Biography is a form of love affair, the more intense because it can never be consummated. Like lovers, biographers rifle through their subjects’ letters and diaries for evidence of the absent one’s activities and affections. They guard their subject’s reputation and become jealous of rivals. They profess to interpret, to comprehend, to promote, but they requite the years that they devote to their chosen figure of fascination by exercising the power of life or death over them, the right to immortalize or to dissect.

Michael Holroyd’s latest book is about a series of forgotten love affairs. It traces the stories of several women—Luie Tracy Lee, José Cornelia Brink, Eve Fairfax, Violet Trefusis, and Catherine Till—who are connected by their relationships to the Beckett family, the Barons Grimthorpe of Yorkshire. Luie was the wife of Ernest Beckett (1856-1917), a restless banker, MP, traveler, and playboy. Eve and José were two of his mistresses, Violet his illegitimate daughter, and Catherine is (probably) his illegitimate granddaughter. In tracing the lives of these women, Holroyd evokes a transient era, from the late 19th century to the Second World War: a period that saw the English aristocracy acquire new money from industry, indulge in new cultural adventures, but also experience a new self-doubt. All of the figures in Holroyd’s tale are poignant: Even the philandering Ernest seems lost in a social canvas that, despite his talents and advantages, he can never properly fill. It is the women in this minor tragedy, however, with whom Holroyd is in love. He paints their secret lives, their failures, and their indomitable spirit with the sensitivity of someone who cares, almost too much, for those whose passion is laced with suffering.

Luie Tracy Lee was an American heiress whose charmed girlhood at Highland Falls, a country estate near West Point, collapsed when her father died. To console her, her cousin, Pierpont Morgan, took her to Europe. She was the kind of young American on the brink of life, an ingénue straying into Old World lairs, who would have fascinated Henry James. They went to Paris and Marseilles and Alexandria, cruising through the Mediterranean in an “uncomfortable and beastly boat.” In Cairo, she saw improper stage shows and was dubbed “la Belle Américaine.” She bought dozens of dresses and admired Joshua Reynolds’s painting The Age of Innocence, but nothing could dispel her ennui until she met Ernest Beckett in Rome. She was 19 and lost; he was 27 and reckless: Within five months they were married. Luie was one of a band of Pilgrim Daughters, young American brides whose transfusion of dollars reinvigorated aristocratic English families whose fortunes were hemorrhaging. Alas, however, all Luie’s wealth, youth, and beauty could not prolong her own life. Having had two daughters and a miscarriage, she died in 1891 giving birth to the male heir that was required to sustain the Grimthorpe title.

Perhaps it was just as well. Had Luie lived longer, she might have had to confront Ernest’s mistress, José Cornelia Brink. José was a blonde bombshell from South Africa, whose figure even Victorian contemporaries had to admit was eye-catching. When still only a teenager, José evidently decided that she could have more fun in London without a chaperone. Ernest took a suite at the Savoy and invited her for lunch. When he suggested they might adjourn to the bedroom, José was not slow to relinquish her fork and anything else she might be holding up, or vice versa.

José was, perhaps, the only woman to get the better of Ernest Beckett. He rented her a luxurious house, where they continued their liaison when he was in London. Meanwhile, José thought she would take up acting. Hilariously, she took a part in a traveling production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. José is the epitome of all the paradoxes of Victorian society that Wilde satirizes: a courtesan whose credit ran so high that she traveled first-class; a kept woman who was freer than her married counterparts; a comic actress whose lover was Ernest. She wasn’t a great success in the theater, but she didn’t need to be. If she did Wilde on stage, she did wilder off it.

Ernest had a curious instinct for a bad gamble: He invested in San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake. José, by contrast, hedged her bets outrageously and got away with it. At a party, while Ernest was abroad, she met a businessman called John Joseph Lace flaunting a diamond ring. She told him she didn’t like men who wore rings, so he promptly transferred it from his finger to hers. When Ernest returned and discovered she had married, he was irate. He insisted on claiming her back. He was now a widower, so José must have thought she had a chance of becoming Lady Grimthorpe. She renewed the relationship and bore Ernest a son. But Ernest (characteristically) tired of his victory and left her. So José went back to Mr. Lace who—remarkably—remarried her, accepted her son, and sailed back to South Africa with them.

As Mr. Lace put it, “Living with José is hell; but it is worse hell without her.”

Eve Fairfax, another of Ernest’s lovers, was equally plucky but not so lucky. She is evidently Holroyd’s favorite muse in this narrative. You can see her bust, by Rodin, in the Victoria and Albert Museum—and it was encountering this strong face, with its long neck and challenging eyes, that made Holroyd wish to seek out the story of the sitter. Eve was born into a noble family descended from Parliamentarians who had defeated Charles I during the Civil War. The spirit of resistance was strong in her. Educationally neglected, she poured her energies into sport and was an excellent cricketer. She galloped her pony eight miles to school and back each day and often rode to balls with her gown in her saddlebag. Sadly, late Victorian English society offered little scope to Calamity Janes of Eve’s vigorous physical type. She dodged proposals like bullets, but could not quite resist the danger of Ernest Beckett. He broke off their engagement, perhaps after she miscarried his child, perhaps because his ruinous finances didn’t allow him to marry anyone without money. Eve spent the rest of her life as a genteel guest, travelling around the stately homes of England, providing entertaining company in return for lodging.

At this point in the book, Holroyd’s focus shifts to modern times. He describes his visit to the Villa Cimbrone, Ernest Beckett’s beautiful Italian cliff-top house near Ravello, with Catherine Till, who is hoping to find there letters that might reveal whether she is Ernest Beckett’s granddaughter. Holroyd’s account of his high-speed Italian adventure with the seventysomething Catherine at the wheel of a rental car—driving recklessly in the wrong direction—is an entertaining travelogue in its own right. Catherine’s combination of gusto, charm, recklessness, and insecurity tend to make the reader think that she must surely be a Beckett after all.

The Villa Cimbrone, however, despite its magical setting amid lemon groves and umbrella pines, fails to provide any significant clues. Catherine’s quest to establish her true identity ends in disappointment. So Holroyd’s narrative path twists again and takes up the story of Violet Trefusis, Beckett’s illegitimate daughter by Alice Keppel, a Victorian wife remarkable for the suavity of her depravity: She was also the Prince of Wales’s favorite mistress.

Violet was a force of nature: selfish, intense, passionate, and strange. She hated and adored her mother in equal measure. Like other women connected to Ernest Beckett, she seems to have had more fire and freedom in her sexuality than British society of her era could openly accommodate. In Violet’s case, however, the situation was complicated by the fact that she was homosexual. When still only a teenager, she developed a crush of Wagnerian proportions on Vita Sackville-West: Over the years this would develop into a tempestuous love affair whose waves of attraction and withdrawal threatened to capsize everyone near to either of them. Moreover, Violet was a writer, with a vengeance: Those who crossed her ended up in tales.

Holroyd leads us through Violet’s stormy career, with a commentary on each of her works of fiction. The biography is full of startling anecdotes. Violet and Vita married and participated, to some degree, in the polite fiction of heterosexuality. But they also repeatedly ran away together. On one occasion in 1920 they were pursued to France by their husbands in a small plane, which Alice Keppel had hired. After Violet was forced to relinquish Vita, she became involved with a French princess (a daughter of Isaac Singer, the American sewing-machine millionaire) who favored sadomasochistic role play with whips and boots. We know because a visitor to her palace, being mistaken for “the lady who was expected,” went upstairs and stumbled on an all-female party that went well beyond tea and cake. Violet’s desire for absolute love sometimes seems petulantly childlike, but her experiments in life and art were decidedly adult.

Holroyd’s detailed commentary on Violet’s fiction, while interesting in itself, strays from family history into literary criticism. And this is a problem with the book as a whole: It is rather diffuse and digressive. The struggle for identity, which troubles several of Holroyd’s characters, is a struggle with which his book also grapples. A Book of Secrets isn’t entirely sure whether it is a group biography, a history of an era, a house (in the architectural or familial sense), or a literary study.

The author himself notes that his book has “no settled agenda. .  .  . [It is] not so much a traditional ‘biographical’ narrative, as a set of thematically related stories.” When he gives us some of Eve Fairfax’s life, then wanders away from her to other figures, only to return to her story later, those readers who prefer their narrative track to be straight and direct will be frustrated.

If, however, you enjoy a loose structure and can embrace the degree of randomness that is a quality of how we encounter human stories in real life, there is much to enjoy here. Sometimes the vignettes Holroyd briefly sketches but does not pursue are the most intriguing. Ernest’s father, William, was mysteriously killed on a provincial railway track, with a large banknote in his pocket. Probably he was visiting a mistress (infidelity seems to be the one constant in the Beckett family), but why he crossed the line we’ll never know. His death forms an ironic tableau worthy of Dickens: the magnate scattered along one of the railways whose wealth built his family, his body accidentally divided into multiple shares.

A Book of Secrets is, in various senses, an elegiac history. It depicts an era in which much was hidden and lost. Also Holroyd now suffers from a serious illness; he has announced that this is his last book. It is not his best work, but its tangents are haunting. They evoke a problem that fascinated Modernists like Violet Trefusis and has always fascinated Holroyd: What are the limits of biography as a form? Where does it enter the realm of fiction, of desire? At his best, Holroyd makes a virtue of what cannot be known or recovered. The romance of the past lies, like the beauty of Eve Fairfax’s sculpture, in its inscrutable, provocative, always unfinished gaze.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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