A tangled dynastic compilation of a famous Kent house segues into a deft trek through English royal history.
Best known as the mansion in which poet Vita Sackville-West grew up and on which her friend and lover Virginia Woolf based Orlando (1928), the house at Knole has been the nearly continuous domicile of the Sackville earls, dukes and barons since the Elizabethan statesman Thomas Sackville, the first Earl of Dorset, acquired it in 1604. Like other nearby estates such as Holdenby, Burghley and Theobalds, Knole, originally a medieval manor house, was refurbished by Sackville as a show palace befitting his years of loyal service, ultimately as Lord Treasurer. Subsequently, the house fell to his son and wife, Anne Clifford, whose diaries during her long life and troubled marriage offer a marvelous window to the splendor of the Jacobean court, aristocratic rounds, roiling hereditary landowning disputes and the sense of pall and isolation the house often rendered over its inhabitants, particularly the women. The author spryly navigates the English Civil War, when Knole was sequestrated by the Parliamentarians because of resident Edward Sackville’s royalist proclivities. The Restoration coincided with Knole’s glorious resurrection by Charles, the sixth Earl of Dorset, high-living man of letters and friend to the poets. The Sackvilles always “hovered on the periphery of power, participating—just—in the making of history,” writes the author, who actually lives in the house, now owned by the National Trust. His depiction of Vita’s mother, Victoria, mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, makes an especially cracking story.
The lives of these English eccentrics turn a potentially dense chronicle into a delightfully surprising narrative.