A Book of Secrets

  • Michael Holroyd
  • Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
  • 272 pp.
  • August 11, 2011

Biography and memoir meet in probing the intertwined stories of two notable English women.

Reviewed by Linda Morefield

A Book of Secrets is about personal secrets, family secrets, secrets of the heart, secrets of the biographer, secrets of the art of biography. Written by Michael Holroyd, acclaimed English biographer of such personages as Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw (four volumes), this biography is ostensibly about the lives of two “ordinary” everyday women who never knew each other and were connected only by the loosest of associations with a building, Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, Italy, and with a man who might have been the lover of one, the unacknowledged father of the other. Their lives, filled with hope, dreams and high aspirations, end in “quiet desperation.”

Part 1 focuses on Eve Fairfax, abandoned fiancée of Ernest Beckett, a notorious womanizer, banker, MP and the second Lord Grimthorpe. Part II introduces Violet Trefusis, Grimthorpe’s illegitimate daughter, little-known novelist, notorious in her time as the lover of Vita Sackville-West. These women would not attract the attention of traditional biographers, but Holroyd’s infinite curiosity about the vagaries of human nature continues an exploration he began in his first memoir, Basil Street Blues.  At that time, he wrote about his parents that “neither of them were in the front line of great historical events: their dramas are the dramas of ordinarily lives, each one nevertheless extraordinary.”

Eve Fairfax caught Holroyd’s eye 40 years before he began writing this book. He was lingering after hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum, waiting for a “brilliant-looking young girl who quite dazzled me,” when he became quite bedazzled by the image of another woman, Rodin’s bronze bust of Eve Fairfax, cast around 1904-05. To satisfy his curiosity, Holroyd began researching the relationship between Rodin and Fairfax, although it would be more than four decades before a series of coincidences brought this material back to mind and into this book. And although Holroyd didn’t know it, when he first noticed her statue, Eve was still alive, about 100 years old and living in quiet destitution in an institution for the impoverished in northern England, her fees paid for by Lord Grimthorpe, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Linlithgow. A spinister, she was “damaged goods” in her society, illegitimate in the sense of never having married, never having financial wherewithal but a member of society nonetheless, an embarrassment to many but of a class that must be supported by her class.

Eve, whose life began with such promise, ended as an arthritic, eccentric crone, carrying with her everywhere, for five decades, a large book into which she pasted her memories — invitations, programs, notes, place — and into which she had people write their names, messages, poems, whatever they wanted. Some words kind, some cruel, some seemingly with nothing to do with her. A few people ran when they saw her coming with her ever-present book, which to most was meaningless or junk but to Eve was all that she had in the world, a most precious book of secrets, her life.

Holroyd searches out her secrets, tells her story not in chronological time but in emotional time, moving from the end of her affair with Grimthorpe, who refused to pay Rodin for the bust, to Grimthorpe’s superficial and womanizing life before he met Eve (a life both legitimate and acceptable for men of his class — never for women), to “All About Eve,” as he names the third chapter. Presented in this way, the facts resonate against each other, and, while remaining true to the craft of the biographer, Holroyd lays bare her emotional life.

Part II, a search for the secrets of Violet Trefusis, begins in the summer of 2007 when Holroyd is invited to lecture at Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, a private castle now an upscale hotel. Cimbrone was once bought for the “price of a cow” by Grimthorpe, Eve Fairfax’s fiancé, who poured a fortune into remodeling his dream villa only to never inhabit it alive. His ashes, however, are interred there. At Cimbrone, Holroyd meets Tiziana Masucci, the Italian translator of Violet Trefusis, whose novels are also books of secrets, romans a clef, filled with the scandals of the time, including the love that cannot speak its name. In one of the many coincidences and strange interweaving of lives that are a sub-theme of this book, Violet Trefusis is connected to Eve Fairfax through Grimthorpe, who fathered her with Alice Keppel, mistress of the Prince of Wales and great-grandmother of Camilla, current Duchess of Cornwall.

Masucci first became obsessed by Violet when a book fell off a shelf and opened to her picture, a  fiercer echo of Holroyd’s fascination with Rodin’s bust of Eve. When “those basilisk eyes gazed up at her … she [Masucci] got all of Violet’s books, shut herself away with them and, when she emerged, started to reorganize her life around them.” The biographer Holroyd writes of Masucci, who plans to be the biographer of Violet, that “other people, living people, let you down. Violet is a shield against betrayal.”

Many writers appear in this book, including such authors of biography and biographical fiction as Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Holroyd, too, is a presence. Following the tradition of A.J.A.Symons’s 1934 The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography, Holroyd weaves himself into the biography, his own quest integral to the narrative. In his hands, biography becomes, in part, a recounting of how secrets of the subject’s life become uncovered, and what can and cannot be known. Biography is a book of secrets.

A mark of this biography is Holroyd’s delight in following side tracks, whether of his quarry or others who appear in the hunt, so among the vast array of characters are Auguste Rodin, Lord Randolf Churchill, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Nigel Nicholson, Gore Vidal (who lived at Cimbrone), Erica Jong and others who have no fame but become of great interest under Holroyd’s pen.

A Book of Secrets opens and closes with a description of Villa Cimbrone, that edifice of secrets, “a place of fantasy that seems to float in the sky: a miraculous palazzo, now called the Villa Cimbrone, which answers the need for make-believe in all our lives.” Like Cimbrone, there are secrets in this Book of Secrets. If a biographer is writing a book of secrets, how could there not be? In his first memoir, Basil Street Blues, Holroyd writes that “my career as a biographer probably arose from my need to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people’s lives.” The biographer lurks in the shadow of his subject.

Holroyd mentions, in a throw-away phrase, in the middle of a sentence toward the end of the book, that this is his last book. In his preface, “The World Turned Upside Down” he challenges the reader with the statement that his book about “illegitimate daughters, absent fathers” is the third in a series of his memoirs. Of his first two memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic, he notes that “these two books mix biography with autobiography as I seek invisibility behind the subjects I am trying to bring alive on the page. They are the confessions of an elusive biographer.”

For those curious about the lives and obsessions of others, for readers fascinated by biography and the life of a biographer, for connoisseurs of exact, fluid and exciting prose: rush out and buy this book.

Linda Morefield, a Virginia writer, is a senior review editor for the Independent.

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