THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Much ado about nothing

In this portrait of three minor Edwardians, only the biographer shines

Vita Sackville-West makes an appearance in Michael Holroyd’s ‘‘A Book of Secrets.’’ Vita Sackville-West makes an appearance in Michael Holroyd’s ‘‘A Book of Secrets.’’
By Richard Eder
August 28, 2011

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After magisterial lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and George Bernard Shaw, in which he all but became his subjects, Michael Holroyd stepped into the biographical equivalent of Einstein’s curved space. Why shouldn’t his subject become him?

The first of the books that followed, “Basil Street Blues,’’ was an idiosyncratic triumph. With his magnificently eccentric parents to write about, Holroyd kept inserting himself. Beyond that, he raised questions about the biographer’s role and methods, and the indeterminacy that surrounds any effort to determine a life. In “Basil Street’’ it is indeterminacy he aims at. Instead of pinning down the butterflies he nets, as his trade requires, he releases them.

Perhaps there is also a revolt against the biographer’s long and arduous service to his subject. For years Holroyd carried Strachey around on his back. Time, one could imagine, to carry himself. It is important, he once suggested, to annoy the reader. And in “A Book of Secrets,’’ Holroyd’s portrait of the lives of three minor English figures, he frequently achieves it, apart from intervals of delight.

The problem is not the passages where he brings in himself, his search’s adventures and encounters, even his wife; generally these are the best parts of the book. But he has chosen somewhat obscure individuals as his subjects. That would not necessarily be a difficulty: Think of Samuel Johnson’s “Life of Mr. Richard Savage,’’ or the many marginal yet unforgettable subjects in Virginia Woolf’s “Common Reader.’’

Yet unlike the treatment of his parents in “Basil Street,’’ Holroyd rarely gives us more than the dimmest sense of these people, apart from the facts he unearths about them. If biography’s journey is as valuable as the destination, still, for the destination to be so punily arrived at makes the whole thing seem fairly pointless.

“Secrets’’ recounts the lives of three English Edwardians. Ernest Beckett, later Lord Grimthorpe, was a dilettantish banker, politician, and seducer. He was longtime lover of Alice Keppel before she became mistress-in-chief to King Edward VII. By her, Beckett had an illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis, the obnoxiously greedy lover of several prominent women, among them Vita Sackville-West, a writer later linked to Woolf. Beckett was also for a while the fiancé of the high-born Eve Fairfax, who was a model for Auguste Rodin and had a long romance with him.

I know. Such continual amatory flitting amounts to stasis; one that Holroyd fails to overcome. Who were these three when at home? No one much, we feel; though Holroyd summons a dreadful splendor from Eve’s ghastly last years. On the other hand, he dedicates nearly half the book to Violet’s scandalous careening without striking more than a spark of interest. Worse, he dedicates inordinate space to boosting her forgotten novels with tedious descriptions of each. Biographers can do a lot for molehills, but not if they claim them as mountains.

Eve Fairfax is also a blank, but when she reaches old age Holroyd gives us writing as fine as anything he has done. Poor, abandoned, erratic, she retained her aristocratic connections. She would go from one country weekend to another, dragging along an immense scrapbook in which she got her lordly hosts and the other exalted guests to write tributes to her. A visitor’s book in reverse.

The eminences indulged her (and helped out financially), even if some gritted their teeth as she trotted up with her anchor-sized volume. The English aristocracy of the time, no doubt knowing themselves vulnerable, had a large tolerance for madness. And here is Holroyd, looking through the scrapbook:

“I trawl through many famous names that have signed up to the statement that she ‘will never be forgotten by . . . .’ Yet she makes no appearance in their biographies and autobiographies. She is a legendary character in a small world, all shadow by the end - the substance vanishing with time.’’ Loosed, Holroyd’s butterfly fades into the air.

Such passages apart, it is when he recounts his journeys and encounters in pursuit of his Edwardians that Holroyd shines. He travels twice to Ravello, Italy, where Beckett renovated Villa Cimbrone, turning it into a magnificent showplace. His three characters all had links to it; and he tries to diffuse its golden light into a magic that will illuminate his three dimnesses.

They remain dim, but Cimbrone glitters. So do Holroyd’s picaresque journeys. One is a nail-biting car trip through Italy with a deadly Englishwoman driver, all non sequiturs and double-clutching (“Do keep reminding me . . . that they drive on the right in Italy.’’) Like Holroyd she is on a search at the Villa Cimbrone; in her case to discover whether the son of Ernest Beckett was her father.

Holroyd’s second visit to the villa is to speak about Bloomsbury at a festival dedicated to Violet Trefusis. The organizer is not just a Trefusis fanatic; she imagines herself as Violet. Or sometimes as Vita, Violet’s lover.

Even more than in previous ventures, Holroyd has emerged to outshine his biographical subjects. “Here I am,’’ he announces. We may think, “before it is too late.’’ Because he tells us this will be his last book, having recovered from a near-mortal illness. Or, we wonder, perhaps not entirely.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

A BOOK OF SECRETS: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers By Michael Holroyd

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pp.,

illustrated, $26