregularly: Eve had nothing to do with the Villa, while Violet never showed the remotest interest in her probable father. And why is A Book of Secrets the conclusion of an autobiographical trilogy, when there appears to be so little autobiography in it?

The answer to both questions seems to me the same. A Book of Secrets is secretly autobiographical - because what connects these women is not just Ernest Beckett, but Michael Holroyd. Catherine did not find the identity she was seeking in the Villa Cimbrone; but Holroyd, who thought he was looking for something else, did. It seems to me that the elusive Michael Holroyd is the elusive Ernest Beckett: that if we find Holroyd anywhere, it is here. Holroyd (we know from Basil Street Blues) also comes from a declining English line; Holroyd (we know from Mosaic) was also an abandoner of women whose first love died. It is really Holroyd who is the absent man at the hub of all these women's lives – absent and yet present, as the artist is when he thinks continually of his subject; as Rodin thought continually of Eve, as Tiziana thinks continually of Violet. By writing this book, Michael can rescue his/Ernest's abandoned women, and put his/ Ernest's desertions right.

It is not only his own early love (indeed two early loves, as we know from Mosaic) whom Holroyd has lost, and whom he regains by rescuing the women in this book. He has drawn two other tender female portraits in his earlier volumes: of his mother, Ulla, and his aunt, Yolande. Perhaps it is fanciful, but Eve's "genteel tragedy" reminds me of Yolande, and her hope of finding glamour in marriage of Ulla – though Eve gave up after Ernest, while Ulla never gave up, as Basil Street Blues entertainingly records.

No, it isn't fanciful: Ulla especially seems to me to be behind the emotional power of Eve's story. As she was even more behind the power of Agnes May's story in the first two volumes – the social-climbing serial bride who seduced Holroyd's grandfather, and inspired Holroyd's move to memoir. Only this, I think, can explain the last moving lines of Mosaic, when after two books of biographical pursuit, he can finally write: I have found her. She is here.

So this is A Book of Secrets, but it might more accurately be called A Book of Secret Loves: Eve's for Rodin, Violet's for Vita, Catherine's for her father, Tiziana's for Violet; and, last but most of all, Michael Holroyd's for – as he says in Mosaic – the "few women [who] have been all-important to me". His witty, melancholy books invite us to see him in one of Philip Larkin's most famous endings: "Get out as early as you can/ And don't have any kids yourself." But really he is, secretly, in the other: "What will survive of us is love".

Carole Angier's 'The Double Bond: Primo Levi' is published by Penguin







Reviewed on: 03/28/2011


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

Michael Holroyd. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-11558-6

Master raconteur and biographer of Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, the always elegant Holroyd is at the top of his game in the final installment of a trilogy (after Basil Street Blues and Mosaic)--sadly for the world of publishing, he says it is his swan song. In this dizzying group biography, relating to the significant women in the 60-year lifespan of Ernest Beckett (who died in 1917), second Lord Grimthorpe, Holroyd explores not only the well-known life of Violet Trefusis, the novelist and notorious lover of Vita Sackville-West, but also Alice Keppel, with whom Grimthorpe sired the illegitimate Trefusis; and Eve Fairfax, muse to Auguste Rodin, as well as Grimthorpe’s onetime fiancée (she lived to almost 107 without marrying). Much of the book is also devoted to the delicious ins and outs of the biographer’s art, in which Holroyd has few peers. Getting together with Gore Vidal in the novelist’s Italian aerie (which was built for one of Grimthorpe’s legitimate children) is just one of the highlights of guilty-pleasure name-dropping. Holroyd writes like an angel and memorably draws the rivulets of these fluid lives together. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Aug.)




November 8 2010

A Book of Secrets


Review by Mark Bostridge


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, by Michael Holroyd, Chatto & Windus, 258 pages


Despite publishing weighty biographies of Lytton Strachey and Bernard Shaw, among others, Michael Holroyd has never appeared happier than when writing about himself. The author of two volumes of memoirs, he has also endlessly recycled stories about the highs and lows of his experiences as a biographer. The jacket copy for his latest work tries to tempt the reader with revelations about “the elusive biographer”, which seems odd as Holroyd could hardly be described as a shrinking violet among contemporary life-writers.

A Book of Secrets is a curious hybrid. On one level it is a tale of several women whose lives fell into the orbit of Ernest Beckett, second Lord Grimthorpe, owner of the Villa Cimbrone, a palazzo in a setting of extraordinary natural beauty high above the Italian village of Ravello. Eve Fairfax, whose story Holroyd has long pursued (and to whose appearance in a photo in old age Holroyd now bears a disconcerting resemblance), was Grimthorpe’s abandoned fiancée, and a muse of the artist Rodin.

Alice Keppel, another of these women, was mistress to both Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Keppel’s life, “with all its joys”, came to a full stop with the death of the king in May 1910. But Keppel’s daughter, the writer Violet Trefusis, possibly fathered by Grimthorpe – though Trefusis also claimed to be the king’s daughter when it suited her – lived out an existence fuelled by passion, snobbery and excess.

Holroyd constructs a narrative around the lives of Fairfax, Keppel and Trefusis, showing how each of them lived illegitimately on the periphery of English society. Interweaved with this is a second autobiographical strand. On two occasions Holroyd visits the Villa Cimbrone. On the first he is accompanied by Catherine Till, who is attempting to establish whether she is the illegitimate daughter of Ernest Beckett’s son, Ralph. The next time he is there at the invitation of Tiziana Masucci, a young Italian scholar obsessed by Violet Trefusis, with whom Holroyd enjoys a flirtatious dalliance. “She adores you,” Holroyd’s wife Margaret Drabble remarks after watching the two of them together, a phrase that could be interpreted as either accusatory or simply bemused.

Holroyd wants to indulge in a little biographical experiment. Like Lytton Strachey or Virginia Woolf, both of whom tried to transform biography from a solid craft built on facts into “a poetic drama based on psychological instinct”, he sets himself the challenge of playing with fragile human connections to counter what he calls the “intractability” of the biographical genre. But this soon dissolves into self-consciousness and sentimental abstractions. In the concluding section, Holroyd makes a long-winded case for Violet Trefusis as a novelist of power. Having read a couple of Trefusis’s books, I for one remain unconverted.

Mark Bostridge is the author of ‘Florence Nightingale: The Woman and her Legend’ (Penguin)



 The Telegraph

14 Oct 2010

Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets is a poignant account of three near-forgotten lives and it is also an ode to the biographer’s craft, says Jane Shilling

By Jane Shilling


A Book of Secrets, Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

By Michael Holroyd



'Between history and the novel stands biography, their unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both,’ wrote Michael Holroyd in Works on Paper, his brilliant volume of reflections on the biographer’s art.

Between history and the novel, Holroyd’s latest book steers a circuitous course: ancient scandals, old heartaches, love affairs that once burned bright, but are long since grown cold, are here anatomised. Why? 'It seems to me,’ Holroyd writes, 'that an intense involvement with absent people from the past is what moves biographers to write.’

This is, among other things, a book about the biographer’s craft; and also a book about the universal human need to tell stories. We all make life bearable by turning it into narrative and that urgent need for storytelling – as primal as the need for nourishment or love – is at the root of A Book of Secrets.

The book falls into two parts: one is an unfamiliar story; the other almost wearisomely well rehearsed. The two are linked by a person and a place. The person is Ernest William Denison, later Beckett, later the Second Baron Grimthorpe, a man notorious in his day, but now quite forgotten. The place is the Villa Cimbrone, a fantastical palazzo perched high above the Italian town of Ravello, which provided the backdrop of some of the dramas revisited here.

The story starts in the Victoria & Albert museum where, decades ago, Holroyd first saw a bust by Rodin of a woman called Eve Fairfax. The bust was commissioned by Ernest Beckett. He was a man of many passions: 'He changed his name, his career, his interests and his mistresses quite regularly.’

Eve Fairfax was one of those transient enthusiasms. The Villa Cimbrone was another. Eve, the daughter of a Yorkshire foxhunting family, became engaged to Ernest, a family friend who was, by the time they met, a widower and a veteran of many society love affairs, including one with Mrs Keppel, also the mistress of Edward VII.

Somehow, the apparently solid bulwarks of Ernest’s existence – he was an MP, a banker, a scholar, a sportsman and cultivated amateur of art – had a tendency to dissolve, and so it proved with his engagement to Eve.

Unmarried and, her friends believed, a perennial virgin, Eve filled her time with croquet, bridge, embroidery and, although she was not a great reader, there was one great book that became the symbol of her vastly long life: an album that her friends were expected to fill with written or painted tributes. This awful volume became, Holroyd writes, 'her daemon’.

His quest for it led him to an encounter with one of Ernest’s descendants and thence to the Villa Cimbrone, where another meeting sent him off in pursuit of yet another of Ernest’s descendants, the fearsome grande dame Violet Trefusis.

If Violet Trefusis is remembered now, it is as the third person in Vita Sackville West’s marriage to Harold Nicholson. Portrait of a Marriage, Vita’s account of the affair, published by her son, Nigel, after all the parties were dead, caused a tremendous stir. Of the people involved, Violet came out worst: her selfishness and perversity, the terrible brutality of her treatment of her decent husband, Denys, all seemed reprehensible and her character in later life did not attract affection; Nancy Mitford laughed at her, Harold Acton wrote of her with elegant unkindness.

But at the Villa Cimbrone, her shade found an unexpected champion in the person of a young Italian scholar, Tiziana Masucci. Her passion for Violet inspired Holroyd to reconsider the old monster and the fatal love affair that defined her.

At the end of his book – a small gem of humanity, curiosity and observation with a wonderful, rolling undercurrent of comedy – Holroyd imagines his characters assembled at the Villa Cimbrone, 'filling all those empty spaces in my narrative that I could not complete… So everything will be understood and what had been grief, and the avenging of grief, will at last be transmuted into the comedy of life.’



Sunday Telegraph



08 Nov 2010


A master of biography does not disappoint in his new book, finds Daisy Hay

By Daisy Hay


A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

258pp, Chatto


In the concluding paragraph of A Book of Secrets, Michael Holroyd presents his readers with a final revelation. Like those that come before – and A Book of Secrets is truly a book of revelations, of sudden, emotional jolts – it is understated, and more powerful for it. “Now, as in a film,” he writes, “I can bring back the characters who occupy the pages of this, my last book.”

A last book? How can this be true? Until this moment A Book of Secrets feels like the work of a master-biographer at the height of his powers, rather than his swansong. It is nevertheless an elegiac work: a testament to the significance of hidden stories and marginal lives. It is also a book about the labour of recovering those stories and the craft of retelling them. Part-biography, part-memoir, it is, on the one hand, the story of the “illegitimate daughters” and “absent fathers” of its subtitle, and on the other the “confessions of an elusive biographer”. These two strands intermingle in a beautifully structured narrative, punctuated by surprises and dazzling shifts in focus.

The illegitimate daughters and absent fathers are an amorphous group, loosely united by the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, a magical place where memory, history and fantasy converge. The villa was bought by Lord Grimthorpe in 1904, and all the women in A Book of Secrets have links to him and his Italian retreat.

They divide into two generational groups. In the first are Grimthorpe’s wife, Luie Lee, his fiancée, Eve Fairfax, and two of his mistresses, José Brink and Alice Keppel (the mistress also of Edward VII). Fairfax is the woman on whom Holroyd settles his gaze, tracing her story through the heady years during which she was Rodin’s muse to her long twilight existence in the spare bedrooms of friends. Fairfax records her perambulatory life in an extraordinary scrapbook: the “book of secrets” of the title.

The second group of women centres around Violet Trefusis, Alice Keppel’s daughter by Lord Grimthorpe. The early part of Trefusis’s biography is well known. She was the lover of Vita Sackville-West and consequently one of the subjects of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait of a Marriage. As a result, the early part of Holroyd’s account of her life feels more familiar, but as the Virginias and Vitas recede, Violet is allowed to occupy the centre of her story. The sensation is destabilising and thrilling.

These women are the biographical heart of the book. Two other women, whom the author meets during his researches, lend the narrative an emotional focus. Catherine Till believes herself to be an illegitimate descendent of Lord Grimthorpe, and Holroyd first visits the Villa Cimbrone in her company, as she searches for evidence of her parentage.

Tiziana Masucci is an academic preoccupied by Violet Trefusis, and who figures in the narrative as a Holmesian pursuing biographer, a counterpoint to Holroyd’s characterisation of his own biographical sensibility.

Holroyd’s claims to be an “elusive biographer raises a question: can he retain his elusiveness? A Book of Secrets shows that he can – triumphantly. Holroyd first reveals his writerly self merely by sketching in his professional manoeuvres – in a moment of unexpected comedy, he finds Eve Fairfax’s scrapbook thanks to a mislaid hat. But as the narrative unfolds he slowly presents more of himself, so that his biographical credo and his convalescent body emerge in passages that are moving and illuminating.

As Holroyd has recently confirmed, by “last” he does mean “final”, but he has also hinted that the whole business of retirement is fertile territory for a biographer. “Some would say,” he concludes, “I should write a book about it.” This reader hopes that he does.


Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (Bloomsbury)




March 23, 2011

Michael Holroyd's Lives

Holroyd's final book ends with a Prospero-like sense of release, not only for himself but for all his characters


Peter Parker


Michael Holroyd
Illegitimate daughters, absent fathers
258pp. Chatto and Windus.


The Villa Cimbrone is perched high above the southern Italian town of Ravello, looking out over the Gulf of Salerno. Sometime between 1905 and 1907, it was bought “for the price of a cow” and substantially renovated by Ernest Beckett. A former banker and MP, who had recently succeeded his uncle as the 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, Beckett was, in that phrase of the day, a notorious “ladies’ man”. Michael Holroyd’s book is essentially a diptych, in which Beckett performs the function of a substantial hinge: the first panel is a portrait of Beckett’s abandoned fiancée, Eve Fairfax; the second a portrait of his unacknowledged daughter, Violet Trefusis. Subtitled Illegitimate daughters, absent fathers, it traces several other tangled and illicit relationships and connections.

A Book of Secrets is more quixotic than the large-scale biographies with which Holroyd established his reputation, but makes no great claims for either Fairfax or Trefusis other than that they are worthy of the reader’s attention. Fairfax is known, if at all, as the subject of a bronze bust by Rodin; Trefusis, although a published writer, is more celebrated as the inamorata of Vita Sackville-West. Holroyd describes this unusually compendious volume as “my last book”, and it acts as a sort of coda to his life's work, in which he takes the opportunity to consider the literary form in which he has made his career. As in A. J. A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, his pursuit of these minor and not altogether attractive figures becomes part of the story, and he is joined in his own quest by two women, Catherine Till and Tiziana Masucci.

Almost as if replicating the complicated familial patterns that characterize the book, he is directed to Till by her brother, Rupert Lycett Green, an old schoolfriend who had spent his honeymoon at the Villa Cimbrone. Till is researching the Grimthorpe family because, although she is legally the daughter of David Lycett Green, her real father had been Ernest Beckett’s grandson Ralph, with whom her mother had a long affair before their eventual marriage. She agrees to accompany (and drive) Holroyd to the Villa on a research trip.

In contrast, Masucci is the Italian translator of Violet Trefusis and has organized an exhibition at the villa on her life and work. She wants Holroyd to participate in a conference titled “Bloomsbury in Ravello”, inspired by the fact that many of the Group and its associates had connections with the town. Lytton Strachey had been so taken with it when he visited in 1913 that he half-seriously proposed relocating the Group there. E. M. Forster had written “The Story of a Panic” while staying in the town, thus inaugurating his literary exploration of the effects of Italy on the buttoned-up English, and the anti-Bloomsbury D. H. Lawrence worked on Lady Chatterley’s Lover while staying at the Villa Cimbrone. Holroyd meets the unexpectedly young and glamorous Professor Masucci in Ravello, where, most gratifyingly, she “seldom [takes] her eyes off” him during supper. “She adores you”, Holroyd’s wife, Margaret Drabble, gamely observes; but Holroyd soon realizes that when Masucci turns “her hypnotic gaze on me it was not on her own behalf, but on behalf of someone who had taken possession of her”. Violet’s Rhapsody, the monograph that Masucci presents to Holroyd, is indeed “a love token”, but its intended recipient is Trefusis herself.

The scene is set for three contrasting approaches to biographical research: Holroyd is the seasoned biographer, pursuing one final story with empathy but professional detachment; Till is delving into her hidden family background in order to make sense of her own life; Masucci has in her sights a biographical quarry for whom she has suffered, as she puts it, “a coup de foudre”. The book freely speculates about the motives of all three, and observes how their different endeavours overlap and reinforce each other.

Holroyd uses the title of his book to describe a huge album assembled by Eve Fairfax as if to give some meaning to her distinctly aimless later years. It was presented to her by Lady Diana Manners in 1909, during the period when Fairfax’s likeness was being sculpted by Rodin: “an enormous empty volume in which to record her life”. Fairfax was thirty-seven, and although she may not have known it, the best part of her life was already over. The bust had been intended as a wedding gift from Ernest Beckett, to whom Fairfax had been engaged since 1902. In the event, Beckett neither paid for the bust nor married the sitter, who would later claim (unconvincingly) that he had proposed to her but that she had refused him.

Thereafter, there seemed little in the way of a life to inscribe in her album, which she filled instead with souvenirs of the people and houses she visited and the social functions she attended. “It became the reverse of a visitors’ book”, Holroyd writes: “it is the visitor’s book, a book of collected hosts and their guests pinned like butterflies to pages. For Eve herself it would serve as a book of memories, opening up dense pages of compliments and compensations in her prolonged singular peregrinations.” People contributed the poems and aphorisms of others and watercolour sketches of their own, or sometimes merely scribbled their signatures; but among this social detritus Holroyd spots a concert programme with a piece of paper inserted which reveals a crucial biographical fact about Fairfax that had been buried here, a hint for the diligent reader of the album to follow up. Holroyd does so, but the person he is pursuing (it would be unfair to reveal who it is) disappears without trace. This, too, is part of the biographer’s lot: the excitement of coming across some unexpected or clinching piece of information that, in the end, simply opens up another biographical lacuna that can only be acknowledged as part of the overall story. As Holroyd writes ruefully: “If I were a novelist . . .”.

Violet Trefusis was perhaps luckier in this respect than Holroyd, though her novels were also books of secrets, very often romans-à-clef, while her unreliable autobiography, Don’t Look Round, is more notable for its omissions than for its revelations, dubbed by Nancy Mitford Here Lies Mrs Trefusis. Holroyd likens some aspects of Violet’s “elopement” with Vita Sackville-West – feebly pursued by their husbands, and rather more vigorously by Violet’s formidable mother, Alice Keppel (who had been Edward VII’s maîtresse en titre) – to “a modern novel of sensation”. Trefusis’s novels eschew such thrills and are instead polished comedies of manners, though they are occasionally en travesti – as indeed was Sackville-West during their affair. Trefusis portrays her lover in Broderie Anglaise under the appropriately Eton-cropped name Lord Shorne, scion of one of England’s most illustrious families, with “a hereditary face which had come, eternally bored, through five centuries”. This nice description suggests why Trefusis’s novels are better than one might have imagined.

It is only in the final pages that Michael Holroyd reveals this book to be his last, and it ends with a Prospero-like sense of release, not only for himself but for all his characters. In a final scene he imagines them arriving at the Villa Cimbrone (now a luxe hotel) and repopulating it, “filling all those empty spaces in my narrative that I could not complete”. It is a fitting conclusion.


Peter Parker’s most recent book is The Last Veteran: Harry Patch and the legacy of war, 2009. He is an advisory editor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and is on the editorial board of the London Library Magazine.











All about Eve

Claire Harman


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
by Michael Holroyd


When Michael Holroyd was mooching round the V&A in the early Seventies, he saw a Rodin bust of a woman that sparked a long fascination. The subject was Eve Fairfax, daughter of an old Yorkshire family, whose fiancé Ernest Beckett MP had commissioned the piece in 1902 as a wedding present. The engagement didn't last but the sittings went on for eight years, by the end of which Eve and Rodin had developed a profound sympathy, the sculptor haunted by “the germ of your beauty and character that you had left in my heart”.

Eve's mystique provoked strong responses that seem to have blighted rather than enhanced her happiness; the Duke of Wellington refused an invitation to a private meeting because, as he told her, “I quite recognise that you could give me pleasure that not one in a million could give. That makes me want you, but it also warns me not to want you.” She remained unmarried, became impoverished and eventually went bankrupt, but retained one treasure, a vast album given her in 1909 by Diana Manners in which she recorded her career as serial guest and dependant, a book described with brilliant imaginative sympathy by Holroyd as “the reverse of a visitors' book: it is the visitor's book … of collected hosts and their guests pinned to its pages … It was like an anchor that she dragged from one harbor to another; it was also her daemon.”

Searching for clues to Eve's life at Ernest Beckett's Villa Cimbrone near Ravello, Holroyd met fellow researchers, including an Italian lady whose identification with Beckett's illegitimate daughter Violet Trefusis is so strong that she has bought up the copyrights to Trefusis's novels and is attempting to control her posterity. The veteran biographer bonded with this character immediately, perhaps because said lady's eyes were burning into him at dinner. Then there is Catherine, illegitimate granddaughter of Ernest Beckett, who hoped to find an answer to her own parentage in the family archives. Holroyd's description of their perilous drive from the airport to the villa is a wonderful comic set-piece: “ Do keep reminding me,' she reminds me, that they drive on the right.'”

Eve's Book ought to be on public display as a poignant symbol of the impenetrability of personal archives. In a rash moment, Eve donated it to the South African gallery which had bought her Rodin memorabilia, only to ask for it back a few years later. They didn't mind, having been disappointed in its contents. Eve, on the other hand, could hardly function without it. Aged 106, in 1977, she showed the unwieldy tome to a historian who had sought her out, saying, “It hasn't been a silly life, it's been a useful one. Anyone who saw the book could see that.”





August 4, 2011

Vita and Violet: The Greatest Bloomsbury Love Story




Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

By Michael Holroyd

Illustrated. 258 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


“Heaven preserve us from all the sleek and dowdy virtues, such as punctuality, conscientiousness, fidelity and smugness!” So wrote Violet Keppel in her unruly call to arms to the great ruling passion of her life, Vita Sackville-West. “What great man was ever constant? What great queen was ever faithful? Novelty is the very essence of genius and always will be. If I were to die tomorrow, think how I should have lived!” And indeed, how this woman, this “unexploded bomb,” as Vita called her, “lived!”

Sir Michael De Courcy Fraser Holroyd, biographer supreme of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw and the painter Augustus John, among others, tells the much-told tale of Violet and Vita yet again, in “A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers,” but with more depth and context than anyone has before. And he tells us oh so much more besides the fascinating story of “the three V’s” of Bloomsbury — for wherever go the glamorous and flamboyant Violet and Vita, Virginia, in her blue stockings, ambles nearby, pen at hand.

From the first page “A Book of Secrets” casts the spell of a time long gone, of loves endured and lost, expectations dashed on the rocks of reality, of inner desires forever stilled, casting their shadows into history. It is written with the kind of elegance, ease and simplicity possible only from a master craftsman who has flown far beyond any learning curve and is relishing his free fall. He carries us as if on a magic carpet from one character to the next, and one time period to the next, with consummate grace. Holroyd is a kind of Fred Astaire on the page, his many steps becoming one grand, profound design.

The book evokes a haunted world of unsung women — a dead wife, a jilted fiancée, an illegitimate daughter, a possible granddaughter and some seriously headstrong lesbians — and links them in an elaborate web of intrigue to, alas, a man, though one of little importance, named Ernest.

Ernest Beckett, on whom Part I of the book centers, became the second Lord Grim­thorpe in 1905, when his uncle, who designed the clock mechanism for Big Ben, died, on time, one presumes. Belying his, er, grim appellation, the good lord’s “last urgent words” to his wife, Holroyd says, “were reported as being ‘We are low on marmalade.’ ” Thus the tone was set for his nephew’s less than distinguished career of a little of this and quite a lot of that.

“A man of swiftly changing enthusiasms,” Holroyd writes, “a dilettante, philanderer, gambler and opportunist. He changed his name, his career, his interests and his mistresses quite regularly.” The novelist George Moore informed Lady Cunard that Beckett was undoubtedly “London’s greatest lover,” constantly distracted “by the sight of pretty girls.” Like his uncle, Ernest liked his jam jar brimming.

Hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. A few years after his American wife’s death following childbirth in 1891, Beckett’s South African bombshell of a mistress, José (for Josephine) Brink, gave birth to Ernest’s illegitimate son, Lancelot Ernest Cecil, a child burdened with somewhat conflicting literary references.

José had become the rake’s mistress at 19, explaining, “So much in love were we with each other that . . . I let him unclothe me.” Love has been known, on occasion, to lead to nudity. After Lancelot’s birth, Ernest saw no point in marrying José as he had promised. Two years before her son’s birth, momentarily fed up with Ernest, she took a twirl on the stage in a bit part in a touring production of Oscar Wilde’s “Woman of No Importance.” (I am not making this up.)

Less than nine months before Lancelot’s arrival, across town, in rather more genteel circumstances — the mother was at least married, though not to her progeny’s father — the beautiful Alice Keppel gave birth to Ernest’s daughter Violet, only three years after marrying look-the-other-way George Keppel. Violet, apparently, was never sure of her paternal lineage: “Who was my father? A faun undoubtedly!” she wrote to Vita, not too far off the mark. “A faun who contracted a mésalliance with a witch.” A few years after Violet’s birth, the ambitious Alice moved far beyond Ernest and became “La Favorita,” mistress to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. (Got it? If not, reread, and make a chart. I did.) We are now full circle to Violet again, where all roads in Holroyd’s book lead.

But first, another detour, for what must surely be one of the most touching cameos in the history of abandoned brides, featuring the lovely, aptly named Eve Fairfax, who played, it was said, “an aggressive game of ­croquet.”

Eve became Ernest’s new fiancée in 1901, and he promptly dispatched her to sit for Rodin in Paris, commissioning a bust he never paid for. The sittings went on for over eight years, involving hundreds of letters and numerous studies — there are 10 alone at the Musée Rodin in Paris — resulting in a platonic amitié amoureuse between artist and model that Holroyd says was “the most lasting and tender experience of her life.”

In 1907 Rodin gave Eve a cast of the sculpture, and after Ernest disposed of her before marrying her, the bust became her only asset — but at least it had been forged in marble by one of the great artists of the century. Destitute, Eve had to sell her sculpture, but the money did not last long. She spent the rest of her life unmarried, a wanderer to her dying day.

In 1909 Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper) gave Eve a large blank tome intended as a diary. On the title page it read: “Eve Fairfax. Her Book.” But instead of writing in it herself, Eve had everyone she knew write in it, “the reverse of a visitors’ book,” Holroyd says, “guests pinned like butterflies to its pages.” As the years accumulated, Her Book became a colossal collection, bulging with added inserts, photos and notes, and Eve carried this evidence of her existence, “her pride and her penance,” for more than 50 years, ever homeless, depending on the kindness of friends and strangers. “Like an extraordinary tramp,” Holroyd writes, “she traveled the country between Castles, Halls, Granges, Manors, Priories, Abbeys weighed down by its heavy load like a figure from ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress.’ ”

Eve died at 106 in 1978, but Her Book remains, and Holroyd, he tells us, has held it, bringing her close. Most chilling of all the hundreds of entries are lines by Swinburne, transcribed by one Ernest Beckett, the man who left her at the altar, rendering Her Book her life:


For the Crown of our life as it closes
Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
No thorns go so deep as the roses
And love is more cruel than lust —
Time turns the old days to derision
Our loves into corpses or wives,
And marriage and death and division
Makes barren our lives —


Ernest had deserted Eve when he fell in love yet again, this time not with a woman but with a dream, a place, a villa, a vision high upon a cliff in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast. He bought the exquisite Villa Cimbrone around 1905 and spent his remaining years, and his fortune, expanding it, decorating it, eccentrically, and, stupendously, adding numerous “statuosities”; it is where his ashes reside. The Bloomsbury crowd frequently gathered there, and it has recently become a hotel. So you can now, for a steep price (after a steep drive), stay at the place that Gore Vidal once wrote was the most beautiful spot on earth, specifically the view from the belvedere that Ernest built, the Terrace of Infinity: “The sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.”

Coiling back in from the site of cerulean infinity, Part II of “A Book of Secrets” explores the Violet-Vita story and its ­bodice-ripping affair — though Vita liked to dress as “Julian” when they checked into hotels as husband and wife. “I felt like a person translated, or reborn,” she wrote of her transvestite forays. Theirs was a liaison dangereuse if ever there was one, complete with all the operatic melodrama of “Tosca,” the vituperation of Edward Albee — though here, no one is afraid of Virginia Woolf — all culminating in a Feydeau farce, complete with gender-­bending, cross-dressing, occasionally bisexual lesbians, their bewildered husbands, their outraged mothers and one small rented airplane. The plot contains such frequent scenes of sex, confrontation, cruelty and humiliation, set across Europe, from Cornwall and London to Paris and Monte Carlo (for gambling, dancing and novelizing), that it suggests some Hollywood executive has been sleeping on the job — or has succumbed to sequel-itis — in not turning their story into a film. Their passion makes Henry and June look lame, and, in the role of chronicler, Anaïs Nin should be afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Both Vita and Violet themselves, however, were also industrious scribblers, and in their respective romans à clef they even provided, between them, the script. Vita wrote “Challenge” during their affair, with considerable input from Violet, and the characters were named Julian and Eve. Vita’s mother paid the British publisher to cancel the book for fear of scandal, and it first appeared in print in America in 1924, not receiving a British release until 50 years later. Violet in turn wrote, in French, the delightfully vengeful “Broderie Anglaise” (“English Embroidery”), in which Vita is Lord Shorne, Violet is Anne Lindell, and Virginia Woolf — who had since become Vita’s other, more famous lover — is the acidic Alexa Harrowby Quince, “one of those women,” Violet writes, “who, having no bloom to lose, improve with age.” Ouch! The book was published in France in 1935 but not translated into English until 1985. And of course Virginia wrote the spectacular “Orlando,” with Orlando as Vita and Sasha, a Russian princess, as Violet. How ironic that the most sexually reticent lady of the three should write not only the best book, but the one that dares to explore most deeply the profound subject of amorphous gender. These three very different novels provide a fascinating “Rashomon” of the Violet-Vita affair.

The real-life story, that mystery called the truth, which Holroyd narrates so expertly, stars two brilliant, young, beautiful, rich, hypersexed lesbians. The film, of course, would adhere strictly to the truth — please, no Portman-Kunis off-with-her-panties scenes; this coupling requires some actual ardor. And Nicole Kidman could don her Cyrano proboscis again for a vital cameo, composing at her desk while the girls gallivant across the Continent providing her with scandalous copy.

Violet and Vita met as children, and already the fire was lit, though it came to full blaze six years after Vita married the distinguished, mostly homosexual Harold Nicolson (Colin Firth, slam dunk), while Violet was forced into a marriage with poor, handsome Denys Trefusis (Hugh Grant) in the midst of their affair. The question of conjugal consummation was out of the question — until it became the answer. Vita, right on cue, arrived in Paris during Violet’s honeymoon and whisked her away: “I treated her savagely, I made love to her, I had her, I didn’t care, I only wanted to hurt Denys.”

Denys had apparently, until his honeymoon, not “heard of lesbianism,” so he got a quick, hands-off lesson. Eventually, sadly, he destroyed Vita’s letters to Violet, but not before reading every one. “He can have no illusions left,” Violet wrote. But Vita kept Violet’s letters, more than 500, and one biographer wrote of them, “For sheer ruthless, persistent passion I have never come upon their equal.”

“I revel in your beauty, your beauty of form and feature,” Violet wrote. “I exult in my surrender. . . . I love belonging to you — I glory in it, that you alone . . . have bent me to your will, shattered my self-­possession, robbed me of my mystery, made me yours, yours.” Vita wrote insightfully of Violet’s sexual yielding: “I hadn’t dreamt of such an art of love. . . . She let herself go entirely limp and passive in my arms. (I shudder to think of the experience that lay behind her abandonment.)”

Out of the bedroom and into reality we find the mothers — Lady Sackville and Alice Keppel — an unstoppable pair of doyennes (calling Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith), banding together and wrangling their wayward daughters to the ground, re-establishing respectability and the matriarchal order. But not before their girls — their mothers’ daughters to the core — put up the fight of their lives for each other, a fight that defined their lives, especially Violet’s.

Never has such a cast of beauty, brains and female potency been assembled: Lady Sackville, an aristocratic charmer who, like Eve Fairfax, sat for Rodin “fully décolleté,” and wrote of the experience, “He keeps saying I am so beautiful, and yet the bust is perfectly hideous up to now.” She referred to her son-in-law as “little Harold” and lectured Vita on Violet’s “sexual perversion,” neatly sidestepping her own daughter’s “perversion.”

Alice Keppel “was shocked by the appalling weakness of the two husbands,” Holroyd writes, and told her daughter that if she were her “she would have killed herself long ago!” Keppel brought the drama to a head, hiring a plane to send “little Harold” and tubercular, “What is a lesbian?” Denys to the hotel in Amiens where their wives had eloped for the umpteenth time. The confrontation was, Holroyd says, “truly dreadful,” dominated by Violet’s vitriol to Denys, whom she humiliated beyond even Vita’s belief. Any power Harold might have had as cuckolded husband No. 2 was somewhat compromised by his own recent fling with the couturier Edward Molyneux.

“At this point, reader, I throw up my hands in despair at any of these characters behaving with proper consideration for their biographers,” our beloved biographer writes. “A tragic love story — for this is what it is — has been made chaotic and incredible by the tumult of contradictions.” Suffice it to say that the negotiations came to an end only when Harold whispered to his wife what Denys had told him on their flight over: the Trefusis marriage had, in fact, been consummated. Vita went “half mad with pain” and was pulled away from a clinging Violet by ­Denys. Harold then dutifully “guarded” his quarry. In a final fillip, Denys proceeded to perjure himself to the suffering Vita on the trip back to England by telling her that he had not slept with his wife. (Got it? No? Make another chart.)

“I feel it is something legendary,” Vita wrote of the “bond which unites me to Violet, Violet to me.” Violet was the more passionate dreamer of the two, the romantic idealist with a gypsy heart and thick, wild hair to match. Her letters charge through time, slicing convention open like a sword, rendering, indeed, her love “legendary.”

In their letters, Vita was “Mitya,” and Violet was the lush “Lushka”: “My poor Mitya, they’ve taken you and they’ve burnt your caravan. . . . They’ve pulled down your sleeves and buttoned up your collar! They’ve forced you to sleep beneath a self-respecting roof with no chinks to let the stars through. . . . Come away, Mitya, come away. . . . I’ll wait for you at the crossroads. . . . Ah, Beloved!”

Violet loved Vita — her whole life long, she claimed — so above and beyond what society allowed that she was deemed crazy, as are most women who are obsessively, wildly in love. Today Violet would be on a Lexapro cocktail with an Abilify chaser, Ritalin with some Ativan on the side for particularly fiery outbursts, while attending daily meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous after a few weeks of inpatient therapy with Dr. Drew at Almost-a-Celebrity Rehab. But instead of all this to rein in her emotional anarchy, she had the old-fashioned cure, a formidable mother.

But even Alice Keppel could not prevent her daughter’s writing, the great outlet, the great revenge, and Violet wrote at least nine books and numerous columns, though her Wikipedia page has yet to know it. “Her novels,” writes Holroyd, who has read them, “were the negotiations she made between this love and the rest of her life.”

Explaining, in part, why Violet has always taken the supporting role to Vita, Holroyd offers a friendly — but cutting — jab at the “Vita camp” of people who have insisted both directly and through sometimes brutal insinuation that Violet was simply nuts. Nigel Nicolson, Vita’s son, laid the groundwork in his famous “Portrait of a Marriage,” and Harold Acton (who Holroyd says was “remorselessly hostile” to Violet), Nancy Mitford and even Victoria Glendinning, Vita’s great biographer, all did much to paint Violet as dismissible, certifiable, secondary.

“Whatever vessel set hesitantly out from the Trefusis harbor,” Holroyd writes, “appeared to her enthusiasts to be immediately captured by the enemy.” He suggests kindly — though his intrinsic authority demands — that “a reassessment” of her work is in order, so that “a legitimate place” may yet be found “in European literature for the name Violet Trefusis.”

Holroyd will be 76 on Aug. 27, having survived several years of aggressive cancer treatment that has left him, he says, “ludicrously pragmatic.” “Now, as in a film,” he writes toward the end, “I can bring back the characters who occupy the pages of this, my last book.” And so he announces, with infinite poise and quiet humility, his retirement. Our loss.

“This has been my exit from myself,” Holroyd has said of his life’s work as a biographer. “I seek invisibility,” he writes, “behind the subjects I am trying to bring alive on the page.” But in this he fails miserably: his heart and humor bounce in vibrant rays off every hot-blooded, lovelorn, crazy, jealous and joyous woman — and what enlightened being would have any woman be otherwise? — in his book. Through his “exit” Holroyd is well found.

“A Book of Secrets” is a book of magic, a sleight of hand by a master conjurer singing his swan song, sweetly, softly, with piercing wit and overwhelming compassion, his poetry in prose evoking a time past, with all its outrageous obsessions, its illegal passions, its melancholy perfume. It is the scent, I believe, of violets that rises from these intoxicating pages.

Holroyd likes this poem by Violet Trefusis, a woman he elevates from feisty sidekick to contender:

My heart was more disgraceful, more alone
And more courageous than the world has known.
O passer-by my heart was like your own.

And in this final offering, this small book bursting with the tremendous generosity of its author, one feels that courage. Sir Michael, I curtsy before you.

Toni Bentley is the author of five books, including “Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal” and “The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir.”





August 4, 2011

In the Fast Company of Women on the Edge




Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

By Michael Holroyd

Illustrated. 258 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.


There’s a small, nearly perfect comic moment not far into Michael Holroyd’s new book, “A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers,” when this esteemed biographer, now in his 70s, describes being locked in a car on a research trip with a woman who drives through Italy as if she’s just robbed a bank and is being chased by carabinieri.

Mr. Holroyd is a courteous and slightly frail scholar, a man who has been ill with bowel cancer in recent years. He clutches a door handle, white-knuckled, as this woman roars down the centers of roads and, he worries, gets the car onto two wheels. To keep himself sane, the good-natured Mr. Holroyd begins to emit, like a man in the middle of baffling crazy sex, “extravagant cries of encouragement as we hurtle along.”

Here’s how he describes it: “ ‘Brilliant!’ I cry as she accidentally sounds the horn. ‘We’ve done it!’ I shout again as we overtake a stationary lorry.” Grace under pressure is a beautiful thing; wit under pressure can be better.

This moment is worth mentioning for two reasons. One, it underscores the fact that over the past decade or so Mr. Holroyd’s work has grown more personal, if rarely intimate. His new book is the third in a suite of more or less autobiographical volumes, albeit ones in which he tends to linger at the margins of the page or, like Boo Radley, just behind a door.

Two, Mr. Holroyd appears to be enjoying himself more than he once did. He takes us along on his research adventures — the book is a kind of master class — and “A Book of Secrets” frequently casts a rosy comic glow. He enjoys relating the story of the eccentric Lord Grimthorpe, whose last words were reportedly, “We are low on marmalade.” When he visits Gore Vidal in Italy, he admires Mr. Vidal’s cliffside house but also reports Erica Jong’s observation that it resembles “Hitler’s eagle’s nest at Berchtesgaden.” He gives a lecture in Italy about Lytton Strachey and, for the hell of it, decides to read all of Strachey’s words in falsetto. “Who was there,” he asks, “to stop me?”

Mr. Holroyd is best known for his biographies of Strachey, George Bernard Shaw and the painter Augustus John. He is an institution in Britain, where he was knighted in 2007. He is married to the novelist Margaret Drabble, now Dame Margaret Drabble. In Britain the best writers collect titles the way American ones collect Charlie Rose interviews.

“A Book of Secrets” is the final volume in a series that includes “Basil Street Blues” (2000), a memoir, and “Mosaic” (2004), a blend of biography and autobiography. The author refers to these books as “the confessions of an elusive biographer.”

If one can sometimes compare a biography to a novel, “A Book of Secrets” reads like a series of linked short stories. At its heart it weaves together the lives of several not-especially-well-known women, around whom more famous men (Lord Randolph Churchill, Auguste Rodin, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster among them) sometimes revolved. These women tended to “exist on the fringes of the British aristocracy,” Mr. Holroyd writes, and “were not wholly protected from the hardship and tragedy that, in other classes and a more familiar form, were to fuel the feminist movement.”

Among them is Eve Fairfax, a muse of Rodin, who was abandoned by her fiancé and never married. By the end of her long life she was an impoverished, homeless and eccentric supertramp (“a genteel tragedy,” one writer called her), living off the generosity of wealthy friends and carrying around an outsize visitor’s book in which she collected autographs and keepsakes.

Another central character is the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, who was married to the diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson. Mr. Holroyd is most interested in Sackville-West’s feverish lesbian relationship with Violet Trefusis, who was also married, and who easily becomes this book’s most fiery and complicating character. Sackville-West referred to her, accurately enough, as an “unexploded bomb.”

Trefusis was so intense that she appeared in many other people’s books, including those by Cyril Connolly, Nancy Mitford and Harold Acton, as well as Sackville-West’s and Nicolson’s. She was an excellent writer herself. A biographer of Nicolson likened her letters to “those flaming yellow bulldozers which one meets tearing up road verges, hedgerows, concrete walls, asphalt roads and any and every obstacle that lies in their path.”

Trefusis was also a novelist, and it is among Mr. Holroyd’s missions in “A Book of Secrets” to revive interest in her novels, which he deeply admires, agreeing with the critic Lorna Sage that they should be discussed alongside those of Edith Wharton, Christina Stead and Jane Bowles. “Violet’s own novels are scattered over Europe like a leaderless and dispersed army,” he writes. “They are written in French or English as if she is vainly trying one key, then another, to set herself free.”

Place is a resonant character in “A Book of Secrets.” Much of the action revolves around the palatial Villa Cimbrone, located on a hill above the Italian village of Ravello, where many of these women visited. Mr. Holroyd refers to it, a bit melodramatically, as “a place of fantasy that seems to float in the sky,” a spot that “answers the need for make-believe in all our lives.”

Mr. Holroyd is an impeccable writer and researcher, a man whose books are packed with intricate detail yet retain a buoyancy. They are aerodynamic; they run as silently as gliders. Yet I have sometimes pushed back against them. They are bespoke but can be bloodless, like lesser Merchant-Ivory films. Their good taste can drive you a bit mad.

“A Book of Secrets” didn’t just overcome my reservations; it buried them under a landslide of deftly deployed fact and feeling. This book is a richly marbled meditation not only on the lives of several remarkable women but also on the art of biography itself.

George Painter, a biographer of Proust, once compared the experience of reading Violet Trefusis’s prose to “being driven at 90 m.p.h. over an ice field, by a driver who knows how to skid for fun.” Mr. Holroyd isn’t that kind of writer. He’s cautious, buttoned down, collar turned up against the wind. But his new book contains many fine moments during which, holding on with white knuckles, you might hear yourself cry, “Brilliant!”





Monday, Aug 15, 2011

"A Book of Secrets": A biographical trilogy concludes

The latest book by Michael Holroyd tells a family's secrets in unconventional ways

By Katherine A. Powers, Barnes & Noble Review


Michael Holroyd sees the biographer's art, his art, as combining the discipline and factual concreteness of history with the creativity and psychological insight of the novel. What is more, and most congenial to me, he would like to restore comedy to its proper place in the humanities. Humor, he has argued, quoting Hugh Kingsmill, is "an illumination of reality, not a refuge from it," and he has further proposed that "perhaps the next step forward for biography is to accommodate this spirit of humor and reveal the conflict between illusion and reality." If you wish to see what that might mean, you need look no further than his own trilogy, the series that began with "Basil Street Blues," continued with "Mosaic," and now concludes with "A Book of Secrets" -- his last book, we are told, though I never believe that sort of talk.

All three volumes are memoirs and biographical investigations into families, his own in the first two works and those of others in the present one; in all three, decline is a central element. It is there, in decline and disappointment, that we find the contrast between illusion and reality come to fruition, often ghoulishly so, beginning with "Basil Street Blues" and Holroyd's standing as "the sole child from five marriages." Having divorced and married and otherwise entangled themselves with several other partners, his parents ended their days, each alone, "bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly."

The centerpiece of "A Book of Secrets" is Villa Cimbrone, a glorious and fantastical palazzo above Ravello in Italy, bought in the early 1900s by Ernest Beckett, the second Lord Grimthorpe. It is Ernest who links what we shall call the book's main characters. The first of these is Eve Fairfax, born in 1872, proud descendent of Sir Thomas Fairfax of English Civil War military fame. And it is a long-ago fascination with a bust of Eve made by Rodin that led Holroyd, decades later, to the fortuitously intersecting tales that make up this engaging and eccentric book.

The bust was commissioned in 1901 by Ernest -- at that time a widower and father of three -- to be a wedding present for Eve, who was his mistress, and at that point his intended bride. Eve developed a loving, though not sexual relationship, with Rodin, but she never did marry Ernest or anyone else. Nor, indeed, did Ernest pay for the bust, which Rodin ended up giving to Eve. She went on to engage in a number of grand love affairs, and Holroyd, biographical sleuth extraordinaire, has divined that in 1916 she had a son, 45 years of age though she was.

Increasingly impoverished, Eve was eventually forced to sell the bust and survived through the goodwill of high-born benefactors, moving from establishment to establishment as penurious houseguest. In 1909 Lady Diana Manners gave her a huge, blank, leather-bound volume, inscribed "Eve Fairfax Her Book." Meant to serve as a diary, it became Eve's very life for the next half-century and more. As she made her way through the lower-upper-crust world that was her milieu, she prevailed upon all and sundry to contribute something to Her Book. (It is emblematic of Holroyd's absorption in the contrast between illusion and reality, that he always calls it Her Book, a name that claims a proprietorship, dignity and consequence that was so conspicuously absent from poor Eve's actual predicament.)

Her Book filled up with autographs, quotations, verses, musical notations and sketches; meanwhile its owner pinned and pasted away at it throughout her peregrinations. "Though the pages blew from it like leaves from a tree," writes Holroyd, "it increased in bulk and irregularity as she stuffed into it all sorts of photographs, letters, bits and pieces. So it began to resemble a huge and dilapidated saddle of a horse, a chaotic artifact that was a part of Eve's personality: her pride and her penance." As she advanced into her 80s, she "could no longer drag this hefty property around with her. Instead, she would solicit items that she could take back and give to it, like a mother bird feeding its young." Looking back on her life as a very old woman (she died at 106), she told a visitor, "It hasn't been a silly life, it's been a useful one. Anyone who saw the book could see that."

The poignant comedy of this "genteel tragedy" and its bizarre climax stands up to the competition offered by Violet Trefusis, another of the book's chief figures. The daughter of Alice Keppel (who became mistress to Edward VII), Violet's father was, it seems, the second Lord Grimthorpe -- Eve's sometime lover. And it was at Villa Cimbrone that her famous affair with Vita Sackville West was, in part, pursued. Though Violet was a novelist of some talent, her carryings-on, tantrums and out-and-out cruelty to more or less everyone do not make pretty reading; still, Holroyd, empathetic creature that he is, shows remarkable sympathy for her. I, personally, could hardly wait until she became an old woman when her story blossomed into a grisly comedy.

Wealthy, elderly and, now, finally, heiress to her mother's substantial fortune, Violet "made her entrance with solemn grandmotherly tread as Queen Victoria. She was hedged about with the illusions of royalty. Lord Grimthorpe had faded in her imagination and the Prince of Wales, King Edward VII, took his place as her father. She told everyone, in strict confidence, that she was the thirteenth in line to the English throne."

Along with Eve and Violet and their supporting casts, two modern women have important places in this tangled narrative: Catherine Till, who is convinced, for credible reasons, that Ernest's grandson was her actual father and that the evidence lies in the Villa Cimbrone; and Tiziana Masucci, who has fallen in love with Violet Trefusis, dead though she is, and with her works. Masucci has devoted her life to restoring Violet's forgotten writings, infecting Holroyd with the same impulse. As for me, though I shall never love Violet, I delighted in this book. In part this is because Holroyd is so terribly funny, especially in treating his adventures with Catherine Till -- which I will leave you to discover. But more so in his vigorous engagement with the past, his determination to uncover its secrets and show the moving comedy of human beings bluffing with the hands dealt them by life.



Published: August 25, 2011

“A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers” by Michael Holroyd

By Thomas L. Jeffers,


In 1970 Michael Holroyd, seeing Auguste Rodin’s 1905 bust of Eve Fairfax in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was profoundly moved by her beauty. But Holroyd had already embarked on his brilliant career as the historian of the biographer Lytton Strachey, the painter Augustus John and the playwright Bernard Shaw, and had no leisure for looking into the mystery of Eve Fairfax.

Thirty years on, however, her visage still haunting him, he got round to discovering who she was. Some years prior to sitting for Rodin, she had been engaged to Baron Grimthorpe, who, having jilted her, went on to father a child with Alice Keppel, later mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. The child, Violet, achieved notoriety first, during and after World War I, as the same-sex lover of the writer Vita Sackville-West — their scandalous affaire was mirrored in Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando” (1928) — and then, starting in the 1930s, as a novelist and memoirist in her own right.

There are many turns and twists in Holroyd’s intriguing “Book of Secrets,” which touches on many “lesser lives,” past and present, but primarily those of Eve and Violet. Eve Fairfax was born in 1872 to a Yorkshire family that was well-connected but had little money. Which is why, after the debacle with Grimthorpe, she was compelled to sell her marble Rodin to a gallery in Johannesburg. (There are three other busts of her by Rodin, including the bronze at the Victoria and Albert.) For a while, simply by dint of her beauty, she was eminently marriageable, but on very stringent terms: “When the Duke of Grafton proposed to her hoping she would accept him, not for his title or money, but simply for himself, she replied ‘Rather a tall order’ and brusquely turned him down.”

If she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have love, she would have popularity, traveling from castle to hall carrying an album of autographs and scribblings of the rich and famous — “a book of secrets” that Holroyd pores over, communing with the spirit of its owner, who didn’t die till 1978, aged 106. However dolorous her last decades, she could defiantly say, “I shall be immortal in art galleries all over the world after my friends are dead.”

The life that dominates the second half of Holroyd’s book belonged to Violet Keppel Trefusis. Her affair with Vita — told from the latter’s perspective in her son Nigel Nicolson’s “Portrait of a Marriage” (1973) — took place from 1918 to 1921. Friends from girlhood, Violet and Vita became sexually intimate as they approached the crises of conventional courtship and marriage. Both were attracted to other women, but while Violet was strictly lesbian and exclusive, Vita was bisexual and promiscuous.

Mainly to make her lover jealous, and to please her own mother, Violet married a decorated war hero, Denys Trefusis. Her plan was to have a mere house-sharing companionship, while she carried on with Vita. Poor Trefusis, who had never heard of lesbianism, was taken aback. Vita’s husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, was less naive but not firm enough to check his wife — and anyway was busy amusing himself, as he said, with “a funny new friend” of his own sex, “a dressmaker with a large shop in the Rue Royale.” All this, if you please, while busy arguing (vainly) for rational policies at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I.

We know that public people have private lives, but we may well wonder, in these pages, why Holroyd is asking us to peep at these erotic shenanigans. A remark by a character in one of Violet’s later novels seems apt: “They know how to write” — Vita, Violet and of course Virginia Woolf — “but no one has taught them how to live.”

Holroyd takes the long view at the close. The fact of “illegitimacy,” which he stresses in his subtitle, is “mercifully” losing its importance, as is, he adds, the word “unacceptable” — presumably including the paternal absenteeism the subtitle also refers to. From the vantage of eternity, all values are leveled, and the spirits of the dead gather for explanations, a moment of silence, and finally mirth. “So everything will be understood and what had been grief, and the avenging of grief, will at last be transmuted into the comedy of life.”

That’s a benign farewell, but appropriate only to comedy, where conflicts have to do with sex and social climbing. Tragedy is something else, and requires more morally or politically significant action than Holroyd’s people commonly engaged in. For tragic figures there’s little laughter, and usually no forgiveness.

Thomas L. Jeffers is the author of “Norman Podhoretz: A Biography,” published last year.


August 28, 2011


Much ado about nothing

In this portrait of three minor Edwardians, only the biographer shines

By Richard Eder


After magisterial lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and George Bernard Shaw, in which he all but became his subjects, Michael Holroyd stepped into the biographical equivalent of Einstein’s curved space. Why shouldn’t his subject become him?

The first of the books that followed, “Basil Street Blues,’’ was an idiosyncratic triumph. With his magnificently eccentric parents to write about, Holroyd kept inserting himself. Beyond that, he raised questions about the biographer’s role and methods, and the indeterminacy that surrounds any effort to determine a life. In “Basil Street’’ it is indeterminacy he aims at. Instead of pinning down the butterflies he nets, as his trade requires, he releases them.

Perhaps there is also a revolt against the biographer’s long and arduous service to his subject. For years Holroyd carried Strachey around on his back. Time, one could imagine, to carry himself. It is important, he once suggested, to annoy the reader. And in “A Book of Secrets,’’ Holroyd’s portrait of the lives of three minor English figures, he frequently achieves it, apart from intervals of delight.

The problem is not the passages where he brings in himself, his search’s adventures and encounters, even his wife; generally these are the best parts of the book. But he has chosen somewhat obscure individuals as his subjects. That would not necessarily be a difficulty: Think of Samuel Johnson’s “Life of Mr. Richard Savage,’’ or the many marginal yet unforgettable subjects in Virginia Woolf’s “Common Reader.’’

Yet unlike the treatment of his parents in “Basil Street,’’ Holroyd rarely gives us more than the dimmest sense of these people, apart from the facts he unearths about them. If biography’s journey is as valuable as the destination, still, for the destination to be so punily arrived at makes the whole thing seem fairly pointless.

“Secrets’’ recounts the lives of three English Edwardians. Ernest Beckett, later Lord Grimthorpe, was a dilettantish banker, politician, and seducer. He was longtime lover of Alice Keppel before she became mistress-in-chief to King Edward VII. By her, Beckett had an illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis, the obnoxiously greedy lover of several prominent women, among them Vita Sackville-West, a writer later linked to Woolf. Beckett was also for a while the fiancé of the high-born Eve Fairfax, who was a model for Auguste Rodin and had a long romance with him.

I know. Such continual amatory flitting amounts to stasis; one that Holroyd fails to overcome. Who were these three when at home? No one much, we feel; though Holroyd summons a dreadful splendor from Eve’s ghastly last years. On the other hand, he dedicates nearly half the book to Violet’s scandalous careening without striking more than a spark of interest. Worse, he dedicates inordinate space to boosting her forgotten novels with tedious descriptions of each. Biographers can do a lot for molehills, but not if they claim them as mountains.

The first of the books that followed, “Basil Street Blues,’’ was an idiosyncratic triumph. With his magnificently eccentric parents to write about, Holroyd kept inserting himself. Beyond that, he raised questions about the biographer’s role and methods, and the indeterminacy that surrounds any effort to determine a life. In “Basil Street’’ it is indeterminacy he aims at. Instead of pinning down the butterflies he nets, as his trade requires, he releases them.

Perhaps there is also a revolt against the biographer’s long and arduous service to his subject. For years Holroyd carried Strachey around on his back. Time, one could imagine, to carry himself. It is important, he once suggested, to annoy the reader. And in “A Book of Secrets,’’ Holroyd’s portrait of the lives of three minor English figures, he frequently achieves it, apart from intervals of delight.

The problem is not the passages where he brings in himself, his search’s adventures and encounters, even his wife; generally these are the best parts of the book. But he has chosen somewhat obscure individuals as his subjects. That would not necessarily be a difficulty: Think of Samuel Johnson’s “Life of Mr. Richard Savage,’’ or the many marginal yet unforgettable subjects in Virginia Woolf’s “Common Reader.’’

Yet unlike the treatment of his parents in “Basil Street,’’ Holroyd rarely gives us more than the dimmest sense of these people, apart from the facts he unearths about them. If biography’s journey is as valuable as the destination, still, for the destination to be so punily arrived at makes the whole thing seem fairly pointless.

“Secrets’’ recounts the lives of three English Edwardians. Ernest Beckett, later Lord Grimthorpe, was a dilettantish banker, politician, and seducer. He was longtime lover of Alice Keppel before she became mistress-in-chief to King Edward VII. By her, Beckett had an illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis, the obnoxiously greedy lover of several prominent women, among them Vita Sackville-West, a writer later linked to Woolf. Beckett was also for a while the fiancé of the high-born Eve Fairfax, who was a model for Auguste Rodin and had a long romance with him.

I know. Such continual amatory flitting amounts to stasis; one that Holroyd fails to overcome. Who were these three when at home? No one much, we feel; though Holroyd summons a dreadful splendor from Eve’s ghastly last years. On the other hand, he dedicates nearly half the book to Violet’s scandalous careening without striking more than a spark of interest. Worse, he dedicates inordinate space to boosting her forgotten novels with tedious descriptions of each. Biographers can do a lot for molehills, but not if they claim them as mountains.

Eve Fairfax is also a blank, but when she reaches old age Holroyd gives us writing as fine as anything he has done. Poor, abandoned, erratic, she retained her aristocratic connections. She would go from one country weekend to another, dragging along an immense scrapbook in which she got her lordly hosts and the other exalted guests to write tributes to her. A visitor’s book in reverse.

The eminences indulged her (and helped out financially), even if some gritted their teeth as she trotted up with her anchor-sized volume. The English aristocracy of the time, no doubt knowing themselves vulnerable, had a large tolerance for madness. And here is Holroyd, looking through the scrapbook:

“I trawl through many famous names that have signed up to the statement that she ‘will never be forgotten by . . . .’ Yet she makes no appearance in their biographies and autobiographies. She is a legendary character in a small world, all shadow by the end - the substance vanishing with time.’’ Loosed, Holroyd’s butterfly fades into the air.

Such passages apart, it is when he recounts his journeys and encounters in pursuit of his Edwardians that Holroyd shines. He travels twice to Ravello, Italy, where Beckett renovated Villa Cimbrone, turning it into a magnificent showplace. His three characters all had links to it; and he tries to diffuse its golden light into a magic that will illuminate his three dimnesses.

They remain dim, but Cimbrone glitters. So do Holroyd’s picaresque journeys. One is a nail-biting car trip through Italy with a deadly Englishwoman driver, all non sequiturs and double-clutching (“Do keep reminding me . . . that they drive on the right in Italy.’’) Like Holroyd she is on a search at the Villa Cimbrone; in her case to discover whether the son of Ernest Beckett was her father.

Holroyd’s second visit to the villa is to speak about Bloomsbury at a festival dedicated to Violet Trefusis. The organizer is not just a Trefusis fanatic; she imagines herself as Violet. Or sometimes as Vita, Violet’s lover.

Even more than in previous ventures, Holroyd has emerged to outshine his biographical subjects. “Here I am,’’ he announces. We may think, “before it is too late.’’ Because he tells us this will be his last book, having recovered from a near-mortal illness. Or, we wonder, perhaps not entirely.



April 3 2015


The Sackville-Wests and Nicolsons



Matthew Dennison
The life of Vita Sackville-West
744pp. William Collins. £25.
978 0 00 748696 0

Robert Sackville-West
A story of family, love and betrayal
320pp. Bloomsbury. £20.
978 1 4088 2482 5

The Sackville-Wests and Nicolsons have written their shared mythology for generations. (And this presents problems of nomenclature to the reviewer, who has in this case chosen, for clarity, to refer to individuals by their first name.) Much memoired, these families have repeatedly looked to themselves, telling and retelling the private and professional lives of close relatives and distant ancestors. At the heart of this mythology is Vita Sackville-West: writer, gardener, wife to Harold Nicolson, now perhaps best remembered for her long list of lovers, both male and female.

Vita shapes this mythology in more ways than one. In 1922, she set the template for family storytelling in her history of Knole and the Sackvilles. These “fugitive impressions” of estates, traditions and individuals laid claim to “personal familiarity” with the objects of study. The result is a deeply personal history of Knole – the house where Vita was born, but which she could not inherit (being, after all, a daughter) – and the book makes use of a privileged “I”, a narrating persona who traverses the estate, inside and out:

“At sunset I have seen the silhouette of the great building stand dead black on a red sky; on moonlight nights it stands black and silent, with glinting windows, like an enchanted castle. On misty autumn nights I have seen it emerging partially from the trails of vapour, and heard the lonely roar of the red deer roaming under the walls.”

In a pattern that recurs throughout the family mythology, Vita employs this rhetoric of intimacy to stress her right to write these narratives. It was a strategy she repeated in Pepita (1937), a joint biography of her Spanish grandmother, the dancer Josefa Duran y Ortega, and her mother, Victoria Sackville-West. And it is a pattern to which her own life story has been subject time and again.

Nigel Nicolson, Vita’s younger son, published Portrait of a Marriage in 1973. The book was part biography, part autobiography, interweaving Vita’s first-hand account of her childhood, early years of marriage and love affair with Violet Trefusis, with Nigel’s retrospective account of his parents’ lives. What Vita tells, Nigel retells. He claimed that her story required “confirmation and amplification”, offering “commentaries” and “essential new facts” on account of his privileged position behind family lines. For Adam Nicolson, Nigel’s son and Vita’s grandson, Portrait of a Marriage came to represent the “Nicolson version” of events, the authorized account of Vita’s marriage and love affairs that he would question and retell (once again) in Sissinghurst: An unfinished history (2008) and its accompanying BBC Four television series (2009) documenting life at the National Trust property. Adam’s retelling emphasized his father’s limiting bias; where Nigel had sought to “[pack] the pain and grief” of his parents’ homosexual affairs “in the cushioning tissue paper” of their heterosexual marriage, Adam would seek to acknowledge and celebrate his grandparents’ defiance of social and sexual norms.

Two recent biographies promise to swell this mythology and its endless revisions: one by a family member, the other by an “outsider”. Matthew Dennison’s Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West is the first biography of Vita for more than thirty years – the first since Victoria Glendinning published her authorized text (1983), which was a commission from Nigel Nicolson. Glendinning was far from reverential when it came to the less honourable aspects of Vita’s life and the Nicolsons’ marriage. With Nigel’s permission, she revealed that Harold was the first to stray, contracting venereal disease at a house party at Knebworth. She also acknowledged that readers might find themselves unable to like her subject: “Some of Vita’s behaviour was indefensible”, she concedes, but hopes the biography will be “read as an adventure story. I think [Vita] would like that too”. In following Glendinning, Dennison’s task is a difficult one. The “adventure” of her biography lay in its revelation of stories and events obfuscated by the “cushioning tissue paper” of family accounts: Harold’s homosexuality and infidelities, and Vita’s many female lovers beside Violet. On the evidence of Dennison’s Behind the Mask, it seems there are no new skeletons to emerge from the Sackville-Wests’ rather public closet. Indeed, there is an element of retrenchment, with Dennison struggling to free himself from the “Nicolson version” of Vita’s life.

Readers familiar with the Sackville-West mythology will be quick to recognize tropes and narrative plots. Dennison’s treatment of Rosamund Grosvenor, Vita’s childhood friend and first female lover, reproduces the same contradictions and discomfort with physical lesbian sex that characterizedPortrait of a Marriage. The “root” of their relationship is admitted to be “physical attraction”, but Vita’s desire for Rosamund is simultaneously reduced to nothing more than “the blushing passions of a girls’ school story”. Violet Trefusis, on the other hand, is promised more even-handed treatment: “Violet’s culpability has since become an established element of the story. This is partly because the story has been told most often from Vita’s point of view”. Dennison presumably intends a nod to Diana Souhami in his recognition of muted protests and alternative perspectives, of narratives running counter to family myth. In Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter (1996), Souhami sought to “vindicate Violet in this story of adultery”, placing female desire at the centre of her story, not its margin, and explicitly challenging the “Nicolson version” of events: “By way of bias I question whyPortrait of a Marriage should be an acceptable story and Portrait of a Lesbian Relationship was not”.

Dennison does not go as far as Souhami, but a more nuanced Vita does emerge. Where Portrait of a Marriage painted her as the victim of seduction, the subject of temporary madness taking her away from marital and maternal domesticity, Dennison’s biography acknowledges Vita’s agency, her culpability and the pain she caused in the lives of others. He concedes that “everyone is a victim” in the drama of Vita and Violet, but on occasion, these women slip back into their assigned roles as rebellious free spirit and exotic seductress. William Strang’s famous portrait of Vita, “Lady with a Red Hat”, is a case in point. The original now hangs in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, while its reproduction adorns the dust-jacket of Dennison’s biography; he describes it as “an image of swagger; the ‘splendid . . . dauntless’ Vita of Violet’s puppetry”. Painted under the redoubled gaze of Strang and Violet, the latter accompanying Vita to the artist’s studio, this reading of Violet as puppeteer is only partially elided; it haunts and encloses the text.

Although Dennison may disappoint in his engagement with the Sackville family mythology, his biography is nonetheless distinct in style. Behind the Mask is determinedly literary: lyrical, impressionistic, no slave to chronology. It offers a sustained account of Vita’s writing, encompassing her work in poetry and prose across multiple genres. For Dennison, Vita was a “consistently autobiographical author”, and he treats her work as a series of “role-play scenarios”, looking for the “masks” and textual personae taken up or put down as required. This version of Vita as a self-created and self-creating text does not always convince, but it remains the biography’s most original contribution. When employed with restraint, Vita’s writing can be productively illuminated. The poem “Black Tarn”, written for Pat Dansey, is read as a symptom of ambivalence. The central image of “a pool in a crater”, suggestive of female sexuality and desire, is rendered diffuse, non-specific, by the presence of many other pools and craters in the poetic landscape. The biography employs this poem as a prelude to Vita’s inconstancy, her abandonment of Dansey in 1923 in favour of Geoffrey Scott. But all too often this hard biographical approach demonstrates a literality that undermines the attempt to treat Vita as a skilled and serious creative writer. Lyric and autobiographical personae become indistinct, masks become wearers, and limits are imposed – Behind the Mask reduces the imaginative scope of Vita’s writing to the field of direct experience. This being said, Dennison’s biography is a welcome provocation to read and reappraise Vita’s poetry and fiction. Previous studies, such as those by Suzanne Raitt (Vita and Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, 1993) and Karen Sproles (Desiring Women: The partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, 2006), have explored her creative, collaborative relationship with Virginia Woolf. But here Vita stands alone, no longer in the shadow of Bloomsbury. And if Behind the Mask prompts its readers to seek out and explore Vita’s work, then Dennison will have done more for her literary legacy than many of her previous biographers.

Robert Sackville-West’s The Disinherited: A story of family, love and betrayal is the most original contribution to the family mythology since Portrait of a Marriage. Robert’s is a decidedly revisionist engagement with the well-trodden paths of Sackville history and biography. His first book,Inheritance: The story of Knole and the Sackvilles (2010), both retells and extends the chronology of Vita’s earlier work, a predecessor invoked in its subtitle. But The Disinherited goes further still, taking up those threads left untraced, untold, in previous family accounts: the lives of “bastards, the doubly disinherited” who enjoy no legitimate place within Sackville genealogies and narratives.

Robert focuses on the children of Pepita (Vita’s grandmother) and Lionel Sackville-West, second Lord Sackville – they are: Maximilian, Victoria, Flora, Amalia and Henry. Victoria (Vita’s mother) succeeded in legitimizing her name by marrying her first cousin, another Lionel Sackville-West (and future third Lord Sackville). But her siblings were not so fortunate, living in exile from or in contested relation to the family estates, acknowledged by some relatives and denied by others. Robert admits to being “continually sidetracked” by these elided lives as he worked on Inheritance, taking the opportunity in this second book to luxuriate in the inevitable return of the repressed.

Lazarus-like, these siblings re-emerge from the archive; alongside family correspondence and photographs, their stories are pieced together from legal documents and witness statements. Much of this evidence was collected in preparation for a court case that would decide their claims to legitimacy and ownership of Knole. To safeguard her husband, Victoria stood against her siblings, forced to proclaim her illegitimacy in a courtroom drama that gripped the press (who dubbed it the “Romance of the Sackville Peerage”). Henry brought the case but he failed to defeat the Sackville establishment, precipitating his erasure from the family record. Although Vita touched lightly on her mother’s siblings in Pepita, Robert’s archival research reveals her determined resistance to their stories: “‘Of no interest to me’ Vita scrawled in red crayon across one of the documents in the trunk, dismissing it as ‘The case from Henry’s point of view’”. But the same evidence that once ensured their exclusion now provides the siblings with their entrance into family myth. And there is some poetic justice in that, albeit bittersweet. 

Amber K. Regis
 is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Sheffield.