A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson

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A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An entertaining family saga spanning seven generations and the last two centuries, from a Spanish dancer of the mid-nineteenth century to the granddaughter of the author, herself the granddaughter of ‘Vita’ Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: February 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099598039

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With grandparents who were distinguished writers and a father who co-founded a major publishing house, it was inevitable that Juliet Nicolson would follow in the family’s literary tradition. Already known for two works of social history, here she tells her family story through seven generations.

The starting point is the saga of her great-great-grandmother Pepita, a dancer born in Malaga in 1830 to a life of poverty. She became the mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an attaché at the British Legation in Germany who set her up in a French chateau as his wife in all but name. After giving him several children she died in childbirth.

Her eldest daughter Victoria’s only child, another Victoria but known in the family as Vita, of Sissinghurst Gardens fame, prided herself on a refusal to conform with convention. Vita’s marriage to Harold Nicolson, at various times diplomat, member of parliament and author, did not stop her from enjoying same-sex relationships at the same time. One of their two sons, Ben, became a noted artist and the other, Nigel, Juliet’s father, was also a member of parliament (a very left-leaning Conservative who resigned soon after falling out with his local party after the Suez crisis) and co-founder of the publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

It is at this point that the book really springs into life. Inevitably, perhaps, her telling of the story of the earlier generations comes across more as history written mainly from diligent research with the aid of letters, diaries, family stories handed down and a feast of relevant earlier biographies. Therefore it is only to be expected that when her own parents Nigel and Philippa enter centre stage, there is more of an immediacy, an intimacy to the tale. It is at times an unhappy one – the all-too-frequent story of a couple who appeared mutually devoted at first and only later realised that theirs was not a love match after all. The saga of Philippa’s estrangement from her family, the ever-gentlemanly, inhibited Nigel’s tremendous patience with her and above all her early death from alcoholism, a problem which Juliet herself came to experience all too well (as had Vita in later life) but luckily managed to fight just in time, or ‘snap the thread and interrupt the pattern’ as she puts it, is a moving one indeed. After a good deal of sadness there is a happy ending, as she writes of her daughters and her first grandchild, Imogen, meaning ‘beloved daughter’ in Irish as she tells us in the last chapter.

Let us not forget that this is by no means gloom and doom all the way. She also recounts life at boarding school and university during the late 1960s and early 1970s with wistfulness and humour, as well as an ‘I was there and I lived it’ atmosphere which will strike a chord with which those of us from the same generation will readily identify. One particularly amusing moment comes with an appearance at a university tutorial in Shakespeare from the recently remarried Richard Burton and a rather argumentative Elizabeth Taylor, bottle of Jack Daniels in hand.

Every family saga has its ups and downs, its eccentricities and heartbreaks. Julie Nicolson has recounted hers very well with affection and a genuine lack of self-pity, the result being a gentle and very entertaining read.

If you enjoy this, we also recommend one of the author’s earlier titles, The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War. For an account of Vita’s private life, and others, there is A Book of Secrets, Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd, while Love Affair: The Memoir of a Forbidden Father-daughter Relationship by Leslie Kenton is a frank, disturbing account of an even more dysfunctional family relationship. A fictional three-generation family story is provided by Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg.

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