In addition to books employing arbitrary linguistic rules the other Gert has been reading biographies lately.
Being a Bloomsbury fan from way back (I once spent several days in a hotel in Peshawar hiding from a suitor wooing me with mangoes, engrossed in Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey) I thought I knew all about everyone. But Vita Sackville West’s family history as revealed by Juliet Nicolson in A House Full of Daughters was unknown to me and, I suspect, to many other Bloomsbury aficionados.
Juliet Nicolson gives an exceedingly frank account of her ancestors, beginning with her great great grandmother, Pepita, a flamenco dancer and mistress to Lionel Sackville West, who had five children to him, dying while giving birth to their sixth child who was stillborn. She was still performing after the birth of their second child, but as her energy faded she devoted herself to mothering. She was not an acceptable wife for Sackville West who was a diplomat, and he had her tucked away in Arcachon in Bordeaux, at a convenient distance from Madrid where he was for some time the First Secretary at the British Legation. As she became more stout his passion waned, but he still visited her, although she spent a great deal of time alone, cold-shouldered by her British neighbours. After her death he distanced himself from their five children, but he did provide for them, to extent of paying for their education and upkeep. Later, when he was a diplomat in Washington and needed a consort, he came to rely greatly on Victoria, the eldest daughter of this relationship. She was a charming and accomplished young woman who became the toast of Washington society and even turned down a proposal from the recently widowed president, Chester Arthur, ‘Would Miss West do him the honour of becoming his First Lady?’
Victoria went on to marry her first cousin, also called Lionel Sackville West like her father. They were passionately in love, embarrassing in their constant billing and cooing, and until the birth of Vita they enjoyed a deeply uxorious relationship. After the birth, Victoria firmly decided not to expose herself to such an experience ever again and they grew apart, Lionel engaging in a long relationship with Olive Rubens, a married opera singer. As Vita grew older her mother looked for someone of her own to love and protect her. That person was a weighty 6 foot 4 inch Scot named John Murray Scott, who, as well as owning properties in London and Scotland, owned most of the Wallace collection. Victoria was not only heart broken when he died suddenly in 1912, but embroiled in a dispute with his family over his will, in which he left her a large amount of money as well as most of the Wallace Collection. Vita was twenty years old at this time.
Vita always said her mother lost interest in her when she was no longer a baby. But even at four years old Vita was a difficult child, hating dolls, ‘demonstrating an unusual taste for wearing khaki uniform.’
Vita married Harold Nicolson, but had already had several relationships with other women. At their wedding, one of her bridesmaids, Rosamund Grosvenor, with whom she had been sexually involved until her wedding, wept loudly throughout the service. In spite of their sexual preferences for their own gender, Vita and Harold had a close and affectionate relationship. Their two sons, Ben and Nigel, adored them even though they were packed off to boarding school in their early years, as was the custom for the upper classes at that time.
There is a huge theme in the story of the Sackville Wests about their passion for the stately home, Knole, lost to Vita. Although she grew up there, it could only be inherited by a male heir. Vita never cased grieving the loss of Knole, and her beloved Sissinghurst was a poor consolation.
Nigel went on to write Portrait of a Marriage about the relationship between his parents, and married Phillipa Tennyson d’Eyncourt (know as the Tennis Court by irreverent servants). Phillipa too, turned to other wealthy men for love and support after her marriage cooled (Nigel said he was never in love with her)but became the most dedicated alcoholic in a series of Sackville West woman who drank to excess. Tragically she died in her late fifties of liver failure.
Her daughter Juliet as a young woman took on a similar role to that of her great grandmother, Victoria, becoming the carer and support for her father in his later years. They became very close, and she is very open about Nigel’s account of his sexual inadequacies as well as her own struggle with alcohol. She supported her father in his dying, and her reflections on this are sensitively expressed
He died one evening during the winter, the funeral held on a peculiarly English day when an eiderdown of clouds hung above us like sodden silk. The waiting grave faced the gentle undulation of the South Downs, the bare line of hills interrupted only by three trees, beautiful in silhouette against the heavy sky.
This book is an absorbing read, wonderfully honest and detailed about one of England’s great families. Some of its assumptions about race and class might irk those of us more lowly born, but as a revealing portrait of a family over time it is excellent. Recommended, especially for those sitting by the fire over the Christmas holiday period.