- - Monday, July 25, 2016

A HOUSE FULL OF DAUGHTERS: A MEMOIR OF SEVEN GENERATIONS

By Juliet Nicolson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 326 pages, illustrated

Last year, Robert Sackville-West, the current holder of the Sackville barony, wrote a book titled “The Disinherited,” where he contrasted his own fortunate inheritance with the fate of those swept aside because of gender, illegitimacy or other obstacles. His sympathy with those kept from what they felt was rightfully theirs, especially Knole, one of England’s grandest stately homes, made his an uncommonly generous and attractive book.

Some of these “losers” show up again in “A House Full of Daughters” by his distant cousin Juliet Nicolson, although they tend to be the ones envied by the most pathetic subjects of “The Disinherited” in comparison with their own lamentable fates. For what Ms. Nicolson shows in her unflinching memoir of her nuclear family, as well as selected ancestors, is that there really weren’t any total winners in the long run, at least in her branch of the Sackville-West family.



This book concentrates on the female members of the family, who are to put it mildly a pretty unhappy lot. It is a litany of marriages that bring grief even if they begin in great love and, more amazingly still, some where that emotion endures even in the ashes of misery. Ms. Nicolson’s great-grandmother Victoria seemed to be “The Disinherited“‘s ultimate winner in being singled out to be chatelaine of the family estate as her father’s chosen companion and then as wife of his heir. But the early ardor of her marriage cooled into an enmity which turned Knole into a pair of armed camps. After many decades of recrimination and mounting anger, she exiled herself to a much more humble abode, where she declined into ever-increasing eccentricity, misery and malice.

Her only child, Vita Sackville-West, the author’s grandmother, felt the loss of Knole, which she would have inherited had she been male, so acutely she did not visit it for three decades after her father’s death. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this injustice, as she saw it, contributed to her gender-bending identity and ferocious pursuit of countless lesbian affairs, despite a genuine love for her husband, Harold Nicolson. The story of their odd union was laid bare by her son Nigel, Juliet’s father, in his famous — some might say notorious — “Portrait of a Marriage,” which included a memoir Vita had written about the affair with Violet Trefusis (great aunt of today’s Duchess of Cornwall) that wrought havoc in her marriage, but did not destroy it.

Vita did find a substitute for her beloved Knole in nearby Sissinghurst, where she created her fabled gardens, which alongside with restoring the ruined castle into a much-loved family home, was a dedicated mission for the rest of her life. If it could never quite take Knole’s place in her heart, it came close. But it is clear from “A House Full of Daughters” that her granddaughter, much as she admires Knole’s unique splendors, adores Sissinghurst, which her father inherited on Vita’s death in 1962, when Juliet was five, and where he lived for the next four decades until he too died there.

Like her father, Ms. Nicolson has drawn on an unpublished parental memoir, in this case his, and he is unsparing about himself and his inadequacies as a husband, which he blames for the failure of his own marriage. Apparently, Nigel did not follow the homosexual examples set by both parents, but growing up in their menage seems to have left him with a distaste for sex in any form, which unsurprisingly led to his wife’s looking elsewhere for more satisfaction and perhaps the alcoholism which made her life a misery and killed her too early. She was often an absent mother but he was a fond father, very much hands-on from his children’s infancy, and the author’s paternal love shines brightly here.

Juliet Nicolson suffered her own alcoholism for many years and she is graphic about the damage it did to herself and others, from destroying a happy marriage to a glamorous and successful husband to damaging her liver to such an extent that only a tiny function remained. Only after an intervention by her brother and his wife, for which she expresses unbridled gratitude, was she able to put her life back in order to become the happy mother, grandmother and wife (to another man) she is today.

To some extent, her alcoholism seems to have been inherited, all four of her grandparents being what she would term “enthusiastic” drinkers. But she does not ever seek to shift responsibility for her alcoholism and other flaws and mistakes onto others. Ms. Nicholson serves up a distressing image of Vita passed out in one of her flower beds and having to be put to bed by a gardener, something which only came to light after her death, and she also recounts fond memories from childhood of an odd and intimidating but benevolent grandmother. Juliet Nicolson’s honesty about the depths to which she sank at her lowest ebb and her genuine expressions of affection and sympathy make her account of the collateral damage done to this house full of daughters by their heritage and — it must be said, some of the men in their lives — in its way as attractive a book as her cousin’s.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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