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A BOOK OF SECRETS by Michael Holroyd


Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

by Michael Holroyd

Pub Date: Aug. 9th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-11558-6
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An elegiac work of literary archaeology by the knighted British biographer of Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

As the third volume of his memoirs—after Basil Street Blues (2000) and Mosaic (2004)—which similarly offer an intriguing mix of biography and autobiography (“I seek invisibility behind the subjects I am trying to bring alive on the page”), Holroyd (A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families, 2009, etc.) focuses here on the lives of two Bloomsbury-era women who were linked to the same man. Visits to the literary mecca Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, Italy, put the author on the track of a former owner of the house, an English dilettante, ex-banker, widower and Edwardian patron of the arts, Ernest Beckett turned Lord Grimthorpe, who commissioned a bust in 1901 from Rodin of Beckett’s fiancée, Eve Fairfax, only to jilt her soon after. Left with the bill, Eve nonetheless charmed the great, now-aged French sculptor, and over the next eight years their friendship flowered. The bust eventually sold (with his permission) in order to help support this intelligent, cultured woman who would remain unmarried and of scant independent means. Holroyd was able to locate Eve’s precious diary, which he calls her book of secrets, in which she accumulated autographs, photos of dear friends, scraps of poems and memories that record what she believed was a “useful” life. The other main protagonist is the legendary literary sprite, novelist and muse Violet Trefusis, Beckett's illegitimate daughter. Holroyd delved into the novels and life of Trefusis, delineating her torrid, life-transforming affair with Vita Sackville-West, and he quotes amply from their correspondence for a lively, satisfying adventure. Literary enthusiasts will delight in this lovely narrative for its own sake.

Purportedly Holroyd’s “last book,” this is an elegant literary study by a seasoned biographer and wonderfully engaging writer.