“A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life”
John Milton, Areopagitica
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July 6, 2006
I have no idea how long it had been sitting on the bookshelf. I don't know how it got there: Did I pick it out of a box of give-aways on a garden wall? Did it arrive with my daughter when she moved in? 25 cents in a yard sale?
However it arrived, wherever it came from, I pulled it off the shelf a few days ago and started reading. I skipped by the Contents and the List of Principal Characters, and dove into
While I had heard of Vita Sackville-West, I had never read anything of hers before, and had no idea of what the book was about. I started reading it in bed, and put it down quite soon afterwards. The first chapter didn't register; at least, I didn't remember what was in its second part when I picked up the book again a couple of days later. (I had read another book in the meantime — The Cat Who Tailed a Thief , by Lilian Jackson Braun)
I was still expecting a novel. It didn't take long before it became obvious that it wasn't, but who was Pepita? It wasn't until part four of Chapter III, when Pepita's liaison with the young English diplomat, Lionel Sackville-West was revealed, that it started to click. A quick flip back to the list of principal characters showed me:
LIONEL SACKVILLE-WEST, ... Referred to as "my grandfather."
VICTORIA JOSEFA, eldest daughter of Pepita and Lionel Sackville-West, ... Referred to as "my mother." .. another
LIONEL SACKVILLE-WEST, ... Referred to as "my father"
The book is described on encyclopedia.com as "her charming fictional portrait of her grandmother, Pepita", even though, in the first chapter (which I went back and re-read when I started writing this review), the author states that "nothing in the following pages is either invented or even embellished." The book is, in fact, two portraits, the first being of the author's grandmother, Pepita, the second of her mother, Pepita's daughter, Victoria. Of the two, I preferred the second. The character is more vividly drawn.
In the first part, most of the material is drawn from depositions acquired by LS-W's solicitors in Spain, where they interviewed everyone they could find who knew Pepita, her family and their acquaintances. I wondered about all this "testimony", as many quotations were identified as such. Was it leading to a climactic trial later in the book? The trial did materialize, but it was far from climactic, and therefore a bit of a let down. Not that Sackville-West is to blame: it was explained in the first chapter, which I read as I was falling asleep.
Whether Pepita's daughter (also called Pepita, but who used the name Victoria after moving to England) was really that much more of a character than her mother, or whether she comes across that way because of the author's proximity to her, both personally and temporally, I cannot tell. Perhaps her sudden blossoming helped.
After spending several years, from age 11 to 18, in a convent in France, Victoria was sent to England, expecting to get a position as a governess. However, she was packed off to Washington, D.C., where her father had been apppointed Ambassador. An illegitimate daughter, speaking little English, she was thrust into the rôle of hostess at the embassy, a position of social eminence. She was inundated with proposals of marriage, the first coming from President Chester A. Arthur, a widower.
When her father inherited title and estate from his brother, Pepita's daughter became the mistress of the family home, Knole House.
She married her cousin, who inherited when her father died.
Unfortunately, the book tails off rather weakly, and Chapter VI, The Last Years, skips through time without it being noted; dates are scarce, and Lady Sackville became old before I realized it.
A fascinating book, but not altogther satisfying, it is worth
reading for the characters and the depiction of lifestyles.
My two books on Unix shell scripting: