The Magazine

Love Among the Shadows

Hidden lives, fatal passion, in genteel England.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By SARA LODGE
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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.