History is generally the domain of men of action. Battles, stirring speeches, conquering and plundering. The downtrodden and the discarded are merely footnotes, casualties to the greatness that is the progress.
Read the last Bookslut on Wayne Koestenbaum's Humiliation.
And yet, biographer and historian Michael Holroyd finds himself putting the man of action, a British aristocrat who went by Ernest William Denison and then Ernest William Beckett and then the Second Baron Grimthorpe, into the margins of his own history to focus on the creatures who would normally populate the sidelines. His new book A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers is about the cast off fiancees, the mistresses, the dead wives and sisters, the bastard children, and the descendants down the line, who still carry the burden of Baron Grimthorpe’s careless ways.
The book opens with the romantic letters between Rodin (married) and Eve Fairfax, the woman engaged to marry Grimthorpe. Grimthrope had sent her to Rodin to model for a bust as their wedding gift, although by the end of the chapter the bust would remain unpaid for, the wedding called off, and the heated correspondence between Rodin and Eve unconsummated. The mystery of the marriage-that-never-was and the beauty of Rodin and Eve’s work together draws Holroyd into researching her story, rather than the more famous male subjects.
Grimthrope’s history is easy to trace, even the types of things families prefer to keep hidden: the affairs, the actresses, the financial bungles, the illegitimate children, the payoffs to keep those in the know quiet. Eve remains more of a mystery, although Holroyd eventually tracks down the ultimate document of Eve’s life. After being cast off by the Baron, she found herself destitute, unmarriable, and, at least once, with child. And yet she was nothing if not resourceful. In the way that she charmed Rodin, she managed to charm her way through society. Holroyd describes her knack and determining just with whom she could reside for months at a time and how to know when to leave before blowing any future invites. She lived to nearly 107, moving from place to place, despite “suffer[ing] painfully from arthritis during her nineties and ha[ving] great difficulty going up and down the stairs—throwing down her sticks first with a terrible clatter and then sitting on each stair as she descended. She went upstairs backwards.”
So instead of finding biographies written by aristocratic descendants or the paper trail a landowner inevitably leaves behind, he found an enormous book that Eve Fairfax carried with her from place to place. It could be classified as a journal, if a journal could be written by those around her. It documents those with whom she associated as she moved from place to place. Rodin, Somerset Maugham, members of royalty, Sir George Sitwell, poets, artists, musicians, all paid tribute to Eve in her book. And now Holroyd continues the accolades with his beautifully written book about her life and the lives of the women who find themselves unexpectedly in circumstances like hers.
Through A Book of Secrets, Holroyd continues to trace the inconvenient lineage of Baron Grimthorpe, from mistresses he knocked up to the novelist Violet Trefusis, the product of an equally philandering Grimthorpe grandson. But it’s Eve’s book that is perhaps the best illustration of how full a life lived on the margins can be. And what the reader and the historian can miss if they’re only looking at center stage.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.