When Vita Sackville-West, daughter of the third Lord Sackville, recalled her childhood at the family’s ancestral home, Knole, she described “a person called Henry who from time to time came to the entrance and demanded to see Grandpapa, but was not allowed to.” So recounts Robert Sackville-West, author of The Disinherited and also the current, and seventh, Baron Sackville. Henry, in fact, was Vita’s uncle on her mother’s side. Her rather detached and vague reference to “a person called Henry” suggests the tragic divergence of the two sides of a family, one virtually unknown to the other.
Here, Robert Sackville-West elegantly unravels the story of Vita’s mother Victoria (who has been written about by Vita herself) and Victoria’s four siblings, Max, Amalia, Flora, and Henry. The children were the result of a nearly 20-year liaison between Lionel Sackville-West—eventually the second Lord Sackville—and a Spanish dancer named Pepita de Oliva. Pepita was already married when she and Lionel met and began their union in 1852 in Paris, where Lionel was visiting, on leave from his first diplomatic assignment in Stuttgart.
As the illegitimate offspring of a titled British family, the five children were uniquely vulnerable and marginalized by both the law and social convention. British property inheritance runs through the legitimate male line only, thus none of them could ever have any claim to Knole. Socially, they were cruelly shunned in childhood by neighboring families in southern France, where they lived until Pepita’s death in 1871. In adulthood, they were reduced to itinerant lives of tenuous marriages and meager livelihoods patched together from ill-considered jobs and small allowances doled out, from time to time, by their father or eldest sister, Victoria.
Victoria was strong-willed, cool, and opportunistic—born to catapult herself from the shadow and shame of illegitimacy to position and material security. This she did through a combination of fortuitous events and her own charm. In 1889, her father inherited the Knole estate, becoming the second Lord Sackville. Victoria, once the “unwanted little foreigner, hustled away at a stranger’s approach” (in the words of her daughter Vita), came to live at Knole and, as her father’s eldest daughter and caretaker, became the mistress of a home with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. Her future was further assured when she married her first cousin, also Lionel, who was in the direct line of succession for Knole because Victoria’s father had no legitimate male heirs.
Robert Sackville-West is descended from the legitimate side of the family and currently lives at Knole with his wife and children. In his previous book, Inheritance (2010), he wrote of Knole and its 400-year history, including the generations of Sackville-Wests who have inhabited it.
In the introduction to The Disinheirited he notes:
For hundreds of years, Knole has pulled generations of Sackvilles in and then pushed them away. . . . This power was felt particularly by those members of the family who never had a hope of inheriting—the daughters, the younger sons, the widows.
He tells the story of “the doubly disinherited,” the illegitimate members of an ancient family who could claim neither name nor title nor property. Through their father, Victoria and her siblings were affiliated with privilege, but, in effect, they belonged nowhere and enjoyed none of the protections such privilege would normally have afforded them. With empathy and voluminous documentation, including many personal letters from the siblings, Robert Sackville-West gives them a voice and a presence that, in their lifetimes, their illegitimacy and their own family had denied them.
Henry, the youngest, was perhaps the most aggrieved by his disinheritance and launched a protracted series of painfully public court battles to establish his legitimacy. With little money, and goaded on by those who thought they might profit from his claim, he pursued his hopeless, stumbling quest for recognition as the legitimate heir to Knole for much of his adult life. He would lose the legal fight and eventually commit suicide, crushed by both the loss and the death of his wife.
In recounting Victoria’s reaction to her brother Henry’s death, Sackville-West remarks:
Any “peace within” must have involved the suppression of all memories of her brother; of the childish letters he had written her, describing how much he had cried when she left for her convent in Paris; of the shopping trips on which she took him to outfit him for a new life in South Africa; of the shared gratitude he admitted to her once that he felt towards their father.