The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 29, 2011

Happiness interrupted

High above the Gulf of Salerno, some fifty miles south of Naples, is the medieval town of Ravello. Higher still and at the end of two meandering roads from Ravello, you find yourself in a place of fantasy that seems to float up in the sky:  a miraculous palazzo, now called the Villa Cimbrone, which answers the need for make-believe in all our lives.
      ... For over a hundred years the place has offered people solace, escapism, opportunities, illusions. Though the legends which fill the atmosphere suggest that many famous people were drawn there, this is something of a mirage. Instead there are forgotten names with lost identities that still haunt the gardens and terraces. Not all the characters in this book came to Cimbrone:  one died prematurely before her husband, in flight from his British creditors, travelled abroad and acquired it; another, who became engaged to this widower but for mysterious reasons did not marry him, never reached Cimbrone, and living to a great age, was left homeless. For them, perhaps, it represents the promise of happiness interrupted or denied.
I might as well start off by saying that A Book of Secrets:  Absent Fathers, Illegitimate Daughters, by Michael Holroyd, is a book that I'm going to need to read again.  And I'd want to...this week was just too busy, and my reading time was too distracted, for me to play close enough attention to it.

If you read enough biographies (and this is one of things I like best about that) you come to know a cast of secondary characters who appear again and again in different people's lives, and then in books like this one. I was familiar with some of the 'characters' in this book {Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and Violet Trefusis) but not with its 'forgotten lives.' There's so much going on in A Book of Secrets that it's hard to pin down what it's 'about,' but everything circles around Ernest Beckett (Lord Grimsthorpe), an English aristocrat who marries an American heiress, becomes engaged after her death to (but doesn't marry) Eve Fairfax, a younger woman who is sculpted by and falls in love with Rodin, has an affair with (among other women) Alice Keppel, who becomes the most famous mistress of the Prince of Wales, and is probably the father of Alice's daughter Violet Trefusis,  a novelist and the lover of Vita Sackville-West.  He is the connection, but the women are the central figures.

That's a fascinating and complicated story on its own, but you add to it the fact that this is also a 'mix of biography and autobiography,' a memoir of the author's seeing Rodin's bust of Eve Fairfax in the Victoria and Albert Museum and coming to look into these lives. Holroyd is present in the book, writing about his experiences in researching it, and in meeting two contemporary women connected to the story {Catherine Till,  an Englishwoman who is researching Ernest Beckett's family because, as it turns out, she is his illegitimate granddaughter, and Tiziana Masucci, a young Italian scholar who has dedicated herself to studying and republishing Violet Trefusis).

The 'book of secrets' is a heavy, overstuffed visitors' book that is given to Eve by a friend, filled with entries (pictures, poems, inscriptions) by people she has known, something she carries with her for the rest of her life.   Later, there are detailed descriptions of Violet Trefusis' carefully controlled memoir and her novels, 'flirtatious tragedies,' that have made me want to read them.

Is this confusing? But wait, there's more...
Over these last years Violet entered ever more deeply into a make-believe world. When young she had been carried into a fancy-dress party in a carpet which, suddenly unrolling, revealed her as Cleopatra. Now she made her entrance with solemn grandmotherly tread as Queen Victoria. She was hedged about with the illusions of royalty. Lord Grimsthorpe 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 thirteenth in line to the English throne. ... But the unmentionable fact was that if anyone was the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales it had been [her younger sister] Sonia, born in 1900 while he and Alice Keppel were conducting their famous affaire. As is to lend credence to this hypothesis, it was Sonia's granddaughter Camilla who, after another clandestine relationship, went on to marry Charles, her Prince of Wales, early in the twentieth century.
Can you see why this is a book I'd need to re-read, and, hopefully, why it's one that I'd want to? :)

1 comment:

Lisa May said...

It sounds like an amazing book. I recognize the names, but I knew nothing about their complicated relationships and shared history. I think I would need a chart to keep everyone straight! but then sometimes I need charts even for mysteries.

Thank you for visiting!

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