Aristo Antics

A Book of Secrets
Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
Michael Holroyd
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 272 pp.

At one point in the course of the travels he undertook for this extraordinary and all-but-unclassifiable book, Michael Holroyd tells us of apologizing to an Italian host for wasting his time recounting the lives of long-dead English aristocrats. His host asserts that on the contrary, there is nothing he likes better—that “the very sound of these aristocratic names is music to his ears.” Such delight might seem to be a prerequisite for enjoying A Book of Secrets; and yet Holroyd’s gift as a biographer, and in this case also a writer of memoirs, proves sufficiently great to seduce even the radical social levelers. His account induces head-shaking laughter and wonderment at the antics of the flawed, beautiful, and talented people who dwarf what appears in comparison to be our very humdrum age.

Holroyd is much lauded for his biographies of Shaw, Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey, and his familiarity with English social history in the late Victorian and early modern era seems unrivaled—at least regarding literary culture and its intersection with aristocratic eccentrics. A Book of Secrets is the third of a three-volume series of memoirs mixed with biographies. Its subtitle, Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, cues the “secrets” of the title, as Holroyd sets out to unearth the lives of three chief characters: Eve Fairfax, a muse of Auguste Rodin; the novelist Violet Trefusis; and Catherine Till...

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.