Reviewed by Victoria Best
When Jerry Seinfeld remarked that ‘There is no such thing as fun for all the family’, he could have had the Sackville-Wests in mind. In the middle of the 19th century, this illustrious and aristocratic family spawned what might have been termed a litter of puppies on the wrong side of the blanket, five children who would be confused for the rest of their lives as to the status of their birth and ruined by the consequences it had for their identity. Their illegitimacy would have been hard enough to bear had not one of the siblings made a clever and fateful marriage that set the whole bunch against each other. This book is the carefully researched story of a long and painful family feud.
The trouble began in 1852 when Lionel, second Lord Sackville, met Pepita de Oliva, an enchanting Spanish dancer with a negligible husband back in Madrid. She was at the height of her career, ‘dangerously’ attractive and wealthy, too. Lionel had a job with the diplomatic service that he would never fulfill very well, but it kept him mobile and in looser-moraled parts of Europe. Before long, Pepita gave birth to their first son, Max, and then a daughter, Victoria. Lionel followed her to Italy where she was still performing and Pepita described herself as living ‘under the protection’ of an important man, but she undoubtedly wanted more than that. Lionel never had the least intention of marrying her. The scandal of obtaining a divorce for Pepita, the poverty of her roots in the Spanish slums, her occupation and the fact she had already born him two children would have been sufficient obstacles for a determined man. And Lionel was not determined; he was sullen, lazy and weak-willed, a ‘nullity’ in his job, protected from the rigors of life by the accident of his birth. The ‘family’ such as it was, moved to Arcachon when Pepita’s stage career reached its end, and she had three more children: Flora, Amalia and Henry. To appease her, Lionel put his name down as father on their birth certificates, and the couple called themselves Count and Countess West, but it was all a fiction in order to save face. One that didn’t seem to fool anyone.
When Pepita died in 1871, Lionel abandoned his family to local suspicion and his housekeerper, Béon, and took up a post in Argentina. The older children were sent away to school and Lionel, who was always short of money, sold the house. When Lionel moved to Washington to take up a post there, he summoned his oldest daugher, Victoria, to oversee his social arrangements. Victoria joined him in America and was an instant hit. She had her mother’s charm and beauty, allied with Lionel’s aristocratic air, and she knew how to manage a household. Then the unexpected happened. Lionel lost his job in some disgrace (having been tricked into making an unwise political statement – ironic, someone later told his granddaugter, Vita, that ‘the most taciturn of men should have been sacked for expressing himself too freely.’) And then he discovered that his older brother had died childless and he had inherited the family estate of Knole along with the Sackville title.
Back in England and running Knole now for her father, Victoria found herself torn between two suitors. One the ‘fabulously wealthy’ Marquis de Loys Chandieu, the other her cousin, another Lionel, who was directly in line for Knole when her father died. The chance to be a legitimate Sackville-West was not to be missed, and Victoria married Lionel. The once happy relations that had existed between Victoria and her siblings seemed to vanish overnight. Amalia lived with her for years, and the difference between their statuses soured the relation beyond repair. Amalia was a pain and a whiner. She longed for independence but had no suitors of her own, and neither wealth nor birth to recommend her. She lived in a state of abject resentment, relieved by complaining to whoever would listen about how badly she was treated. Max had been sent to Africa where he was having a disastrous attempt at farming. Flora married a golddigger, who set about stirring up trouble and trying to find ways to reduce what were perceived as wretched inequalities in their incomes, whilst Henry, the youngest, had the maddest, most doomed scheme of all. He was determined to have himself declared the legitimate heir to Knole and its title.
This is a story of lives lost in bitter rancour and stubborn grievance and, as in most family quarrels, it’s hard to know who to blame. Lionel the father, undoubtedly, for his clear preference of Victoria over his other children, his refusal ever to be clear about what he did and didn’t do, and his general tight-fistedness. The family must have spent hundreds of thousands in legal fees, money which could probably have provided decent incomes for the siblings that would have left them with nothing to complain about. Victoria was insistently blind to the unfairness of her advantages, while often having much reason to despair of her vindictive siblings. Flora, Amalia and Henry were hopeless cases, consumed by jealousy and frustration. The moral of this tragic tale is that money certainly does not buy happiness and that expectations can be ruinous. This is a fascinating biography, rich in detail and compassionately written, but it leaves a melancholy taste.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Robert Sackville-West, The Disinherited (Bloomsbury, April 2014) 978-1408824825, 320 pages, Hardback.