Thursday, March 30, 2017

A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson

It has been a race to the end of March to try and get all of my March reads in, and I'm just one shy.  I can't find the energy to finish that book, so I'll talk about that DNF in my next post. 

I was picking up a book at the library earlier this month, when I happened to see this in the new releases.  Curiosity had me flipping it open, and just a few minutes later I was adding it to my check out pile.  I'm so glad I saw this, because it was such a tremendously satisfying memoir.  And I finally learned something about Vita Sackville-West.  

Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson, who was a well respected British politician, lecturer, author, and guardian of Sissinghurst, his mother's beautiful country home famous for its gardens.  You can visit and tour the buildings, extensive gardens, and spend the day wandering in a stunning bit of English countryside.  I've heard of Sissinghurst, and saw books on the gardens, but never really knew what it was, who owned it, and especially, who Vita Sackville-West was and why she was so scandalous.  Juliet explains it all, and explains the women in her family, starting with her great-great grandmother Pepita,  a famous Spanish flamenco dancer during the mid-19th century.  Pepita was beautiful, mysterious, and doing quite well financially touring Europe when she met and fell madly in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a British politician.  Only problem was, Pepita was married, and in 19th century Spain, divorce was pretty much impossible for women.  That didn't stop Pepita and Lionel; they ended up having five children together, with Pepita living in France with her children, and Lionel visiting.  She suffered the scorn of her neighbors, and when she died in childbirth, she left her children orphans in France; left to be raised away from their father. Years later,  Lionel and Pepita's eldest daughter Victoria eventually became his shining star in Washington, D.C.; organizing dinners and social events for her political father, and becoming so famous for her charm and beauty that proposals for marriage came fast and furious.  But Victoria was afraid of marriage; after all, she'd seen how loving a man not only made a pariah out of her mother, but ended up killing her in childbirth.  No thanks. 

But, Victoria eventually became smitten with Lionel Sackville-West, her first cousin.  He pursued her relentlessly.  She finally agreed to marriage because Lionel was the heir to her father's country estate Knoles, and Victoria loved that home with all her being.  Her marriage crumbled, though, after Victoria gave birth to Vita.  The whole ordeal of childbirth terrified her so that she forbade her husband to ever have sex with her again, and that began the slow decline of their marriage, and another bit of dysfunction to add to the Sackville-West family.

Oh, there is so much more to tell you!  I found this all fascinating.  So many strong women, but each was also so fragile in their own ways; there is a definite pattern of neglect/smothering love/frustration in each generation.  It was sad to see how damaging it was to everyone, especially the children.  Juliet also suffered from an unhappy mother; her mother married into the Sackville-West family through Juliet's father Nigel, the son of Vita Sackville-West and Henry Nicolson.  Both were famous in their time; mostly because Vita was a gifted author, and notorious for her affairs with women.  Henry also fooled around with men, but somehow their marriage lasted until Vita's death; quietly devoted to each other.  

What this memoir struck in me was the realization that I don't have the luxury of talking to my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  They're all gone, and I have no way of knowing what they were like, what they went through as young women.  They didn't keep diaries; there are only pictures to help piece together what life was like for them all those years ago.  Juliet is incredibly lucky; lucky that she is a gifted writer; lucky that she has the family papers,  Sissinghurst and Knoles to visit and discover little bits of history tucked into attics and drawers.  But Juliet understands all of that, and has crafted a memoir that is a love letter to all the women who came before her, and to her daughters and granddaughter who follow.  

Rating: 5/6 for a memoir that reads like a novel, about the generations of women in one family and how they shaped each generation to follow. This was so good! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 


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