Top positive review
Walls that speak
on 3 July 2017
Here is a trip through the history of England over the last five hundred years told through the story of a Kent family. The one thing that holds it all together is the splendid house and estate of Knole, in Sevenoaks. So some of the other aristocratic families of our county feature as friends and sometimes rivals – the Cobhams, Sydneys, Astors, Nicholsons to name just a few.
Passing through Knole are Royalty, Archbishops, Prime Ministers and many people in the arts world. Vita Sackville-West grew up here and reluctantly had to leave simply because of the rule of primogeniture which caused the titles and the estate to pass only through the male line, however diversionary that line turned out to be.
Indeed the author is the most recent beneficiary of that rule and is the resident of Knole – the 7th Lord Sackville. The breadth and detail of his research is astonishing. He has clearly inherited some of the family’s skill with words for the whole book reads smoothly with frequent turns of phrase which stir the mind. Indeed such are the variety of characters – noble, quirky, conscientious, roguish or eccentric – that it often has the feel of a novel.
Lord Sackville, or Robert Sackville-West as he writes, would question my term ‘beneficiary’ for some of his most interesting discussion down the centuries but particularly in the last 50 years concerns the role of an English landowner who is virtually a tenant in his own house. His obligation is to pass the house in good order to his descendants. Those years cover the advent of the National Trust at Knole and the inside story of a young family trying to live in a grand house surrounded by visitors. ‘It’s not fair’, says one of the children, ‘Abbi came to my house on Saturday. I can’t just go to hers like that – without even asking.’