Blue Fingernails

Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse

by Jessica Douglas-Home
Harvill(distributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 342 pp., $28.00

Violet Gordon Woodhouse, who died at seventy-seven in 1948, was the most admired English harpsichordist of her time; for much of her life she presided over a ménage of four adoring men, and she fascinated many of the prominent writers and musicians she came to know. In her well-written biography of Woodhouse, her great-niece Jessica Douglas-Home has much to say about her family’s odd history. She begins by reminding us what was expected of a conventional, well-to-do, middle-class Victorian wife. She would be judged by what carriage and horses she kept, by her dressmakers and milliners, by her delicacy—her skin protected by a parasol, her hands by gloves, her chores smoothed by servants and her cares by her husband, to whom she deferred on all questions of morality and politics. When her sons came to marry, their brides must be of a suitable social class, British, at a pinch American or European, but unquestionably Caucasian. In the days of colonies and Empire, to be allied to a family with “blue fingernails,” the mark of a past misalliance with natives, was unthinkable.

Yet that was what had happened to Violet’s father. In the eighteenth century a Dutch trader had married an Indonesian, or possibly an Indian, ranee, and in each generation at least one daughter of exceptional beauty and grace but with dark hair and dark complexion appeared. Such was her grace that she always found a husband, but the family into which she married snorted disapproval. A few weeks before James Gwynne married into this family none of his own would speak to him. Indeed, his wife’s mother had been so ostracized that she left when a widow for Holland, where there was no color bar. By the time Violet was presented at Court, damage limitation had taken over and her luminous black eyes and sinuous walk were put down to Spanish ancestry.

She was James Gwynne’s favorite child, and exceptionally gifted at the piano. But on one matter he put his foot down. No, she should not become a professional musician, however magical her playing. Like other girls she must marry. That was not difficult because she had several proposals, so she settled for Lord Gage—slightly lame, and seventeen years her senior. Her mother therefore took her aside and explained just what happens to girls on their wedding night.

Violet was revolted to the very depths of her being. To submit her delicate body to such coarse gropings and probings was unthinkable. She broke off the engagement but, determined to escape, looked for someone more pliable. She found a friend of her brother’s at Cambridge. He had failed all his examinations but was of a well-to-do family of wine merchants. He was kind, affectionate, and all his life ministered to her every wish. Among her married friends was a lesbian who had fallen under her spell. Violet got her to hint to Gordon Woodhouse before the marriage that their relationship was to be platonic. She told Gordon that “our…

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