Vita Sackville-West, Family History

Published in 1932, two years after The Edwardians (I posted on it here), Family History has the same central themes and milieu. It concerns the familial, sexual and social affairs of the wealthy and privileged upper classes, with the central issue being the struggle for personal authenticity and self-fulfilment, being true to one’s desires, against the negating influence of social convention, family expectations, and the need to maintain ‘standards’ and ‘manners’ in the face of one’s shallow, hypocritical but judgemental peers.

This time, though, the protagonist isn’t male (Sebastian, the young heir to Chevron in The Edwardians): Evelyn Jarrold is a beautiful, chic widow (her husband was killed in WWI) who falls for Miles, a man fifteen years younger. Like Sebastian, she has to contend with that struggle to satisfy her personal desire – she’s passionately in love with him – in the face of their profound differences, and her powerful social ‘training’, which induces her to try to keep up the pretence that she hasn’t lost all sense of propriety by having an affair with a man so much younger.

Even worse, he’s ‘not one of us’, as the Jarrolds see it, and her breeding and upbringing incline her to conform to their self-serving, hypocritical mores. Miles represents everything they fear and despise: he’s an intellectual, left-wing, a rising, progressive Labour politician who writes books and cares for the poor and the downtrodden. They see him as ‘a traitor to his class.’

V Sackville-West, Family History cover

My Vintage Classics paperback 2018 edition

Like Evelyn, however, he’s also a dual personality: he deep down hates ‘democracy’, and is a self-confessed Tory country squire when back where he feels happiest: at his rambling ruin of a castle (presumably based on VSW’s recently acquired Sissinghurst) where he farms a large estate. Yet he despises the affluent, superficial world that means everything to his lover.

His friends are all intellectuals, ‘highbrow’ – a term of abuse when used by the Jarrolds – as it is on one occasion even against Evelyn herself. But he’s attracted to Evelyn by her glamour, not her intellect, and hates ‘clever women’: he prefers his women to be ‘idle’ and ‘decorative’, and becomes irritated by her jealous demands that he immerse himself totally in her and her passionate love. He ultimately values his masculine independence more than her cloying devotion, and can’t understand why she is so demanding. They argue frequently, then make up. He can’t match her emotional fervour, finds it annoying.

And she’s uncomfortable in the company of his bohemian friends, especially of Miles’s closest friends, Leonard and Viola Anquetil (thinly disguised portraits of Virginia Woolf, one of Vita’s many lovers, and her husband Leonard). Viola was the sister of Sebastian in The Edwardians, who chose the ‘highbrow’ path and married the outsider who tried to persuade her brother also to relinquish the deadening world of social hypocrisy and unquestioning acceptance of convention in which they were born.

Evelyn is uncomfortable when they discuss things with passion; instead of the ‘perpetual heavy banter’ and ‘small-talk’, ‘gossip’ about ‘personalities’ of the Jarrold world, these people instead exhibit a ‘desire for the truth’. And ‘their frankness horrified her.’

Glamorous, trivial parties, lavish shopping trips to her society dressmaker’s, expensive trips to exotic watering-holes of the rich, and dull family dinners were Evelyn’s world. They were characterised by superficially good manners – Evelyn was aware of their stultifying vapidity, but struggled to emancipate herself. Here she is, early in the novel, in her sumptuous flat in an opulent part of London, being visited by her teenage niece Ruth, who adores her glamorous aunt:

She [Ruth] chattered. Evelyn lent herself amiably to the chatter; it seemed to her that she was always lending herself amiably to somebody or something, till she ceased to have any existence of her own at all. Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact she was rather frightened of it…She disliked it, thinking it ugly. But she felt sometimes that she could endure the emptiness of her friends and the conventionality of the Jarrolds no longer. The two old Jarrolds were real enough, in their separate ways, but the rest of them were puppets, manikins, and their acquired conventions were so much waste paper.

VSW does such a good job portraying her snobbish, shallow world of philistines that Evelyn lacks the strength to escape from that it’s hard to find her sympathetic for much of the first half of the novel (even harder to find Miles much more than a selfish brute). What redeems her from the outset is this faltering awareness of the fierce, ‘authentic’ self that refuses to be completely crushed by the ‘puppets’ and their soul-destroying conventions.

It’s interesting that VSW is dealing with the kinds of existential crises that were to preoccupy Sartre and the rest of the Left Bank set a decade or so later.

As her struggle diminishes her depleted emotional and spiritual resources, Evelyn becomes a sad and almost tragic figure, with a kind of nobility that astonishes even her. Near the end she finally finds the strength to be true to herself, and to be firm in rejecting attempts to placate or reconcile her:

This firmness was mysterious, even to her. It seemed to be the reverse of the medal. The medal was stamped on the other side with self-indulgence, softness, luxury, egotism; now she had turned it over and found a certain austerity, pride, and self-sacrifice.

The final section of the novel is deeply moving, I found – more so than The Edwardians. It’s more authentic.

I’ve written about some other VSW novels:

The Edwardians (1930)

All Passion Spent (1931)

No Signposts in the Sea (1961)