An aristocratic family’s scandalous past.
Sackville-West (Inheritance, 2010, etc.) now lives at Knole, a “stately home” of 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards on a vast tract in Kent, England. The property, in his family for 400 years, looms darkly in this sad, sordid family saga, more King Lear than Downton Abbey. The story begins in 1852, when Lord Lionel Sackville-West met Josefa Duran, a Spanish dancer known as Pepita; they embarked on an affair that lasted 20 years and produced five children. To avoid embarrassment to himself and Pepita, Lionel occasionally referred to Pepita as his wife, although she was already married, estranged from her Spanish husband. Lionel installed them in the south of France, visited rarely and struggled to support them. After Pepita died in 1871, he arranged for the children’s care, sending money when he had it. As the fifth son of the fifth Earl De La Warr, Lionel had entered the diplomatic service, a respectable but not remunerative career. His brothers stood to inherit considerably from their father; Lionel did not. But in 1888, a fluke of circumstances and deaths found Lionel the master of Knole. Immediately, the children who had been affectionate in their youth grew rancorous, intent on proving their legitimacy and right to the Sackville name and fortune. Victoria, the eldest daughter, who served as Lionel’s hostess and protector, became the focus of their wrath, and the author gleans much evidence from her diaries and letters and from a biography of Pepita by Victoria’s literary daughter, Vita. Protracted lawsuits eventually found in Lionel’s favor; one son eked out a living in Africa; another killed himself; a daughter died in penury. Victoria, replaced by her husband’s mistress, was eventually ousted from Knole.
Sympathetic to the protagonists’ plight, Sackville-West hones a well-crafted narrative of intrigue, betrayal and greed.