Aristo Antics

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, a gentlewoman who represents a last living link to the story. The biographical links among these three women are forged by a man, Ernest Beckett, the second Lord Grimthorpe (1856–1917), and a place, Villa Cimbrone, his home in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. Grimthorpe was the lover, father, and grandfather of Fairfax, Trefusis, and Till, respectively. The Villa, a favored destination of the Bloomsbury literary circle, is a repository of his family records and serves Holroyd as a place of pilgrimage in his quest to uncover secrets.

The wealthy Grimthorpe’s extravagant passions led him from banking to government and through innumerable affairs, a marriage, the loss of his wife, bankruptcy, and exile, a life lived amid constant calculating intrigue. Is he a rogue, we wonder, or simply too large in life to be judged by normal standards? Holroyd appears neutral on this question—amused, perhaps, but never judgmental. The book’s appendix, replete with extensive family trees and bibliography, reveals the complexity of its genealogical research. Yet Holroyd is a patient guide, smoothing the rough paths he traveled with a seamless blend of narrative and description interleaved with excerpts from letters, diaries, and other biographies. We are invited to join him, traveling to Italy to Villa Cimbrone with Catherine Till to establish whether she is in fact the illegitimate daughter of Lord Grimthorpe’s son (she is). We meet the Italian academic who is a champion of the novels of Violet Trefusis (Grimthorpe’s illegitimate daughter), and we hear of Holroyd’s own fascination with Rodin’s bust of Eve Fairfax—Rodin’s lover as well as Grimthorpe’s—which provided the initial impetus for the book itself.

Eve, abandoned by Grimthorpe to a life of impoverished and nomadic gentility has perhaps the most poignant story. Holroyd quotes extensively from her exchange of love letters with Rodin and illustrates her tenacity and courage throughout her eccentric peregrinations (she lived to be 107). He locates, by happy good fortune, her commonplace book, one that had grown so unwieldy in size that at one stage she gave it to an art museum for safekeeping, only to reclaim it later. Holroyd interprets for us the secrets this volume reveals, mining autographs, notes, programs, bits of verse, and photographs—a fragmented account of Eve’s circle of friends and acquaintances that includes virtually every family of note in her time.

The lives of these aristocrat-eccentrics are far removed from ours in manners and morals, and some of the incidents related in A Book of Secrets are so outrageously improbable that even Holroyd himself, recounting the saga of Violet Trefusis and her great love, Vita Sackville-West, confesses the urge to “throw up my hands at any of these characters acting with proper regard for their biographers.” One bizarre incident has Violet dismissing her husband Denys, mortally ill with TB, in the presence of Vita and her husband, the diplomat and diarist Harold Nicholson. When Violet and Vita subsequently go off together as lovers, so do their two husbands—and Holroyd concludes that “even a sensational novelist would end the story here.” Yet it does not end; in the event, each woman later rejoins her husband.

In his book’s concluding sections, Holroyd offers synopses and sharp critical guides to Violet Trefusis’s works, showing how, in the midst of the swirl of passion, betrayal, and later the encroachments of the Second World War, she managed to forge her own artistic identity. His advocacy is convincing enough to wish that a publisher would reissue her novels. And what of Holroyd himself? We come to hear of a debilitating illness; the patient care that his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble, brings to his bedside; and his boyish delight in the journey to Cimbrone with Catherine.

Michael Holroyd is a great raconteur—fluent, knowledgeable, and patient—whose love for his work and for those he chronicles is clear throughout the A Book of Secrets. Calling his book “the confessions of an elusive biographer,” he describes his attempt to make himself “invisible” as he recounts the lives of his subjects. Yet the paradox lies in the highly personal impress he leaves; one is intrigued as much by him as by the outsized individuals he presents. Instead of an unseen hand leading us to understanding, we have a character in his own right, one whose affections and judgments we come to trust. Beguiling his readers with a voice that is both critically acute and self-deprecating, Holroyd offers us a chance to accompany a gifted biographer as he does his work. The journey is never dull.

Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: 
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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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A. S. Byatt

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