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

November 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm (Book review, books, Italy)

  It’s been some weeks since I read this, so I’m going to let New York Times reviewer Dwight Garrner sum up The Book of Secrets for me:

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.

One of those characters is Eve Fairfax. Her principal claim to fame is that she sat for a bust by the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

In the course of a peripatetic, rather impoverished existence, Eve carried around with her a large book whose pages were blank. Various individuals of note were invited to inscribe something in it. As Holroyd tells us:

Archbishops, generals and royalty filled up the pages and there was a picture of the Prince of Wales fondling a baby kangaroo in Australia (1932). Rosamund Lehmann copied down a page from her novel Invitation to the Waltz describing the seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis running into the sunlight, Hilaire Belloc added a poem and so did Vita Sackville-West’s one-time lover Geoffrey Scott, while John Betjeman, Harold Nicolson and Somerset Maugham contented themselves with signatures.

A major character in the first half of the book is a not-especially -well-known man: Ernest Beckett, second Lord Grimthorpe. (And isn’t that name like something straight out of a Dickens novel.) Beckett was at one point Eve Fairfax’s fiance, though they never actually wed.

Eventually two women move to the fore of this narrative and occupy center stage in its second half. Violet Trefusis was the daughter of Alice Keppel,  mistress to King Edward VII. Mother and daughter had an extremely fraught relationship. Violet and Vita Sackville-West were lovers; their affair is chronicled in a series of passionate letters from which Holroyd quotes liberally. The author makes a good case for Violet as a writer of distinction, although nowadays her novels seem to be little read and not readily obtainable, at least in this country.

Violet Trefusis, left, and Vita Sackville-West

Michael Holroyd is a wonderful writer. I have to admit, though, that I wasn’t sure why I should interest myself in the doings of the large and somewhat confusing cast of characters that dominates the first half of this book. When Holroyd ultimately brings a laser-like focus onto Violet Trefusis and her extravagant passions, things got more interesting. The fact of the matter is, though, that I picked up this book in the first place for a very specific reason; namely, that the aforementioned Ernest Beckett was for a time the owner of what is, for me at least, possibly the most beautiful place on the planet. It’s on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and it is called the Villa Cimbrone. Here’s how Michale Holroyd describes it in his preface to A Book of Secrets:

High above the Gulf of Solerno, some fifty miles south of Naples, is the medieval town of Ravello. Higher still and at thee end of two meandering roads from Ravello, you find yourself in a place of fantasy that seems to float in the sky: a miraculous palazzo, now called Villa Cimbrone, which answers the need for make-believe in all our lives.

So poetic – and so true. I was prepared for more on the subject, but in fact,  there wasn’t much more. And this is probably what made me somewhat impatient with this quirky, admittedly intriguing little volume.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer. George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey have been among his subjects. At one point in The Book of Secrets, he makes an interesting observation concerning his craft:

Biographers often struggle to escape from the prison of chronology before resigning themselves to opening with a birth.

This statement affords some insight into why, in this book,  Holroyd chose this somewhat sidelong approach to his subject matter. In the epilogue, he concludes thus: “Now, as in a film, I can bring back the characters who occupy  the pages of  this, my last book.”

Michael Holroyd


The website of the Villa Cimbrone includes a fine video gallery. Click here for the general introduction. This clip on the Villa’s history features a photograph of Ernest Beckett.

I took these pictures of the gardens of the Villa and of its famous “Terrazzo dell’infinito” (Terrace of Infinity) when I was in Italy in the Spring of 2009. The spot is aptly named. Time does indeed seem to stand still there.

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