A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

This book was brought to my attention by the lovely blog Ciao Domenica. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as the book jacket is not very informative and, in fact, is strangely vague. But I can somewhat understand it as this book is hard to categorize.

At its root, it is a portrait of the wife, mistresses and illegitimate daughter of Ernest Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, who owned a spectacular house in Italy called Villa Cimbrone. Beckett lived during the Victorian/Edwardian age and was a sometime politician, a follower of Randolph Churchill. Yet he was also a bit of a screw-up and was paid to leave the family business after which he traveled the world and settled in Italy at his villa.

It was in Italy that he met his wife, Louie, an American heiress who was very young and charming. We hardly get to know her before her death suddenly descends.

We then read about Eve Fairfax, a beautiful woman who sat for Rodin and who becomes Beckett’s fiancee. She seems to be a somewhat insecure person who never finds her place in the world. After Beckett dumps her she becomes a wanderer, never settling down, finding a home or financial security. She lives to be over 100 and relies on the help of fellow aristocrats and family to survive.

The final, and largest, section of the book focuses on Violet Trefusis who was most certainly Beckett’s illegitimate daughter. Beckett had a brief affair with Violet’s mother, Alice Keppel, later the mistress of King Edward VII. Violet’s long and drama-filled life is well told, including her very tangled relationship with Vita Sackville-West.

My favorite part of this book was the story of Holroyd’s search for information of Beckett and his discovery of Trefusis’s novels by way of a very enthusiastic Italian academic. I usually don’t like the insertion of an author into the story of someone else’s life, but this was Holroyd’s story as well as he explains quite beautifully.

This was a book that spoke to me about the way our choices absolutely affect other people whether we like to believe so or not. If Beckett would have been more loyal to his wife, more considerate of his lovers’ feelings, and had any sense of responsibility toward his illegitimate children, this story might have turned out differently, but then we probably wouldn’t have wanted to read about it or have been very interested in their lives, would we?

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This sounds really interesting! I have a long-standing fascination for the writers and literary figures of the 1920s and 30s, and read a biography of Violet Trefusis about a year and a half ago, as well as her novel “Broderie Anglaise”, which gives her (very biased) version of the love triangle between her, Vita Sackville-West, and Virginia Woolf. Ernest Beckett is only mentioned once in passing in the biography, so I am intrigued by Holroyd’s book.
    It’s funny: Violet Trefusis, too, left England and retired to a villa in Italy, called L’Ombrellino. Like father, like daughter, I guess!

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