House Love and Human Love
A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations
By Juliet Nicolson
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 326 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein
A middle-aged student of mine once shared with me the most memorable event of her family life: the moment when, as she described it, “I watched my grandmother hold my newborn granddaughter.” I recalled that vivid image as I began to read Juliet Nicolson’s deeply engaging history of seven generations of Sackville-West/Nicolson women (and several men). Nicolson, the oldest daughter in the fifth generation of an aristocratic British family, traces her maternal legacy from her grandmother’s grandmother, Pepita, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1830, to her own first granddaughter, born in 2013. She effectively taps her skills as a historian to extrapolate from documents, photos, and artifacts—some recently discovered in the family attic—in addition to biographical accounts written by others. She describes key events through the decades, traces changing social mores, reveals several family secrets, and assesses the effects of the virtues and flaws that shaped each mother’s legacy to her daughter.
The Spanish gypsy Catalina—the unmarried mother of Pepita, the illustrious “Star of Andalusia”—would now be termed a smothering mother: a parent so possessive of her only daughter that Pepita ultimately was compelled to sever their bond to save herself. When, at the age of nineteen, Pepita married her dancing teacher, her meddlesome mother hovered over her life to the point of wrecking her marriage. Their troubled relationship marks the trailhead, as it were, for complicated emotional pathways navigated by successive mothers and daughters. Patterns of ambition and failure, possessiveness and aloofness, estrangement and reconciliation repeat from one generation to the next.
When Pepita was 25 and already a star dancer in European capitals, she fell in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a young attaché to the British legation in Germany, who was equally smitten. They could not marry because Pepita was still legally married to her estranged husband, and Spanish law then (and until 1932) prohibited divorce. With Lionel, Pepita bore five children. Since his diplomatic assignments made him an occasional visitor rather than a live-in spouse and father, she was derided as a woman of “ill repute.” The children were socially ostracized. Eventually, Lionel, despite his devotion to Pepita and their children, drifted away, fearing that scandal might stain his diplomatic career.
Admirers of Virginia Woolf’s fiction will recognize Pepita as the Spanish dancer whom Orlando marries in Orlando (1928), Woolf’s unique “love-letter” to Vita Sackville-West. The actual Pepita died in childbirth at the age of 41, when her eldest daughter Victoria was only eight years old. The children were cared for in Paris by Pepita’s friends until, belatedly, their father conveyed them to England. Only then did they learn of their illegitimacy. When Lionel became British minister to the US legation in Washington, DC, he brought Victoria—nineteen years old and strikingly beautiful, with hip-length hair like her mother’s—to be his social hostess. During seven years in Washington, Victoria met such luminaries as Henry James and Henry Adams, and inspired numerous suitors. While attending a White House reception soon after she arrived, she received a marriage proposal from the widowed president, Chester Arthur, and was so flabbergasted that she burst out laughing.
Juliet Nicolson’s intent is not only to retrace her maternal heritage, fascinating though it is, but also to ponder its influences on her own life. As she observes, her foremothers made necessary compromises; legal powerlessness, gendered moral and social codes, and emotional dependencies decisively shaped destinies. Pepita and her daughter Victoria
made patriarchal bargains, agreements that were to remain fundamental to the practical and emotional structures of their lives. For most of my life I regarded this arrangement with suspicion. It is only recently that I have begun to realize that it is not perhaps an arrangement from which other women, myself included, are immune.
Along with maternal-filial and romantic relationships, A House Full of Daughters highlights a bond that might be termed house-love: for Victoria and her daughter Vita, attachment to the ancestral country mansion, Knole; for Vita and her granddaughter Juliet, Sissinghurst. As Juliet phrases it, “the next suitor to claim Victoria was not a person but a place.” When Lionel Sackville-West’s only brother died without heirs, Lionel became the sole inheritor of Knole, one of the grandest historical houses in England. Situated in a 1000-acre park in Kent, the pedigreed house dates back to the fifteenth century and possesses unique calendric features, including “365 rooms, fifty-two staircases, [and] seven courtyards.” Not long after Victoria fell in house-love with Knole, she became enamored of her first cousin, Lionel Sackville-West, who shared her father’s name. She was decades ahead of the Victorian era in which she lived: once Lionel the younger freed her from “long-held inhibitions,” writes Juliet, the newlyweds discovered “a mutual exhilaration for uninterrupted sex.”
Victoria gave her first child her own name, though from birth her daughter was known as Vita. She is the best-known of the Sackville-West women whose lives Juliet retraces. Perhaps because more has been written about her, Vita is the subject of only one of the book’s twelve chapters, while two focus on each of the other women in the author’s maternal history. Nonetheless, Vita stands out. From an early age, her relationship with her mother, Victoria, was, like Pepita’s relationship with her mother, fractious. Both daughters asserted their independence in ways that threatened their mothers.
The young Vita was also torn by guilt that she was not born male, a fact that carried not only emotional but also legal consequences. When her father, Lionel the younger, died, Knole passed to Vita’s uncle rather than to her, because the British laws of primogeniture precluded women from inheriting property. The loss of the ancestral home broke Vita’s heart. In an unpublished diary comment, she expressed her attachment to Knole as one so profound that it “transcended her love for any human being.”
Vita was courted by Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, even though at the time she was secretly conducting a passionate affair with a woman who would later serve as her bridesmaid. Juliet devotes few words to Vita’s most celebrated liaison—her brief but intense relationship with Virginia Woolf—which she places in the context of Vita’s frequent love affairs with perhaps as many as fifty women while she was married to Harold. As has been well documented by Vita’s younger son, Nigel Nicolson, in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), for more than forty years Vita and Harold maintained an unconventional relationship that encompassed tolerance of each other’s same-sex liaisons. Vita also discovered her house-love for Sissinghurst, initially a crumbling Elizabethan manor, which she and Harold lovingly restored. Thanks to Vita’s horticultural skills, writes Juliet, the garden at Sissinghurst Castle became “one of the most famous, most visited, most copied and most loved gardens in the world.”
Vita and Harold had two sons but no daughters. Thus, the story of Juliet’s foremothers diverts from the Sackville-Wests to her mother’s line, and she introduces the attractive but shallow Philippa d’Eyncourt, the daughter of high-bred snobs. Nigel calculatingly married Philippa to advance his diplomatic career. After his death, years later, Juliet discovered in his diary his admission that “I never loved her.” From the inauspicious start, both mismatched partners regarded sex as “disgusting,” though they produced three children. Juliet, their first child—revealingly, her name was inspired by the name of the couple’s adored dog, Romeo—describes her mother as self-preoccupied, remote, and neglectful. Juliet and her siblings grew up in an “emotionally broken” home, she says, where the housekeepers were more affectionate than the parents. When Juliet and her younger brother were only seven and four, they took the school bus daily with no adult supervision apart from the driver; when they returned, their mother was “seldom at home to greet us,” she writes. Disaffected from her mother, Juliet was deeply attached to her father, and through him came to love Sissinghurst as much as Victoria and Vita had loved Knole.
A recurring family pattern of self-medication is also part of Juliet’s heritage: several of her female predecessors—including both Vita, prompted in part by Harold’s frequent work-related absences, and Philippa, trapped in a loveless marriage—sought solace in alcohol. Philippa, who died of liver damage at the age of 58, was also addicted to antidepressants. These facts are important in Juliet’s own story, for she, too, turned to alcohol while unsuccessfully juggling the competing demands of marriage, children, and her husband’s and her careers in the United States. By the time she had given birth to two daughters, acknowledged the failure of her marriage, and returned to England, she had already developed severe liver damage. At the time, she felt as if she were “genetically woven into repetitive surrender and did not know if [she] had the courage or the strength to snap the thread and interrupt the pattern.” Through the intervention of her siblings, she sought treatment and ultimately overcame her addiction. Pondering whether to share details of her private struggle, she chose to follow the model of her father, Nigel, who had addressed in his book the difficult subject of his bisexual parents’ partnership.
The final chapters of A House Full of Daughters turn away from personal struggle to a more positive denouement: Juliet, pondering her ambitious but emotionally flawed female predecessors, forgives both them and herself. Having found great joy as a mother and grandmother, she anticipates that her first grandchild—Imogen, whose name means “beloved daughter” in old Irish—is part of a generation that is “not afraid to learn from the mistakes of the past and is determined not to repeat them. . . possibly the entire point of this book.”
Honest and absorbing, A House Full of Daughters deserves a wide readership, not only for Nicolson’s compulsively readable exploration of her maternal legacy but also for her clear-eyed focus on the emotional and psychological patterns that reappear in women’s lives—not only in the author’s unique family—with significant consequences across generations.
Roberta Rubenstein, professor of Literature at American University, is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (2009) and Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef (2014).