on 25 April 2014
A remarkable family saga centred on the beautiful house of Knole and it’s complicated custodians. It is a troubled story detailing the intimate lives of those who through no fault of their own have no birth right and are therefore consigned to the fringes of a fascinating family; The Sackvilles. The author, in a brilliantly researched and constructed way, brings this intricate, sorrowful tale of Pepita, Lionel, their children and descendants to life. A wonderful read,
Free copy and I certainly thought this book worthy of 5 stars.
In 1852, Lionel Sackville-West, a young British diplomat working for the Foreign Office, spotted the beautiful Spanish dancer, Pepita, in a theatre in Paris. Captivated by Pepita's pretty face, her tiny waist, her almond-shaped eyes and her very long black hair, Lionel arranged an introduction and she soon became his mistress. Over the years, Pepita bore Lionel seven children, five of which survived: Max, Victoria, Flora, Amalia and Henry. Lionel and Pepita never married - in fact Pepita was already married when she first met Lionel - and although Lionel installed her and the children in a comfortable house in a resort town in southwest France, the children were not accepted by polite society owing to their illegitimate status. When Pepita died in 1871, the five children were put in the care of a friend of Pepita's, and Lionel continued his single life mostly unimpeded by his offspring.
Over the years, as the children became young adults they had to make the best of the situation they found themselves in; the two boys were sent out to farm in South Africa, Flora married a Frenchman, and Amalia drifted from one situation to another, causing problems for the rest of her family. Victoria however, after living with her father as his hostess when he was appointed British Minister in Washington, made such a great success of her position that when Lionel became the second Lord Sackville and inherited Knole - a huge stately home with 365 rooms and 52 staircases - Victoria returned to England with her father and managed the house for him. The beautiful Victoria then very wisely married her first cousin, young Lionel, who was her father's nephew and his heir, thus ensuring her future at Knole. Although, with such a huge house to maintain, money was not in quite as abundant supply as might have appeared to outsiders, Victoria's success understandably brought out feelings of envy and resentment in her four siblings and she and her father were constantly appealed to for money, which they were reluctant to provide. While Victoria and Lionel entertained the Prince of Wales, her brothers and sisters struggled to make ends meet and eventually Victoria's younger brother, Henry, obsessed with the circumstances of his birth and convincing himself that he was his father's legitimate heir, brought about a lawsuit in the attempt to prove his case, which had significant consequences for all concerned.
The author, Robert Sackville-West, seventh Lord Sackville, has written an interesting, well-researched and even-handed account of the lives of his ancestors, sharing with his readers a story of disinheritance and deception, of greed and grievance, of sibling rivalry and of damaged individuals who were sadly never able to escape from the unfortunate circumstances of their birth.
This is the second book by m’laird, (he says, coming over all Scottish), Robert Sackville-West, 7th Lord Sackville, who lives (although as the family tree of the Sackvilles of Knole in the opening pages subtly indicates, does not technically own, the sprawling “calendar” house of Knole, at Sevenoaks, in Kent. Having read it, I shall most certainly read his first, Inheritance (the inheritance being, I imagine, Knole itself).
This is the story of the family of the 7th Baron’s great, great uncle “old” Lionel and a Spanish dancer and demi-mondaine Pepita Oliva. “Old” Lionel never expected to inherit, being the 5th son, but immediately after his death one of his five children, Henry, was to sue his brother in law, “young” Lionel, the 3rd Lord Sackville, for the title on the pretext – or was it the deeply held belief? – that he was in fact the legitimate son of “old” Lionel. That sister was Victoria Sackville-West, mother of the famous Vita, who married a legitimate cousin in order to become the mistress of Knole. While Victoria came closest to escaping it, all of the children of Lionel and Pepita remained cursed by the taint of bastardy, by thoughts and envy of what might have been, even though for much of their lives there was no expectation that their father was anything more than a second son, at best moderately successful in his career as a diplomat. Alone Maximilian, the eldest son, made something of his life and I hope that, while the family tree is curtailed after the 3rd generation, that it continues to prosper and grow in South Africa or elsewhere.
This is a sympathetically written book. The author maintains a dispassionate view of his family and of the evidence that was brought to trial over the years. Legal process culminated in a celebrated High Court case in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, after which Henry committed suicide in Paris. It is also a fascinating insight into the social lives and attitudes of the aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as their power and wealth gradually ebbed, as well as those illegitimate sons who tried (sadly in the Sackville West’s cases) none too successfully to earn a living by farming in South Africa, or daughters who made as best a life as they could through ill-fated marriages, the stage, ultimately possibly prostitution. Having discovered only after my father’s death that my grandfather, born a generation later than Victoria Sackville West and her siblings, was adopted into my modest family name, and was badly affected by that discovery in early adulthood, I found the story be to be particularly moving.
I was also interested to see that while, historically, the legitimate branch of the family hyphenated their name Sackville-West, but the illegitimate branch are referred to as mere “Sackville Wests( with no hypen) in family histories like this, the current Lord’s signature seems to omit the hypen – certainly it makes no big deal of it – perhaps in sympathy?
As a history graduate myself I can admire Sackville-West for his historical-literary style, and while he probably has a more than full time job in publishing and, alongside the National Trust, managing the Knole house and estate, I would like to read his future account of some other family, great or small, where the papers weren’t part of his own inheritance.
on 10 June 2014
Robert Sackville-West has produced a worthy follow-up to his highly enjoyable 'Inheritance'. This time we follow the fortunes (and misfortunes) of a particular and peculiar branch of the Sackville family. The history of the mistress and illegitimate children of Lionel (2nd Baron Sackville) reads like a novel. Indeed, the author holds our interest as well as most novelists bringing a lightness of touch and story-telling to a pretty lamentable tale. If few of the characters engage the reader's affection, we are nevertheless spellbound by the mores, hypocrisy and social attitudes of late Victorian and Edwardian society and in particular of the English aristocracy. Well worth reading.
Knole is an English country home in Kent and is owned by the Sackville-West family. The house has been considered a "calendar house"; it has 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards. (To anyone reading this review, your new term-for-the-day is "calendar house". See what you can learn!) In his new book, "The Disinherited: A Story of Family, Love, and Betrayal", Robert Sackville-West - the current Baron Sackville - looks at his family history and the bitter court fight early in the 1900's between family members about ownership of the house and the title - Baron Sackville - that went with it.
British rules of inheritance for aristocratic families tend to follow the law of primogeniture, or the right of the first born son to inherit the family estate. If the family has no son - and daughters don't count in the scheme of things - the estate will go to the closest collateral male relative. I assume these things usually work out for the best, but in 1869, a crisis hit the Sackville-West family. George Sackville-West died and the title and house went to the family's fourth son, Lionel Sackville-West. Lionel, as a son way down the line of inheritance, had gone into the diplomatic corp, and while living and working in Germany, he met a young Spanish woman, named "Pepita". Pepita - who had hair down to her knees - was a dancer, castanets and all. The two fell in love - or lust - and proceeded to produce a family of seven children, five who reached adulthood.
The problem was that Lionel and Pepita never married. She was his social inferior, and, anyway, she was already married. Lionel supported Pepita and the children as best he could, though they never lived together as a family. He would drop in to their house on the French coast for a while. Pepita died at the age of 40 in childbirth, and Lionel was forced to deal with the situation, which he did by educating the children and, in the case of his three daughters, taking them with him on his diplomatic postings. Everybody knew the children were illegitimate but they were accepted as his children. If Lionel - the family's fourth son - hadn't inherited the title, the question of the children's legitimacy would have probably remained a bit thorny but workable.
However, once Lionel WAS 2nd Baron Sackville, the fight to lay claim to the title by his sons, began. Lionel was a bit haphazard about things; he would say sometimes he and Pepita were married and the children were legitimate; at other times he seemed to be in on the joke and said, "no, we never married". When questioned in court during the many trials of son vs father, Lionel would admit to signing a paper but then would say he rarely looked at what he was signing. (Not a very good trait for a diplomat and he did lose his posting in Washington as British Ambassador when he wrote a very indiscreet letter to an American politician.)
One of the children, the eldest daughter, was named Victoria. She was devoted to her father and ended up marrying her first cousin, also named Lionel. They had one child, a daughter, the writer Vita Sackville-West. Of the five children of Lionel and Pepita, she married the most advantageously. Her long life was spent in and out of courts, either litigating or being sued herself, and she was on famously bad relations with her siblings. They resented her marrying her cousin and having a house - Knole - and a life-style beyond their means.
Robert Sackville-West's book is a lively look at a famous family and the times they lived in. Curiously, there are other books dealing with British men who fathered children by social inferiors and how they were accepted/treated by their families and society at large.
on 23 April 2015
I read the inheritance, so was interested to see another side to the family saga. I enjoyed the detail and analysis of complex and often fraught relationships. Worth a read!
on 1 August 2014
I bought this book for a friend who has visited Knole. She thoroughly enjoyed it, found it very interesting and has just passed it on to me to read!
on 17 June 2014
A delightful, impeccably researched and beautifully written work of family history that is just what the title says it is.
on 28 January 2016
Rather rambling and over detailed in the beginning but an interesting book overall
on 6 October 2014
Really pleased with the book and it`s prompt delivery, Thank you