NOTE: This story originally appeared on my blog in 2007; I'm re-reading the book (I do so annually) and decided to revive the blog entry. Above photo: Violet Trefusis. Click on the smaller images below to enlarge.
Diana Souhami's 1996 book about Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII, and her daughter Violet Trefusis is on my "grab-and-read" shelf. These are favorite books which I've read - as many as a dozen times - and like to go back to time and again in between new additions to my library. I have quite a stack of new books waiting but I've been thinking about Souhami's book since I came across some Internet photographs of Knole, the magnificent home of the Sackville family in Kent.
Vita Sackville-West looms large in this story of hypocrisy, thwarted love, betrayal and deceit among the upper classes in Edwardian England. Alice Keppel, a married woman, became the mistress of Edward VII, a married future-king, in 1898. "The Keppel" as she was called in court circles was Bertie's third major mistress, succeeding Lillie Langtry and Daisy, Countess of Warwick. Both Queen Alexandra and George Keppel, Alice's husband, accepted the situation.
The luminously beautiful Mrs. Keppel (left), with her 'ripe curves' was a Queen in everything but fact. She upset the 'placement' at luncheons and dinners, the order of precedence being ignored so she could sit next to the King. On weekends at the huge country homes of the noble and wealthy, Mrs. Keppel was conveniently installed in rooms near His Majesty while her husband slept elsewhere. She traveled abroad with the King while his wife stayed home; she amused and cajoled him while her bank account and investment portfolio swelled lavishly. The extravagance and waste of the royal lifestyle is rather sickening to read about: the enormous meals consumed; vast retinues of servants to attend to their every whim; 3000 fowl shot in a single day by the King's hunting party.
At home, Mrs. Keppel had two daughters, Violet (left) and Sonia. As small children they would be presented to 'Kingy Gateau' when he visited their mother; they did not understand who he was or why he mattered more than their father. Violet admired her mother and was intimidated by her beauty and her self-confidence. When Edward VII died, Mrs. Keppel took the girls abroad for a year. Returning to London, she set out to re-invent herself; she had the money and the connections to do so.
One afternoon in 1905, when Violet was ten, she met another girl while visiting a sick friend: Vita Sackville-West (left). Intrigued by the mysterious, boyish Vita - whose grandmother was the Spanish dancer Pepita - Violet asked her to tea. They became friends and Violet was invited to Knole, the Sackville's manor at Sevenoaks. Over the years they developed a deep relationship; Violet viewed it as love but Vita thought in terms of possession: "Violet is MINE," she wrote. Vita married Harold Nicolson whom she liked and felt comfortable with; they had two sons but Harold also had liaisons with men and from one of his flings he developed a venereal infection and was forced to abstain from sex with his wife for six months. During that time, Vita's relationship with Violet was consummated. Violet wished more than anything to avoid the kind of double standard by which her mother lived: she wanted an honest and straight-forward relationship with the woman she loved. But the world was not ready for that kind of love.
The two women left everything behind and spent four months in France, traveling and leading a gypsy life while exploring their romance. Vita dressed as a man, Julian, while Violet assumed the role of the girlish Eve (Violet's drawing of them, left). "This is the best adventure!" wrote Violet. But word of their escapades got back to Alice Keppel in London. With their money running out, the young women returned to England and Mrs. Keppel decided that marriage would cure her daughter's 'disease'. The poor bloke roped into this scenario was Denys Trefusis, a veteran of the horrors of World War I who cared enough about Violet to sign an agreement with her that he would not demand sex from her in marriage. Violet hoped in vain that Vita would come to her rescue; on the morning of her marriage, Violet wrote one line to her beloved: "You have broken my heart. Goodbye."
Now begins a terrible phase where Vita, who more than anything wants to preserve the comfort and stability of her life at Knole (left), toys with Violet - making promises to go away with her but delaying action. Vita is furiously jealous of Denys but expects Violet to accept and condone her own marriage to Harold. Denys, very soon after his marriage, is cruelly apprised of the relationship between his wife and Vita.
Denys is eventually marginalized and finally destroyed. Violet abandons the hope of a real life with Vita and in the end becomes a parody of her mother with a lavish but empty lifestyle, moving between London, Florence and Saint-Loup, France. Vita and Harold stay together while each continuing to have same-sex lovers on the side. Vita leaves vast amounts of wreckage in her romantic wake; Harold refers to them as her "muddles".
Violet Trefusis seems a particularly poignant figure to me: a woman forced by a hypocritical society to abandon her own desires and play the role demanded of her even though it caused much torment to those involved. Society could accept her mother being the mistress of a king, but Violet's was the wrong kind of love. Shortly before her death, Violet wrote: "My heart was more disgraceful, more alone, and more courageous than the world has known. O passer-by: my heart was like your own."
Associations: Mrs. Keppel bought the Villa Ombrellino in Florence in 1924 and Violet later lived there for many years; the Tour de Saint-Loup which was Violet's beloved "tower"...a plaque commemorates her life there ("English by birth, French at heart").