Top positive review
10 of 10 people found this helpful
on 25 May 2012
An absorbing way to chart your path through English politics and society in the late 18th century is through Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The 3rd Duke of Dorset was briefly her lover, until she replaced him with Charles Grey. He was also the lover of Giovanna Zanerini (google the name and look at Gainsborough's playful portrait of her). What a guy - I'd love to watch him work the room at a 1780s London soiree. He installed La Baccelli at Knole, while he was England's Ambassador to France on the eve of 1789's Revolution. A keen cricketer, there is a wonderful speculation by G.M. Trevelyan repeated in this book: "If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants (as the English aristocracy and their tenants and labourers did), their chateaux would never have been burnt." Indeed, the book is full of similar anecdote associating the Sackvilles with the Great & Good they have been mixing with for centuries. JP Morgan is in here, alongside Nell Gwynn, Wallis-Simpson and the Cecils. Thomas Sackville, the patriarch of Knole and its descendants, was the Lord Treasurer who replaced the inordinately influential William Cecil before passing the mantle on to the latter's son, Robert Cecil. You can just imagine Walsingham creeping around at night in search of his next political victim.
Where's this going?
The author has done us all a great service by bringing history alive through the lens of this house and his formidable ancestry. (I haven't even mentioned Vita, because that's a subject all of its own.) There is no single good reason to pick it up, but once you do, you'll notice that your heart has been warmed up a little by the sense of wonder transmitted by his calm, learned enthusiasm. I won't comment on the house, because my opinions on it are worthless, but the spirit of the place is fascinating and I will keep going back to the buildings for a repeat prescription of the karma those walls are lined with. The stories he tells are more sad than happy, but so very human and hence of personal significance to all of us. Does this make the book a unique achievement? In my view, yes, because he has given Knole a complicated personality, one built on varieties of joy and pain through the centuries. Visit the house after reading this book and you can look outside in at your own dilemnas - before calmly accepting that you'll never solve them. Life goes on.