WHEN IT COMES to reading other people’s diaries, biographers claim a sort of diplomatic immunity. In what he calls his final book, Michael Holroyd gleans salacious details from the life of Ernest Beckett, a womanising English nobleman (he inherited the title Lord Grimthorpe—a name Evelyn Waugh might have struggled to coin) and minor politician. “Ernest’s diary made it clear that an innkeeper’s beautiful daughter in Naples had fallen in love with him,” Holroyd writes half-admiringly. Yet the boundary between his world and Ernest’s is blurred when he discusses the diaries with Catherine Till, who believes that she may be the late lord’s illegitimate daughter. “I thought he was insufferably pleased with himself,” she tells Holroyd. “The diary was full of trite generalisations such as ‘Fringes and flirtations go together.’”
Personal links are in fact what drew Holroyd to Ernest’s story. Holroyd had already been entranced by Rodin’s bust of Eve Fairfax, Ernest’s abandoned fiancée, when he saw it in the early 1970s. Then he finds himself visiting the Villa Cimbrone, the palazzo in southern Italy where Ernest sought refuge from a disappointing career and financial embarrassment. He and Till search the house for clues to her paternity and drop in on Gore Vidal nearby. Holroyd returns seven years later at the invitation of Tiziana Masucci, who is organising a literary festival there. She is consumed by a passion for another of Ernest’s unacknowledged daughters, the novelist Violet Trefusis. “I don’t belong to them,” she says of her friends in Rome: “Violet is me!” Turning her “hypnotic gaze” on Holroyd, she convinces him of the novels’ importance.
This complicated, nebulous family promises more than a colorful cast of personalities. The family invites Holroyd to become one of the characters in its story, blending biography and autobiography. It is an irresistible invitation, as he has remembered that his first subject, the writer Hugh Kingsmill, “required of the biographer some account of his or her own life as a passport for travelling into the lives of others.” This spells the end of his diplomatic immunity, but the extended Grimthorpe family leads the way here too. Through their thinly disguised autobiographies and revisionist memoirs, they provide Holroyd with models of defensive secret-telling and keeping.
His book is named in honor of the enormous leather-bound volume that Eve Fairfax compiled over fifty years as a perennial country house guest. After her broken engagement, she drifted away from her family and lived on friends’ hospitality, “calculating exactly how long she could stay before her hosts became too irritated.” Each visit swelled her collection of autographs and wistful poetical tributes. Edith Sitwell’s ‘To Eve’ strikes the keynote: “I seek lost suns within your eyes;/ And find but wrecks of love’s gold argosies.” Hilaire Belloc, John Betjeman, and Somerset Maugham all left their mark on her book, as well as archbishops, generals and foreign royalty. Most intriguing perhaps is the signature of Mordaunt Milner—might he be Eve’s lost son, John Francis Mordaunt? Above all, Holroyd suggests, “this is a book of secrets.”
The potential for scandal in Eve’s book is contained by a web of tacit agreements and antagonisms, all of them relished by Holroyd. He is an expert reader of its “great empty spaces, its undergrowth of clichés.” This is partly because the biographer in him sympathizes with the book’s contributors. They were faced with the task of saying something insightful and original about Eve, but not so original as to be presumptuous, or so insightful as to be cruel. “Opinion differed as to whether it was better to fall back on quotation or attempt something personal,” Holroyd explains. For his part, he does both. He proposes that Vita Sackville-West’s description of Eve’s ancestral home “would have pleased [her] more than other people’s poetry.” But he also pays a personal tribute by casting his memoir in the image of Eve’s “eclectic anthology.” Like Eve, he collects people, and attempts to tell the story of his life through them.
This would have seemed a quaint project to Violet Trefusis, Holroyd’s subject in the second half of A Book of Secrets. She included a veiled portrait of Eve in her novel Pirates at Play, describing her as “one of those popular elderly girls who happiness was purely vicarious … It had taken her the best part of ten years to realise that popularity could become a substitute for love.” With his oblique anecdotes about Salman Rushdie, and a footnoted reference to one of his wife Margaret Drabble’s novels, Holroyd, too, sometimes gives us his literary-social milieu instead of real emotional involvement.
Violet is the perfect antidote to the biographer’s reserve. She was intensely absorbed in the social rituals of the European aristocracy, and prided herself on being the daughter of King Edward VII’s mistress. In her private life, she took her mother’s “almost obscene discretion” to new heights. Although she had no interest in men, she “amused herself madly at the expense of others.” She courted Osbert Sitwell and Gerard Wellesley to the point of engagement, before luring Denys Trefusis into a mariage blanc. All the while, she poured out her true feelings in letters to Vita Sackville-West: “If there ever were two truly primitive people, they are surely us … My days are consumed by this impotent longing for you, and my nights riddled by insufferable dreams.”
Violet and Vita eloped together several times, but Vita was always drawn back to her husband, Harold Nicolson, not to mention her other lovers. Instead, she offered Violet a fantasia of “primitive” passion in her novel Challenge, based around their sexual alter egos Julian and Eve. “This book is yours my witch,” reads the dedication. “Read it and you will find your tormented soul, changed and free.” Violet, who collaborated on parts of the novel, also believed in the transformative power of the roman à clef. She vies with Virginia Woolf for both Vita’s affections and for literary achievement in her Broderie Anglaise, a parody of Orlando with herself, Vita, and Virginia Woolf recast as Anne, Lord Shorne, and Alexa.
Much of Holroyd’s writing about these three women inevitably spills over into literary criticism. As champions of Violet’s novels, he and Tiziana Masucci recognise that the three writers must be read differently:
…whereas Virginia was a writer, tied to no specific time, whose novels might exist for all time, Vita belonged (even in her own time) to the past, and Violet was a European writer who represented her own time.
Biographically then, the richest pickings are to be found in Vita’s novels, which translate to her own past without the complications typical of great art. For Holroyd, Challenge is of interest primarily as a fictional extension of Vita’s relationships and a glimpse of her outlook.
Meanwhile Violet’s French novel Sortie de Secours, or Emergency Exit, frames a problem that Holroyd, with his passport into others’ lives, must dread: “In every person there is a self-interest which in its various forms allows one to escape … The disadvantage is that one cannot always come back.” Masucci herself is an example of one who has chosen not to come back, but to advance her love affair with Violet through endless research, writing and relic-hunting. Only through their discussions of Violet’s work can Holroyd become “vicariously intimate” with Masucci.
Holroyd, on the other hand, extends this extraordinary sympathy to all of his subjects. The culmination of his book is an act of imagination, in which he brings them together at the Villa Cimbrone: “finally they will all meet one another … and learn with much amazement and shaking of heads what they never knew before.” His earlier reservation (“if I were a novelist”) about rearranging their lives no longer applies. In a sense, he has already provided the medium for reconciliation between these characters, having pieced their stories together in his Book of Secrets. Although Holroyd’s own character remains its greatest secret, he does not disappear into the Grimthorpes’ faded world. By enlisting them in his memoir, he brings them back into his, trusting that everything “will at last be transmuted into the comedy of life.”
Laura Marsh is a writer living in London.
Laura Marsh is an Associate Editor at The New Republic.