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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.’
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on 15 January 2014
If you enjoy history you will find this book a really good read. The author has written the history of Knole and his ancestors who lived and loved and fought over this inheritance. I "googled" Knole and was sad to see that this historic house needs so much attention and money to restore it. Hopefully the Sackville heirs and the National Trust will be able to do so.
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on 11 March 2017
Great read thoroughly enjoyed it. Now planning to visit Sissinghurst - have been to Knowle.
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on 19 April 2017
Very informative. Well written. Enjoyable read.
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on 12 July 2017
Due to be read soon, thanks!
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on 17 April 2017
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on 4 September 2017
Very interesting reading.
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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.
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on 16 November 2011
Studying History at Oxford must have given Robert Sackville West suitable ammunition to undertake this book for which, as 7th Lord Sackville, he has a headlong advantage !

What strikes me most about this book is the evenhandedness meted out to ancestors and their friends and followers. Without in any way covering up for foibles and failures there seems to be no axe to grind, no personal judgement expressed in this very honest history of Knole. It is touching also that Robert (on his own account) is on good terms with the National Trust who now own the house, as they have been criticised for becoming too much of a marketing brand like the late not overlamented Trust House Forte !

If you are like me, you will have to refer very frequently to the Family Tree, suitably provided before the Preface, because the successions are more than once a little complicated, and this display helps establish the proper backbone to the story. The colour plates of ancestral portraits and family photographs are also well chosen and add to the enjoyment of the book.

The book is almost in two halves : the first part involving considerable work with historical archives, and the second much more reliant on family letters and reminiscences. The latter start with the extraordinary story of Lionel, the 2ed Lord Sackville's romantic alliance with a dancer, commonly known as Pepita, and the book from that point on practically seems to run on greased tracks, with Vita Sackville West and her friend Virginia Woolf having latterly contributed so much to our knowledge of Knole by their novels and personal correspondence.

I can thoroughly recommend this book although a desire to be historically accurate has had ascendency over the potential to mischievously exploit the humour in certain stories.
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on 10 March 2017
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