I first came across Michael Holroyd (M) a few years ago when I read his biography of Augustus John (M). Normally a Holroyd biography is quite an investment in reading time, but definitely worth the effort. His books are meticulously researched and loaded with details and anecdotes. The books’ vast size might be a bit off-putting, but their tone tends to be light and even subtly humorous making them a pleasure for biography fans.
His latest (and so he says his last) is A Book of Secrets: illegitimate daughters and absent fathers (M). Here you will find a group of women- some perhaps familiar (Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis) and others a little more obscure, at least to me (Eve Fairfax) – and their connection to one man, Ernest Beckett. Beckett pursued an affair with Eve Fairfax and arranged to have her sculpted by Rodin immortalizing her forever. Once Beckett was done with her (the story of her illegitimate child is outlined in this Guardian article by Holroyd), she lived out her life to an incredible old age in genteel poverty with her prized possession, a huge book of memorabilia. Holroyd wrote sadly, “Without money, a husband or recognized children, she lost her position in late-Victorian and Edwardian times; and without employment her nomadic existence led nowhere in the twentieth century. She was like someone waking from a dream and not knowing what is real or imaginary.”
Beckett was to pursue another affair with Alice Keppel, who is more famously known as a mistress of King Edward VII. Her daughter Violet Keppel is assumed to be Beckett’s daughter. Violet grew up in the shadow of her socialite mother. She met Vita Sackville-West while still a child and their friendship grew into a consuming love affair. Her marriage to Denys Trefusis was unsatisfactory and ended with his death, leaving her to pursue affairs and a literary career. Her life is more fully dealt with in Diana Souhami’s Mrs Keppel and her Daughter (M).
A Book of Secrets is quite a brief book compared to Holroyd’s earlier works and contains glimpses into the author’s life. We find a slightly frail man in his seventies who is recovering from a recent illness. We have a view into the research and discovery inherent in biographical writing. He approaches his adventures with a quiet joy and his friendships with fellow researchers is as entertaining to read about as his subjects. In another article in The Guardian he refers to this book as his last. He sees a decline in interest from publishing houses for stand-alone literary biographies. He goes on to describe the pleasure in discovering papers and artifacts hidden in attics and compares this, unfavorably, to personal information being stored in digital format.
Still, the best books lists for 2011 often mention Claire Tomalin’s Dickens: a life (M), so let’s not give up hope for literary biographies just yet. “Charles Dickens was a phenomenon: a demonically hardworking journalist, the father of ten children, a tireless walker and traveller, a supporter of liberal social causes, but most of all a great novelist …At the age of twelve he was sent to work in a blacking factory by his affectionate but feckless parents. From these unpromising beginnings, he rose to scale all the social and literary heights, entirely through his own efforts. When he died, the world mourned, and he was buried – against his wishes – in Westminster Abbey. Yet the brilliance concealed a divided character: a republican, he disliked America; sentimental about the family in his writings, he took up passionately with a young actress; usually generous, he cut off his impecunious children. Claire Tomalin, author of Whitbread Book of the Year Samuel Pepys (M), paints an unforgettable portrait of Dickens, capturing brilliantly the complex character of this great genius. Charles Dickens: A Life is the examination of Dickens we deserve.” – publisher