Love and ne­glect

VIC­TO­RIA GLENDIN­NING A House Full of Daugh­ters

The Oldie - - BOOKS - by Juliet Nicol­son

‘The habit of writ­ing down the story of our lives has long been a tra­di­tion in our fam­ily,’ writes Juliet Nicol­son. You can say that again.

Juliet’s great-grand­mother Vic­to­ria kept di­aries, her grand­mother Vita Sackville-west laid down the fam­ily myth and her place in it in Pepita, in Knole, and in the ac­count of her pas­sion­ate af­fair with Vi­o­let Tre­fu­sis, pub­lished af­ter her death by her son Nigel Nicol­son, Juliet’s fa­ther. The let­ters be­tween Vita Sackville-west and Virginia Woolf have been pub­lished, as have the let­ters and di­aries of Vita’s hus­band, Harold Nicol­son, and their bi­ogra­phies have been writ­ten. Juliet’s brother Adam has writ­ten a per­sonal book about Siss­inghurst. The list could go on.

Juliet Nicol­son ex­presses un­ease about adding to the ob­ses­sional record­ing. But she has a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus – moth­ers and daugh­ters. This is a chron­i­cle of seven gen­er­a­tions of women, from the birth of Juliet’s grand­mother’s grand­mother to that of her own grand­daugh­ter. She finds repet­i­tive pat­terns, elic­it­ing in­sights that may seem un­startling: how ‘daugh­ter­hood can trap as well as en­hance lives’, and how ‘chil­dren kept se­crets from the par­ents and par­ents from their chil­dren’.

But her book is more in­ter­est­ing than that. The first half of it is a run-through of what is al­ready known from previous pub­li­ca­tions, though new­com­ers to the scene will still find it eye-pop­ping. Catalina, born in 1830, was from the back streets of Malaga. One of her daugh­ters, Pepita, be­came a world-fa­mous Span­ish dancer. Lionel Sackville-west, a young diplo­mat, fell madly in love with her, had five chil­dren with her, and kept her in seclu­sion in Ar­ca­chon in France. When Pepita died their el­der daugh­ter Vic­to­ria, still in her teens, be­came her fa­ther’s com­pan­ion and host­ess in Wash­ing­ton and had huge so­cial suc­cess. This il­le­git­i­mate Vic­to­ria mar­ried her first cousin, another Lionel Sackville-west, and they lived in splen­dour, though not hap­pily, at Knole. Vita Sackville-west was the only child of Lionel and the charis­matic but dam­ag­ing Vic­to­ria. The pat­tern Juliet Nicol­son traces is of a se­quence of moth­ers who hurt their daugh­ters by a cock­tail of ne­glect, un­pre­dictabil­ity or dom­i­na­tion. Fa­thers come out of it bet­ter, of­ten prov­ing to be ‘the bet­ter, more lov­ing, more en­gaged par­ent’.

Then the book changes key. Vita had no daugh­ter, so we skip a gen­er­a­tion, and side­ways, to Juliet her­self. She records what could not have been recorded be­fore. Her par­ents’ mar­riage was a to­tal mis­match. Nigel Nicol­son, as a young Tory can­di­date, needed a wife. Philippa Ten­nyson D’eyn­court was the pretty sec­re­tary of the Young Con­ser­va­tives in his con­stituency. Her par­ents were rich, worldly and snob­bish. They in­hab­ited a dif­fer­ent cul­tural uni­verse from that of Vita and Harold. Nigel thought he could turn Philippa into ‘a Siss­inghurst per­son’. But she did not even read books. He did not love her, and found sex (with any­one) dis­taste­ful.

Juliet sym­pa­thises with her mother, who in her un­hap­pi­ness turned to a mi­lieu where she was ap­pre­ci­ated – peo­ple with vil­las in the South of France, and mar­ti­nis, and pools, and laugh­ter. She was of­ten away from home, and

Juliet writes painfully of her own sad­ness as a child, watch­ing from the win­dow as her lovely mother jumps into a taxi, again. Philippa promised Nigel that she would not leave him un­til his fa­ther died, but af­ter that she went. Her sec­ond mar­riage did not work out ei­ther and she be­came a hope­less al­co­holic. Vita had of­ten drunk her­self into obliv­ion too. Juliet, when her own life fell apart, also ‘Was Lon­don Bridge fall­ing down be­cause of govern­ment aus­ter­ity mea­sures?’ took to the bot­tle, and re­peated in less florid form some of her mother’s be­hav­iours in re­gard to her daugh­ters. There is much sad­ness in her story, but op­ti­mism too. She is close now to her daugh­ters, and ec­stat­i­cally at­tached to her grand­daugh­ter.

Juliet evokes her re­la­tion­ship with her mother so poignantly, and be­came so ex­traor­di­nar­ily close to her fa­ther when he was dy­ing, that one has to re­mind one­self that she was not their only daugh­ter. In her book’s close fo­cus on in­di­vid­ual mother-daugh­ter (and fa­ther-daugh­ter) re­la­tion­ships, the wider fam­ily dy­namic, in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, be­comes ob­scured. Yet ev­ery­one has his or her own story, and within each fam­ily ev­ery­one’s story is dif­fer­ent and equally true. This is Juliet Nicol­son’s own truth, coura­geously shared. Vic­to­ria Glendin­ning is the au­thor of ‘Vita: The Life of Vita SackvilleWest’(1983)

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