Love and neglect
VICTORIA GLENDINNING A House Full of Daughters
‘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)