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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July 7, 2015

Inheritance: The story of Knole and the Sackvilles

Before I had even finished Disinherited, Robert Sackville-West's second book about his family and Knole, their ancestral home, I borrowed this first one from the library, and it was too hard to resist reading it as soon as I could.:) This family history covers a longer span, the 400 years and 13 generations since Thomas Sackville, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, Lord Treasurer during her reign, and a man with inherited wealth from lands in Sussex, acquired Knole, in Kent, 'on the slenderest of circumstances' {and through a tricky property deal or two} in 1604.

I'm not yet as drawn to earlier history as I am to the 18th and 19th centuries or so, but this is the kind of book, the kind of storytelling, that would lead me there. There was the chapter about a sorrowful, determined, plucky heiress, married to Thomas' grandson Richard, who fought against her husband's attempts to take over her inherited wealth.

One of the best places to view the sunny, north-eastern, side of the house is a secluded spot in the garden now known as the Duchess' Seat, but described in an early-nineteenth-century diary as 'the Standing.' The sight of the house unfurled below has barely changed since 1626, when the Standing was a favourite retreat of the author of that diary, the young mistress of Knole, Lady Anne Clifford. It was here that she came, prayerbook in hand, to beseech God to help her in her troubles. ...      The sartorial splendour of the Jacobean court is captured in the 'costume pieces' of the artist William Larkin.... Lady Anne records sitting for him at Knole, and the resulting portrait is almost certainly the one hanging in our home today. The rendering of the lace around her decolletage is extraordinarily fine; a baroque pearl hangs on a black silk thread through her left ear; and her flinty, watchful glance follows you around the room. Vita Sackville-West noted the tightening of the mouth and saw it as a sign of her fortitude in the face of adversity, the mark of a strong-willed woman jibbing against the conventions of the time.

It was fascinating to read that although Knole was refurbished, every 100 years or so, it was often seen, by visitors and its owners, as 'an ancient pile,' out of date,'a curiosity adrift in a new age,' even centuries ago, and closer to now.
Knole's fading magnificence dates from the 1690s and early 1700s. It is the atmosphere evoked by Vita Sackville-West in her description of the Venetian Ambassador's Room — 'I never saw a room that so had over it a bloom like the bloom on a bowl of grapes and figs ... greens and pinks originally bright, now dusted and tarnished over' — and echoed by Virginia Woolf in her descriptions of the same room in Orlando — 'The room...shone like a shell that has lain at the bottom of the sea for centuries and has been crusted over and painted a million times by the water; it was rose and yellow, green and sand-coloured. It was frail as a shell, as iridescent and as empty.'
And that, in some ways, the story of the ones who inherited {filled with debts, depression, dementia, exotic dancers, ineffectual careers, and illegitimate children} doesn't seem all that different from the story of the ones who didn't, except that the heirs were often less enamored of the house and its burdens.  It was interesting to learn that in an upper crust that was tied to inheritance by the oldest son, Knole {or the dukedom} was rarely passed down so directly; it only happened twice between 1764 and the present {the author inherited from his uncle, over his five female cousins}.

As I read both books, it was fun to imagine what it would be like to write a family history like one about your own family, and to live with that history.When he is writing about John Frederick Sackville, the 3rd Duke, finally settling down in marriage 'with the first heiress who will have me' in 1789, Robert Sackville-West describes what has happened to a statue and two portraits, by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds of his mistress, a dancer known as La Baccelli. {But first, if you're interested, before you read more, visit this blog post and scroll down to see an amazing photo of this statue in place. I'll wait here till you get back...}
      She is a provocative presence in the midst of all those family portraits, a flash of fleeting sensuality in the midst of so much sobriety. Her nakedness is almost shocking as you stumble upon her, surrounded by all those well-dressed ladies and gentlemen in their fancy frocks and powdered wigs, ceremonial robes and wands of office. 'A good friend of the family' is how, as children, we heard her described by the National Trust Guides at Knole. ...
      ... [When the duke married] the statue of La Baccelli was banished to 'the Top of the Stairs, next the Wardrobe,' according to an inventory of 1799,  Here, described starkly as 'A Naked Venus, whole length, plaister,' she spent the following century gathering dust in an attic. A similar fate befell Gainsborough's full-length portrait of Baccelli, which is recorded on an inventory of 1864 as hanging in the King's Closet, a room far too small to allow the picture to be viewed properly; it was sold in 1890, a hundred years after Baccelli had left Knole, by the 3rd Duke's grandson, Lionel [the father of all those disinherited children]. ..
       The Duke had in 1785 settled an annuity of 400 pounds a year on Baccelli for life, changed to property in Wuthyham and Hartfield. In preparation, perhaps, for his marriage plans, the charge was transferred in 1789 to property in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, a more discreet distance from the Sackville estates and final resting place in Sussex. This little piece of tidying up, of financial housekeeping, had a similar sanitising effect as the removals and redesignations around the house. The reordering of history continues to this day. One of the pleasures of living at Knole, as it was for the 3rd Duke, is the opportunity to hang and rehang pictures, to unmake the more censorious moves of earlier generations.  You can begin to reintroduce characters who would not necessarily have felt at ease beside each other at the time, placing the wife next to a mistress, a first husband next to a second; a reunion in retrospect of a mildly dysfunctional family.
What's not entirely clear is whether the statue was placed there in the 3rd Duke's day, or only later? :) This is, I think, why I love to read biographies and, increasingly, this kind of history -- for the stories that a novelist couldn't often make up.

This 3rd Duke had a legitimate son (as well as an illegitimate one, who lived at Knole}, but the chance for a rare direct inheritance ended when the young man was killed in a hunting accident. The story becomes more complicated, with the dukedom going 'up the family tree and then down again' to one cousin, and Knole being left to the Duke's two daughters, creating the two branches of the family that emerge in the second book. After 250 years, the Sackville name only lived on -- and remained connected to Knole, because a royal license issued in 1848 allowed George West, who married the Duke's daughter Elizabeth, to change  his name to Sackville-West and pass it along to his children. Still, by 1870, Knole became the 'junior inheritance,' the one given to the younger son.

The book is organized into a chapter for each generation, and eventually the story merges into the family members we meet in the second book, and into the stories of the author's more immediate ancestors and what led his great uncle to make the difficult decision to turn Knole over to the National Trust. {Among other things, a faded 15th century Flemish tapestry that hung in Knole's chapel for hundreds of years was sold, and later given to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston.}

I've gotten a little carried away again, haven't I?  But this is the kind of book that I love, on many levels, and as you can see, I'm glad I immersed myself in this story for a little while longer, before I go back to Paris. :)

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And not that I'm being very deliberate about this, but I just realized that I can add another county...

Reading England 2015:  counties visited so far
3.  Kent


Bellezza said...

You wrote of a time period and people of whom I have no knowledge. Thanks for bringing the awareness to me and constantly enriching my understanding of historical events. (A sorely lacking area for me!)

Lisbeth said...

Interesting indeed. I love these kind of books.

Thank you for visiting!

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