By way of a change, a non fiction book. It fits nicely with my habit of reading the history of women’s lives: not exclusively viewing history that way, but so many of the books I pick up are either fictional or non- fictional biographies of women that it seems to work out that way. I’m reading Philippa Gregory’s latest book at the moment, and Northernvicar has just booked for us to go and hear her speak at Harrogate. Still on the Tudors, but this time from the angle of Margaret Tudor, who had a different view of Katherine of Aragon. Interesting.
Back to the main book. This is essentially a biography of Juliet Nicholson’s female relatives, from a dancer in Spain in 1830 through to a granddaughter born in 2013. It is the story of a family who have mainly lived financially secure lives, in the beautiful surroundings of Knole and Sissinghurst. Nicolson does write in the introduction about this aristocratic setting; the unhappiness felt by several of these women had nothing to do with lack of money. She writes “But I wonder if wealth and class always amounted to privilege in a broader sense.” Some of these women have been deeply unhappy, in their marriage to unsympathetic and difficult men, in their own disappointments, even their own addictions. Encouragement of their own daughters has not always been the case, and if they have had success it has almost despite their backgrounds rather than because of it. Having said that, servants and money have always been there to soften the blow in terms of day to day existence until the most recent generations, and in the case of Pepita whose talent and beauty transformed her life. These are also women who have made their mark,; they include the writer and garden creator Vita Sackville West, whose life and writing are studied today. This chapter was a little disappointing, as I felt that Nicholson had not really created a full picture of such a vibrant woman, despite revelations about early married life.
This is a very well written , well researched book. Nicholson has obviously been fortunate in having immense family records to consult which would not be the case for most of us, as well as having famous lives to try and encapsulate. The most touching and significant portraits here as you may expect are of her own parents, and her own battles with life, again against a background of financial security but also a great sadness. I suppose one of the difficulties with history, even recent family history, is that “They all die in the end” and it is difficult to think of some individuals without loading them up with the regrets of their deaths rather than their achievements in life. I suppose I would have welcomed a little more positivism about women who did achieve a lot, whether as a political hostess, a writer or a creator of a world famous gardener. This is not a miserable book, but neither is it a happy book.
One style point, I became very confused about all the names given to the main people. While I appreciate that some people shared the same name, (two Lionels!) I sometime found that “mother” changed to Philippa and back again within a page. I also got my Vita and Victorias muddled, which meant a generational issue. Maybe it is because of my reading in a haphazard way, but it did affect my interest. That said, this is a searingly honest book which I found very interesting and I would recommend to anyone interested in women’s lives in the 20th century, particularly those interested in family dynamics.