The Self-Avoidant Biographer

by Thomas Larson

A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
by Michael Holroyd
2011
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

English biographer Sir Michael Holroyd has been bit bad by the Bloomsbury bug—that clique of authors who spawned literary modernism in England during and after the Edwardian Age and whose high priesthood included Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry. Holroyd is obsessed with this group as his two continent-sized biographies, Lytton Strachey and the multi-volume Bernard Shaw, attest. Since Bloomsbury history is evidentially fat with letters, novels, diaries, and memoirs, such a record lures sleuths like Holroyd to remix the group’s labyrinth of motives. It’s the hunt he loves, chasing down their unrequited affairs, their aristocratic snuggling, and their benighted books to tell again their scandalous loves and psychological woes.

Thus, in A Book of Secrets Holroyd clothes lines a half-dozen women, who, spanning a century, stretch out from the nefarious blueblood Ernest Beckett, a.k.a. the second Lord Grimthorpe, who, as the era’s “greatest lover,” marries the 19-year-old American Lucy Lee, juggles her with his first mistress, Josephine (José) Brink, which is followed by (and unconnected to) Lucy’s death at 26, allowing Beckett to dump José and become engaged to Eve Fairfax, the muse of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, whom Beckett soon abandons once his roving eye espies Alice Keppel, who will be the bed-warmer of the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, of the Edwardian Age, but not before Ernest and Alice have a daughter, Violet Keppel, (nee Trefusis), who grows up to be the lover of Vita Sackville-West, herself the paramour of Virginia Woolf and—stay with me —whose sister’s granddaughter, Camilla Parker Bowles, a.k.a. the “Rottweiler,” fulfills this carnal lineage by splitting up Princess Diana and Prince Charles to install herself as the next King of England’s wife.

Any writer would be a fool not to be smitten by such a sordid history.

The surprising drama is that these dalliances were not kept secret. They were encouraged, in part, because aristocrats accepted the contractual nature of unions as the class-based transfer of wealth and genes. As a result, infidelity was thought good for the marriage. Violet and Vita’s three-year assignation is said to have made Vita’s fifty-year marriage to the bisexual diplomat Harold Nicolson secure.

And yet only in the book’s second half, with Violet and Vita’s affair—this, thanks to their letters and to Holroyd’s analysis of Violet’s fiction (all of it, roman-á-clef)—do we arrive at some meaning or purpose to his effort.

But how could Vita pursue a love affair with Violet at the same time as planning a marriage to Harold Nicolson? Violet seemed to float in an illusory world of romantic ecstasy; Harold belonged to the solid world of facts. And Vita needed both fantasy and fact in her life.

Or this smart insight about the aging Violet’s meanness:

The writer [Violet] who worked alone for two or three hours each morning went about her business ruthlessly dissecting the woman [again Violet] who would occupy the rest of the day so emptily in smart society “not caring a damn for anyone.”

It is the ravages of these affairs that Holroyd appears to be after. And yet his endless overturning of the unfaithfulness story belies that tack.

After a time, even Holroyd seems bored. So he inserts himself into the story. His grand entrance comes while visiting Beckett’s sunny Italian villa where some of these liaisons got steamy. But, alas, we get no equivalent heat, just shadow narrative: driving to Gatwick; the flight to Italy with Beckett’s granddaughter; arriving at and touring the villa; his sparsely-attended lecture; and a fluttering over a young translator of Violet’s novels who fondles what she believes is the spirit of Violet rising in Holroyd.

There’s no attempt to dig out any emotional or intellectual doubt Holroyd may harbor about his obsession, which remains unquestioned and worse, unfelt. Why bring up his to-ing and fro-ing if nothing consequential happens? I wondered. The opera is much tidier in the biographer’s tableaux.

Clearly these icons of Romance and Literature quicken his blood. But Holroyd shies away from the alleyways of the self writers discover in pursuit of their most cherished subjects—writers, that is, who tempt themselves with memoir in biography. Instead, he hound-doggedly follows the research trail. And here it’s only so interesting, at best, a literary mirror of the Merchant-Ivory film.

 

 

Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist.