Granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and daughter of Nigel Nicolson, Juliet Nicolson certainly has writing in her blood. After publishing several books about the social history of the early 20th century, she now turns her eye on her own remarkable family. Nicolson introduces us to seven generations of women, from the black-eyed Spanish dancer Pepita in the mid 19th century to Nicolson’s own infant granddaughter Imogen and tells their stories. Delivered with passion and compassion, this is a beautifully crafted tale of what it means to be a woman: as daughter, lover, wife and mother.
Challenging the traditional patriarchal approach to genealogy, Nicolson leads us down her family tree from mother to daughter: Pepita, the flamenco dancer, rises from the modest streets of Malaga and the intense, almost oppressive love of her own mother Catalina, to become the established mistress of the British diplomat Lionel Sackville-West. Pepita’s daughter Victoria accompanies her father to the embassy in Washington, where she becomes his chateleine and a much-admired society beauty, shrugging off her determined suitors until she falls in love with her Sackville-West cousin. Victoria’s daughter, also christened Victoria but known by all as Vita, breaks the mould and embarks on a life of fervent, passionate challenge. Her greatest love affair is with the family’s rambling, romantic house at Knole in Kent. As a girl, and an only child, she knows that this beloved house will pass on her father’s death to another’s hands and her love is all the deeper for the certainty of loss.
Then comes Philippa, the shy and childlike daughter of the Tennyson d’Eyncourts, emotionally isolated and little cultivated by her self-centred parents, who marries Vita’s son Nigel. And it is Philippa’s daughter, Juliet, who brings the story to its close with the tale of her own life, and a coda celebrating her two daughters and her granddaughter, who have so many more opportunities for happiness than their forebears. And that’s crucial, because Nicolson’s story throws up constant and painful reiterations of the same theme: women, forced to make bargains with men in order to gain a measure of independence, and so often finding that these bargains have bitter stings in the tail.
Nicolson is ruthlessly honest throughout the book. She turns the same unflinching scrutiny upon her own struggles as a mother as she does upon Catalina, or Vita, or her own mother Philippa. She gives the facts, she expresses regrets, and yet she never judges. With the compassion of hindsight she gives each woman the dignity of a fair hearing and places her in the context of the stifling battles she had to fight against society, misogyny or her own upbringing. The stories she tells are very often not happy ones, as love waxes and wanes, and affairs or unhappiness work their cruel impact on these marriages. It’s ironic that, until the present generation, the only couple who seem to have had a deep and committed companionship are Vita and Harold – whose marriage arrangements were, to put it mildly, bohemian. Nicolson’s structure beautifully shows how the choices of the parents are visited upon their daughters, who are often left struggling to cope with the fractured and unhappy lives of their mothers and fathers.
But the most wonderful thing, and the reason that you should really consider reading this, is the language. Nicolson writes so simply and expressively about love, grief, regret and bereavement, from the perspective of someone who has been daughter, mother and now grandmother. Each layer has offered her a more profound, generous understanding of the past. It is a deeply personal book and, as such, often rather brave, especially when she speaks of her own experiences. The chronicle of her ancestors is loving, but not sentimental; frank, but not cruel; and her insights are powerfully affecting. I don’t know much about the Sackville-Wests and Nicolsons – though I think I now have to read Vita’s Pepita – but prior knowledge isn’t necessary. Even a complete newcomer can appreciate this masterful exploration of how six very different women have tackled, and are tackling, the various relationships which anchor them into this world.
Indeed, I think the only requirement for enjoying this book is that you should either be, or have had, a daughter or a mother. It’s one of the most poignant, courageous and intelligent meditations on womanhood that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it far, far more than I thought I would. Highly recommended as an introduction to this fascinating clan.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.