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You can get on and live your life. This was what I once was severely told by one lively lady. I have rather fretted about this remark ever since-more especially nowadays. More especially during lockdown. I have had a partiality for biography for quite a long time. I have always wanted to understand how others perceive life. Some of my interest in poetry came from reading a book about W.H.Auden -well illustrated with pictures that I borrowed donkey’s years ago from Dulwich Library in Lordship Lane. It was near a splendid little gramophone record shop where I spent money on what seemed expensive long-play records. Reading about W.H.A. I was attracted by the thirties political poetry in particular. It has to be said that Auden was photographically interesting from his languid youth to his craggy face in old age.

A couple of years before this following a minitrek visit to Russia I took an A-level correspondance course in History (1815-1945) and the tutor recommended an approach as expounded by the works of Lord David Cecil. Accordingly I went on to read his illustrious book on Lord Melborne. Picking quite at random:-

Tis curiously-blended life produced a curiously-blended type of character. with so many opportunities for action, its interests were predminently active. Most of the men were engaged in politics. And the women- for they lived to please the men were political too. They listened, they sympathised, they advised; through them two statesmen might make overtures to each other, or effect a reconciliation. But politics were not then the sentence to hard labour that in our iron age they have become.

Lord Melbourne | Biography & Facts | Britannica

It is not difficult to discern the power and style of Cecil’s prose style. Though in between the carefully balanced sentences, a degree of what is now termed overt sexism appears to the present day reader. On the other hand the power of women in high politics- though by high, I refer to the level of power rather than degree of integrity- emerged here in No 10 last weekend. The relation between Marlborough and the young Queen Victoria emerges as a major theme in this important work. This brings me on to that biographer par excellence Lytton Strachey.

Strachey’s Eminent Victorians as well as his other works were a pleasure to read as well as an education in aspects of political history. It did not exactly give me any particular figure that one might wish to emulate-far from it. These were eloquent and elegant pen-portraits which often showed the neuroticism underneath the surface of the Victorian work ethic. Strachey was immersed in Gibbon and turned wry phrases and ironic comments. In short his wit deeply impressed and his erudition was quite something to attempt to emulate. Then came the marvellous biography by Michael Holroyd whose final pages so portrayed the deep and strange relationship with Dora Carrington.

Here is George from Ireland on Strachey

So my interest in biography has often turned towards political figures. Returning once again to the outstanding Cecil family, it is worth noting that there is a magnificent biography of Lord David Cecil’s Grandfather,Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of SalisburyKGGCVOPCFRSDL (3 February 1830 – 22 August 1903) who had been Prime MInister for over 13 years and is considered a master strategist in Foreign Affairs.,_3rd_Marquess_of_Salisbury Lord Salisbury by Andrew Roberts is another fascinating biography. It shows how after a somewhat tremulous beginning at Eton, he employed his many abilities in numerous fields became perhaps to what might be called a Tory intellectual. Robert’s biography is truly engaging and shows for instance, his fascination with amateur scientific experiments, his comfortable but busy life at Hatfield House and his relatively warm relationship with his children.

Salisbury: Victorian Titan by Andrew Roberts: Near Fine Hardcover (2000)  1st Edition, Signed by Author(s) | Limestone Books

Should you have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery, you will find the painting of the !st Lord Cecil which bears the motto ‘Sero, Sed Serio’ inscribed on the portrait and translates as ‘late but in earnest‘. Cecil was subsequently appointed Viscount Cranborne in 1604, Earl of Salisbury in 1605


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A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, Chatto & Windus, 2010 by Michael Holroyd

Picture the crowded atelier of the renowned sculptor, Rodin or perhaps the dimly lit corridor’s of Lord Grimthorpe’s mansion. Perhaps you might prefer to frequent the brightly lit splendour of the balconies of the coastal villa at Cimbrione above the magnificent Gulf of Salerno. The inhabitants of such places led their tangled lives, sometimes enduring painful losses or by contrast, energetically inspired to passionate love affairs. In these stimulating environments we catch glimpses of the famous, like E.M.Forster, Virginia Woolf, sometimes accompanied by her close confidante, Vita Sackville West and then there was that tempestuous iconoclast, D.H.Lawrence. Many such lives were inspired by both landscape and lust, fashioned by each other’s creative energies and endowed with artistic talents of all kinds. Here we learn of talents and beauty that inspires artistic endeavour, like the many charms of Eve Fairfax. She, who after brief affairs was gradually forced into a stoic suspension which she recorded with thoughts from her friends in the pages of annotated diaries which became “A Book of Secrets”.

Michael Holroyd
Michael Holroyd

The Becketts were Yorkshire bankers and MPs who over several generations owned a series of estates and Gothic brickwork mansions. Ernest William, the second Lord Grimthorpe, was sent to Eton and by nature appears to have been, as Holroyd ironically remarks, a schoolboy that in some ways never quite grew up, though he did arrive at TrinityCollege, Cambridge in May 1875. Much about him is surrounded in mystery but his prowess with women soon became almost notorious soon after he reached London, a fact recorded by the writer George Moore describing him as ‘London’s greatest lover’. Ernest was to take the tours customary for young gentlemen around Europe on which he pursued in succession Eve Fairfax who was briefly his fiancée and then met his wife, Luie, a rich American whose story forms an intriguing digression, in Rome. After her most unfortunate death in childbirth, Ernest Beckett was to end up in the arms of Alice Keppel who was to embark upon a dalliance, as is well known, with the Prince of Wales. Besides these, there was a voluptuous Spanish American lady in Rome whom Ernest conveniently installed in Bayswater.

It was the melancholy beauty of the classical features of Eve Fairfax that also sent Auguste Rodin into raptures. Seeing her bronze head in the V&A, actually cast in 1909, first inspired Michael Holroyd to write this book, “The Book of Secrets”, referring to the elaborate memoir which Eve kept throughout her later life whilst attempting to come to terms with her past. In this she recorded her thoughts on mortality, occasional verses whilst frequently pondering the significance of those earlier amorous encounters with Ernest Beckett. Holroyd deploys his fluent elegant prose in describing Eve, her friends and this Edwardian tome, an eclectic and unique personal calendar, and also the letters which she received from various and unsuitable admirers. These appear to have included Rupert, Ernest’s younger brother, hence she concluded ‘All Becketts make bad husbands’.

Portrait of Violet Trefussis by Sir John Lavery 1919
Portrait of Violet Trefussis by Sir John Lavery 1919

Following through complex family trees, helpfully supplied, Michael Holroyd arrives at the passionate love affair between Alice Keppel’s daughter, who later became Violet Trefussis and Harold Nicholson’s wife, Vita Sackville West. Both had severe, imposing mothers and as children chased together around the corridors of Knole. Vita loved this place with its grand towers, high battlements and long gallery surrounded by spacious parks. Vita then came to stay at Violet’s castle at Duntreath in Stirlingshire. Vita was proud, independent, bi-sexual and fascinated by gardening; Violet appears more naïve, wayward and focussed strongly on her ruthless pursuit of Vita, the latter having had several lovers and relationships which were to include Virginia Woolf. These passions inspired Woolf to write of pageant and androgyny in ”Orlando.” From a literary viewpoint, both Vita and Violet were highly productive. Vita wrote ”The Edwardians”, ”All Passion Spent” and ”Challenge”. Violet wrote around a dozen works, several in French; she loved Paris. Holroyd talks about rediscovering these works and he shares this interest with Violet’s young Italian biographer, Tiziana at Cimbrone who charms Michael and so becomes an important figure in this layered narrative. Along with his description of the supportive care of Holroyd’s wife, Margaret Drabble, the author brings the reader into the present. The biography becomes a heart-felt personal memoir.


The Guardian reported recently, “Biography is a genre in crisis, according to perhaps Britain’s best-known biographer, the author of highly acclaimed works on Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw.” In particular literary biography, he feels has been superseded by the myriad forms of the internet and other popular entertainments.

Vita Sackville-West 1924
Vita Sackville-West 1924

Holroyd says that this is his last book. However, here he is once again energised by the whole process of searching archives and reconstructs the cultivated, privileged and mostly civilised society back to the early Edwardians. In measured, wry and sympathetic tones he takes the reader into the luxuriant and variegated gardens of the past. He finds time to discuss the role of imagination in the art of biography. In this finely written book he carefully spreads enlightenment as he carefully distinguishes between guesswork, probability and established facts.

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