E.M. Forster, one of the many figures glancingly portrayed in Michael Holroyd's "Book of Secrets," famously wrote in "Howards End," "Only connect!" In this elegantly written, gossipy work, Holroyd makes fascinating connections among the mostly British bluebloods who populate this sprightly group biography.
Holroyd, the celebrated biographer of Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, traces the connections linking Ernest Beckett (1856-1917), a feckless British aristocrat and womanizer; his jilted fiancée, Eve Fairfax, the daughter of an officer of the Grenadier Guards; and French sculptor Auguste Rodin. He connects the dots between Alice Keppel, Beckett's onetime mistress, and the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. He shows the ties between Beckett's illegitimate daughter by Keppel, novelist Violet Trefusis, and Violet's lesbian lover, poet Vita Sackville-West, then links them both to Virginia Woolf. He manages, too, to find a long association between Vita's indomitable mother, the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish gypsy dancer and Lord Lionel Sackville-West, and the aging Rodin.
Holroyd sets these tangled relationships in English ancestral country houses and in Ravello, Italy, at Beckett's fairy-tale palazzo, the Villa Cimbrone.
His reach extends from pre-Victorian to contemporary times: Of Violet Trefusis' half-sister Sonia, likely the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales, he slyly remarks: "It was Sonia's granddaughter Camilla who, after another clandestine relationship, went on to marry Charles, her Prince of Wales."
Part I focuses on Beckett, who ascends to the British peerage late in life, becoming the second Lord Grimthorpe, and on Eve Fairfax and the sad details of her very long life as a parasitic hanger-on to the aristocratic families that supported her. Holroyd lingers on the Villa Cimbrone, which he visits in 2000, hoping to gain access to its Beckett archive. He's accompanied by a woman he met by chance during his research into the Beckett/Fairfax affair; Catherine Till wants to probe the Beckett papers to determine whether she's Beckett's illegitimate granddaughter.
Part II explores the lesbian escapades of Violet Trefusis with Vita Sackville-West and Violet's 10-year liaison with the Princess de Polignac, the American heiress of the Singer sewing machine fortune. Holroyd expends many pages on his second trip to the Villa Cimbrone in 2007 when he is invited to lecture on the Bloomsbury-Italian connection by the translator of Violet's novels into Italian. Tiziana Masucci, smitten with Violet and her novels, infects Holroyd with her enthusiasm, and in the final chapters of this work, he explicates several of them.
In this engaging volume, Holroyd acts as erudite gadfly and prober of secrets, bringing together disparate strands of memory and research to show the interwoven "comedy of life."
- Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at Southern Methodist University Press and an ardent student of the Bloomsbury group.