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.