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Some Like It Hot

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National Portrait Gallery, London
Violet Trefusis on her wedding day, June 16, 1919

Libraries were lending out their copies of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians ever less frequently before Michael Holroyd brought out his groundbreakingly indiscreet biography of the Bloomsbury writer in the late 1960s. By 1974, when the first of Holroyd’s two volumes on the life of Augustus John appeared, canvases by this one-time star of London’s art world had been relegated to the storerooms of many a British museum. What hopes there might be of reviving the sprawling theatrical weltanschauung of George Bernard Shaw had been a puzzle for producers and critics for decades before Holroyd’s correspondingly vast biography of the playwright came out at the turn of the 1990s. In each of these three major projects, Holroyd looked back at figures who had seemed to tower over the cultural landscape of late-imperial Britain at the time of his own birth in 1935, but who more lately had been shelved away, to linger as little more than significant rumors.

That angle of approach gave Holroyd a free hand to make things new—to surprise himself and his audience with the unexpected discoveries of emotional life he could unearth from archives and private papers. It is his good-tempered nosiness that has secured Holroyd a large, attentive audience. As a rule he is fond of people, his urbane prose suggests, and he is disposed to respect them, but above all he longs to know more about them; and he is able to persuade us to share his longing. Seemingly, then, it was not so much the historical importance of his subjects that sold Holroyd’s biographies as sheer curiosity: his passion for the somewhat obscured, his drive to exhume and reanimate.

Before he made his name with that life of Strachey, Holroyd had devoted his first publication to a “quite hopelessly neglected”1 English man of letters named Hugh Kingsmill. Thirty-five years later, the by now celebrated biographer could afford to investigate persons of yet slenderer public significance, namely his own grand- parents and parents. Basil Street Blues (1999), reapproaching late-imperial Britain through lives passed in precarious gentility and concealed despair, masterfully extended his scope as a writer.

Halfway through its narrative a new character shuffled into view—the author himself as a youth. The success of the book spawned a sequel, Mosaic (2004), and in parts of that professedly “wayward” family history, this figure got inspected in greater detail. Holroyd explained how a fellow writer’s take on Basil Street Blues had struck home: “You stay hidden.”2 She had been left wanting to know more about how his own emotional life had taken shape. “I do not know the answers to these questions,” he continued, “and feel a great reluctance to answering them. But other readers, too, have chided me.” It was not only his readers, perhaps, that prompted him to offer up a memoir of a former romance and some words about his marriage to the novelist Margaret Drabble. It was the sense that he was involved in art, and that art is bound up with self-revelation. For if in his hands biography could operate independently of the subject’s historical significance, then biography must be something other than a craft, a mere jewel-setting of archival resources. Even high art, however, has its formal constraints: What internal logic does his form of writing possess?

A Book of Secrets, Holroyd’s new publication, is, like Mosaic, an experimental construction. (In fact Holroyd used just the same kind of phrasing to explain what he was attempting in Mosaic.3) Curiosity rules, roving where it will among assorted lives from his favored historical era. Let the stabilizing principle be the author himself. But this figure, with his already proclaimed “great reluctance” to plunge into self-analysis, remains little more than a two-dimensional frontman, an amenable cipher. In the opening pages we glimpse him as a bachelor researcher with his eye on some girl working in a museum. But that’s just a decoy: he gets diverted by a portrait bust in the museum galleries, and as his research into its origins deepens, the first-person narrator drops almost out of sight. He reappears ninety pages later as a seventy-year-old smiling public man helping another septuagenarian research her family history, a quest that takes him to the sunny Gulf of Salerno, south of Naples.

Here Holroyd lunches with another celebrity, Gore Vidal. He lets us know how he tries to amuse Vidal by quipping that a third celebrity, Salman Rushdie, is his “foul-weather-friend.” He blithely adds how his traveling companion hailed his “sparkling form” at the dinner table, and how later, when he impersonated Strachey at a literary festival, everyone roared with laughter—“I had got away with it.” Presumably writing with his travel journals to hand, he tells us what he had for breakfast and how he read the road map wrong—but absolutely nothing of interest about himself. The blandness is impenetrable: if this is a book of secrets, they won’t be his.

If by temperament Holroyd is not the man to compose a book of intimate confessions, perhaps he can instead turn his text around some physical location. In his preface he points to the Villa Cimbrone, the house that he visits when in Italy, as the crossroads where the various life stories that interest him more or less meet. This shimmering palazzo hangs high on a mountain overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its terraces with their belvederes, their pergolas, their azaleas, and their junipers transport the visitor, so Holroyd intimates, into a paradisal dream. This dream may be all the headier if the visitor is aware that literary luminaries such as D.H. Lawrence and Vita Sackville-West have been transported there before him; but that consideration may also narrow his options. It is hard by this stage for a writer to find fresh ways to evoke the pleasures of Mediterranean light and air, and Holroyd does not very seriously try. For an extended description of the place he refers the reader to a letter written in the 1930s by Achsah Brewster, an American friend of Lawrence’s. After all, Holroyd’s own forte is people.

His book, it turns out, revolves around three main life stories—those of Ernest Beckett, Violet Trefusis, and Eve Fairfax. Ernest Beckett became the owner of Cimbrone in 1905, at the age of forty-nine, and it was his funds that transformed the site into the pleasure palace that it remains. This money came from a family banking business in the North of England. The Becketts of Leeds had secured themselves a baronetcy in 1813 and had represented various Yorkshire constituencies for the Conservative Party. Young Ernest, Eton-educated, handlebar-mustached, and eminently presentable, was duly elected as MP for Whitby in 1885. But the man who plumped for a Mediterranean fantasy life twenty years later, having recently inherited the family title, had nothing to boast of from his time in politics.

After siding with Randolph Churchill (the father of Winston), the loser in a Tory party cabal, he had chosen to serve his constituents by departing on an eight-month tour of the Empire and the Far East; but his observations about “the over-education of the natives” in India, like his bluff speechifying about the dangers of Irish Home Rule, made no discernible impact on government policy. In fact this diversionary move obeyed a pattern that played out the length of Ernest’s life. He could always afford to evade.

Holroyd presents Beckett as a quite deliciously dislikable character—a Hollywood Brit villain, a Monty Python pompous buffoon. But if I say dislikable, I expect I just mean enviable. It is not simply that this scion of empire has prodigious funds to splurge on travel and art collecting. He gets all the girls. His main function on the page is to hook together a succession of desirable ladies by the force of some erotic magnetism that is never quite explained but that nonetheless quickens the pulse of the narrative. Before reaching Parliament Ernest has married Luie, a thoughtful and “athletically built” young American touring Europe on a bursary from her protector J. Pierpont Morgan: Holroyd warms to the girl and transcribes her teenage diaries.

But even before Luie has died giving birth to the third of his children five years later, Ernest has switched his interests to the “voluptuous,” reckless, and vivacious Josephine Brink. This “José” comes from South Africa to London in 1886 determined to take the town by storm: she gets presented to Queen Victoria, lets Ernest seduce her in a private suite at the Savoy, goes on to mount the boards, appearing in Oscar Wilde productions, and shows yet greater gifts for melodrama, tying up Holroyd in the chaos of her three-way love affairs.

Recoiling from this blonde bombshell, Ernest falls in with the consummately discreet Mrs. Alice Keppel, who presents her husband with Ernest’s daughter in 1894: though this, Holroyd notes, inevitably seems with hindsight a mere “rehearsal” for Mrs. Keppel’s subsequent role as mistress to King Edward VII. The “ageing playboy” then gravitates toward the “serene” but faintly melancholy English beauty of Eve Fairfax, thereby providing Holroyd with a bridge to another main wing of his enterprise. But after Eve has accepted his marriage proposal, Ernest drifts away from her too. Exasperated by England’s political system, he is lashing out against it—the drift of his accusation, Holroyd amusingly infers, being that “there might have been less trouble with women in his life…had he been given political advancement and his time and energy properly employed.” And for all Ernest’s assets, there are creditors he is keen to avoid. He heads south to Cimbrone.

It is dramatically satisfying that the sideways motion of this pampered wretch continues all the way to death’s door. Instead of expiring as he had hoped in the radiance of his Italian paradise, he contracts tuberculosis on a visit home in 1917 and fizzles out, aged sixty, in a Scottish sanatorium. But Holroyd’s brief life is morally edifying also, on a modest level. It does not actually seek out pat responses of the kind I’ve just expressed. It complicates the issue, patiently reminding the reader that this “dilettante, philanderer, gambler and opportunist” was also a “vivid and observant” travel writer; that after his own fashion, he was “not insincere” in his affections; and that one of his daughters, Luie’s child Lucille, would come to revere his memory.

Not she but Violet, Ernest’s daughter by Alice Keppel, carries the narrative in the book’s second half. A photograph of the twenty-five-year-old Violet taken in 1919, on the day she was wedded to Denys Trefusis, shines out among the volume’s few illustrations, her eyes brimming with a canny and captivating pathos. “The wide sensual mouth of a Rowlandson whore”: that is Holroyd quoting Cyril Connolly, a writer who knew Violet—and I note that Holroyd’s own phrasings are never quite that reckless, or yet that arresting.

The youthful Violet is hot property, in all senses. Long before she becomes a published novelist, she writes her letters with flamethrowers: “I want you. I want you hungrily, frenziedly, passionately. I am starving for you.” And then: “My life—what is left of it—is just one raw, limitless bitterness…. I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you.” And at last: “My God, Mitya, if I could kill you I would.” “Mitya” was her lover Vita Sackville-West: these are the textual traces of a romance that scandalized upper-class England around the end of World War I, searing both Vita’s husband, Harold Nicolson (“Damn! Damn! Damn! Violet. How I loathe her”), and the hapless Horse Guards officer Denys, who until he married had never heard of lesbianism.

  1. 1

    This description, which comes in a letter to Holroyd from his friend William Gerhardie, is quoted in Basil Street Blues (Little, Brown, 1999), p. 273. 

  2. 2

    Mosaic (Little, Brown), p. 85 (quoting a letter from the novelist and memoirist Margaret Forster). 

  3. 3

    “This is a book of surprises…. Beginning as a requiem, it evolved into a love story, then a detective story, finally a book of secrets revealed.” Preface to Mosaic, p. 1. 

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