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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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.