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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2004. First published 1930

Vita Sackville-West’s first novel was written, says Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to this edition, ‘for fun, and to make money.’ It achieved both ends, becoming a best-seller for the Woolfs at Hogarth Press, and succeeding as the author hoped in making everybody ‘seriously annoyed.’

Sackville-West Edwardians coverThis is because it’s a gleeful exposition of the shallow hypocrisy, duplicity and decadence of the Edwardian upper classes – a superficially glamorous world she knew well, having been raised in the stately home of Knole, upon which Chevron in this novel is based, an equally lavish and vast country estate that had belonged to the Sackvilles since Elizabethan times. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) is a thinly disguised fantasy about Vita’s ambivalent sexuality and personality in the context of this dynasty.

In order to write such an exposé, she needed to create some characters who could provide an outsider’s critical view. The first of these is the flimsily-drawn, implausible polar explorer with the exotic name of Leonard Anquetil. He views this privileged party of ‘easily-pleased’ house-guests balefully: they are, he sees, ‘surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them’, yet never tiring of the endless series of frivolously tedious events like this one, or showing any inclination to ‘vary the programme’ they’d followed every weekend since schooldays. Anquetil reflects:

to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand…All their days were the same; had been the same for an eternity of years…With what glamour this scheme is invested, insolent imposture! and upon what does it base its pretensions? [ he could see that none of them] were in any way remarkable, nor that their conversation was in any way worthy or exciting the interest of an eager man. He listened carefully, tabulating their topics. They were more interested, he observed, in facts than ideas. A large proportion of their conversation seemed to consist in asking one another what they had thought of such-and-such an entertainment, and whether they were going to such-and-such another.

Money is their other obsession, and ‘other people’s incomes’. Politics features only to provide an opportunity to show off which prominent figures they knew in that world.

Their chief desire was to cap one another’s information. So this is the great world, thought Anquetil; the world of the élite…If this is Society…God help us, for surely no fraud has ever equalled it. These are the people who ordain the London season, glorify Ascot, make or unmake the fortune of small Continental watering-places, inspire envy, emulation, and snobbishness – well, thought Anquetil, with a shrug, they spend money, and that is the best that can be said for them.

I’ve quoted at length to give an idea of the lush, pleasing prose style and genial viciousness of the narrative. Two more key characters also have a jaundiced view of this  world: the handsome duke, Sebastian, who is master of Chevron at 19 (his father died when he was young), and his younger sister, Viola. Both are disillusioned with and ultimately reject this privileged world, with its sham ‘code’ of conduct that involves deception, infidelity and treachery, concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, respectability and brittle honour. It disgusts the siblings, and they rebel – although Sebastian has a deep and genuine love of Chevron; it’s the people who he has to mix with that disillusion him.

Sackville-West clearly had enormous fun writing this, and it’s great fun to read. But ultimately, like the superficial characters it depicts, it doesn’t sustain. It’s true that she makes the best of such an easy target: boring, selfish, superficial snobs. But the characters who she presents as embodying the values of decency and integrity, chiefly Anquetil, Sebastian and Viola, aren’t fully rounded. Like the rest of the cast of characters, they’re more like caricatures.

But I enjoyed this gleeful demolition job and finished it in a couple of binge-reads. It’s like Downton Abbey written as a comical horror story. The prose style, as noted already, is smooth, with occasional poetic touches; here’s the first description of Sebastian’s first lover, the ‘professional beauty’, Lady Roehampton:

[she] was moving idly about the room looking like a loosened rose; she was wrapped in grey satin edged with swansdown.

I’m not sure this visual image quite works; maybe that’s why Sackville-West’s friends and publishers, the Woolfs, didn’t rate her highly as a writer (though they relished the revenue she generated). As an entertainer she’s great fun.

There’s some unfortunate casual anti-Semitism that’s sadly characteristic of the times in which it was written, but one redeeming feature is its foreshadowing of the disastrous slaughter of World War I that was about to happen. We know that whatever summary justice is handed out by the novelist to these shallow, self-indulgent creatures and their social circus, history was to deliver far worse.

I posted on Vita Sackville-West’s 1931 novel All Passion Spent HERE

Liz at her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working wrote about it HERE with links to more reviews.