This is not a biography of the usual sort. The subjects--there are more than one--move in circles where the wealth, money, and cultural and political power of early 20th century England are close at hand. These inter-linked lives include a wealthy British aristocrat named Ernest Beckett; his one-time fiancée Eve Fairfax, who sits for a sculpture by Rodin; Alice Keppel, mistress of the Prince of Wales and, later, Beckett; Violet Trefusis, the child of the Beckett-Keppel liaison; and better-known Vita Sackville-West, with whom Violet conducts a famous affair. Notoriety, rather than enduring accomplishment, distinguishes all of them; they are the kind of people who are footnotes in the biographies of the famous. More well-known personages appear and disappear: Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicolson, Winston Churchill, and others. The book also centers on a house, the fabulous Villa Cimbrone, in Italy.
Why read a book about people who aren't very important? Holroyd opens up their lives as if he were a novelist. Not for nothing is this "A Book of Secrets." Some of the secrets have to do with parentage, of course, and with sexual relationships long hidden or just plain forgotten. Others have to do with unexpected turns in life--what happens to the King's mistress when the King dies? What happens to a famous beauty who lives into her nineties? How does the scandalous Trefusis/Sackville-West love affair affect the lives of those closest to them?
Holroyd's own voice is not absent, in a lofty biographer sort of way, from these pages. Since each of his subjects is, in his or her own way, quite desperate for love and happiness, Holroyd himself seems to be asking the question: what makes a life a happy one? Thus he incorporates detail about himself such as an account of his own visits to the Villa Cimbrone, visits accomplished in spite of ill health. There is interesting detail on the manner in which he sought out the truth of the secrets at the heart of the book, including a small portrait of an Italian academic who is an admirer (and not many people are) of Violet Trefusis, a minor writer at best. (Despite Holroyd's careful explication of her best books, I wasn't tempted to pick one up.) Holroyd never says it, but one senses that he has written a book about the pursuit of happiness and that he has found a pleasure in his own life and work that his subjects did not in theirs.
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: VINTAGE ARROW - MASS MARKET; 1 edition (2 January 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0099548941
- ISBN-13: 978-0099548942
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.8 x 19.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 181 g
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