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Friday, December 2, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser: A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

I have always deeply loved the work of Michael Holroyd. On this blog, I have reviewed Basil Street Blues, and I have also enjoyed, but in a non-blogging way, his biographies of Augustus John, Lytton Strachey and his “group” biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their families. All of this Holroyd mania is based on something more than the simple fact that I enjoy reading about the people and periods that this writer addresses. I also find his narrative voice funny and intelligent and humane. But, even beyond that, the work of Michael Holroyd brings out some secret childhood part of me that does not otherwise get much of an airing. The reality is that if life had been different, I would vey much have liked to be a private detective.
I imagine myself, possibly in the 1920s or ‘30s with a flat in London, armed only with an A to Z, a good knowledge of Somerset House and an ability to get chatting to anyone. Like all romantic detectives, I believe that most of the time, things are traceable, and one discovery leads to another. If it doesn’t, then I am content to consign it to history. That appears to be how Michael Holroyd gathers information. He never seems to be in an awful hurry and he accepts, as all thinking biographers must, that there will be gaps, probably better described as gaping chasms, in his knowledge.
The reason for this gushing introduction is the enormous sense of sadness I felt, in reading the final chapter of his latest offering A Book of Secrets; Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, in which he describes it as “my last book”.
A Book of Secrets is about a collection of women, books and a place, that all connect to Ernest Beckett, second Baron Grimthorne, a 19th Century banker and have-a-go politician. Beckett had a wife and children and he also had mistresses and they had children. Holroyd focuses on those who resided and were born on the wrong side of the blanket. He alights first on Beckett’s mistress, Eve Fairfax whose bust was modelled by Rodin during her glory days and sold to a museum in Johannesburg in more straightened times. Then he moves to the potential offspring of a liaison between Beckett’s son and a married woman (whom he later married himself). From this his focus falls on Beckett’s most famous illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis nee Keppel. His adventures weave in and around the lovely Villa Cimbrone, near Ravello and take in the modern day survivors of his protagonists, both biological and emotional.

The story of Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet Trefeusis is well known already, as is the affair between Violet and Vita Sackville-West.

Really, I was most interested in Eve Fairfax. She fascinated me because I had never heard of her, and she seemed to sit on the edge of so many things. She appears to have suffered greatly for the fact that Beckett never married her and nor did anyone else. As a result, she ended her life destitute and rightly described as a “genteel tragedy”. She was positionless and that was her problem. Her contribution to history appears to have been an enormous scrap book, in which the great and the good were encouraged to write and stick things. We must assume that many of them did so under duress and with a degree of embarrassment. By the time Eve dies, she is 106 years old, and I almost wept for the sadness of her life. I felt that Holroyd was completely right in his comment that although she lived in Victorian and Modern times, she seemed to belong to neither.

A Book of Secrets is exactly that. It is by no means all worked out, but the mysteries are there, as is the desperate desire to know about oneself and others. It has been a pleasure reading it and I recommend it warmly.


  1. Sounds like just my sort of book. Like you I know I would have made a great detective -- I think all good academic researchers have those skills!

  2. I enjoyed your review! Just read this myself and was captivated by it (the story and the writing of it).

  3. Hannah, this is a great review - as always. I have not read his work but am putting this book on my list.

    I so enjoy reading your review posts. Thank you.

  4. Ooh, I've never read any Holroyd before but this sounds exactly my sort of thing. Thanks for the recommendation, I've added it to my wishlist!