Review: A Book of Secrets, by Michael Holroyd

In A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, Michael Holroyd unravels the lives of three early twentieth century women, and joins them together through loose connections to Ernest Beckett, the second Lord Grimthorpe, and his Italian residence, the Villa Cimbrone.  If this sounds a bit obscure, well, it is.  Holroyd set out to write “not so much a traditional biographical narrative, but … a set of thematically related stories” about three interesting, if lesser-known, women.

The first, Eve Fairfax, nearly married Beckett after the death of his first wife.  Beckett commissioned a bust from the French sculptor, Rodin, but was ultimately unable to pay for the work.  Eve’s reasons for refusing Beckett are unclear.  She spent most of her life in poverty, living off various friends and lugging around a huge book in which her visitors composed pithy thoughts.  The second woman, Catherine Till, believes herself to be the illegitimate daughter of Beckett’s grandson.  Holroyd accompanied Catherine on a research project at the Villa Cimbrone.  And finally, there is Violet Trefusis, the best known of the three.  An author who had a notorious affair with Vita Sackville-West, Violet was likely Beckett’s illegitimate daughter, the result of his affair with Alice Keppel (later the mistress of King Edward VII).

Each woman’s story is interesting in its own right, as is the allure of Villa Cimbrone and the many literary figures and society members who graced its halls.  As a fan of Virago Modern Classics, I especially enjoyed reading Violet’s story.  Holroyd presents a fairly balanced picture of the woman and her controversial romantic liaisons.  On the one hand I felt sorry for her, forced by her family to marry a man and cover up her lesbian relationships.  On the other hand, her arrogant, controlling nature made her a less sympathetic figure.

I was also intrigued by Holroyd’s attempts to assemble a coherent history, when in fact many trails go nowhere, DNA evidence is not available, and there are no tell-all documents or definitive sources.  And then there’s the theme of illegitimacy, which manifests itself in various ways:

Illegitimacy is a word with several meanings. Ernest’s wife Luie was to die in her twenties producing a legitimate heir to the Grimthorpe title. Eve Fairfax was illegitimate in the sense that, not marrying Ernest, she lost her legitimate place in society. Her Book is a unique testament to the enduring pride that kept her afloat. And then there is Ernest’s extraordinary illegitimate daughter Violet who, exiled from England, was to compensate for her outcast state by claiming the King of England as her father. Such fantasies were a balm for the pain of lost love. But fact and fantasy are held in subtle equilibrium in the best of her novels, which may yet find a legitimate place in European literature for the name Violet Trefusis.

Holroyd’s style, mingling traditional biography with personal experience, results in an engaging book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys English history and literature.