A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
Nonfiction, Picador, 2012 (First Publication 2010)
Paperback, 264 pages
This one is out of my usual book menu. But I always welcome a little change. With this one, I thought I will be reading more of Rodin but I ended up reading about “scandals” of the royalties like reading an intriguing novel. Holroyd has the lyrical rhythm as well as sincere and inquiring tone that made me proceed. I was about to ditch this one early on because the print is so small (But there were two prior publications in Great Britain and US which you can pick up instead of this one). But since I am into Italy right now, I got hold of this book because the book is also inspired by Villa Cimbrone which is located in Ravello, an Italian village.
Holroyd's interest started from the time he saw an Eve Fairfax bust scupture by Rodin, but it turned out that the Eve Fairfax-Rodin link became a mere jump off of his research on various characters. This is a story of women who lived in the peripheral story of Ernest Beckett (Second Baron of Grimthorpe) whose political life and personal lives were in parallel; both appeared to be in order but they were not.
The bust of Eve Fairfax was commissioned by Ernest Beckett as a wedding gift, only to be called off for reasons only biographers love to dig into and speculate endlessly. Then we came to the letters exchanged by Rodin and Eve revealing a mutual admiration, and then Eve's relationship with Belgian violinist Desire Defauw, the storytelling proceeded to the wonderings as to who was the father of her son John Francis Mordaunt later on (there's an exciting postscript in this edition, Defauw's and Morduant's survivors had a DNA Test and it turned out negative).
Then we have Alice Keppel, who was the mistress of Ernest Beckett and the Prince of Wales, who begot “scandalous to the delicacy of the royalties” Violet Trefusis (she was married to Denys Trefussis). She was a lesbian who was disastrously married off to a gay in order to have a “ normal” life and was exiled by her mother to France and found herself celebrated as a French novelist. Who was her father?
Violet Trefusis was by herself a story. She was the lover of another writer Vita Sackville-West who was herself married. It was an interestingly woven story by Holroyd who used Violet's fiction and nonfiction (memoirs and letters) as his threads.
Along the way, I found myself in the world of Holroyd as biographer, and felt his joys and challenges, as well as understood his own feelings and assessments of the people involved in his work. He also made friends with Catherine Lycett Green whose paternity lineage may belong to the Grimthorpe but the fact of not knowing challenges her loyalty and love to her legal father as well as leaves an inexplicable restlessness in her own life.
Lastly, the places told and the works of art revealed, not much about the characters undressed, made me come along.