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'A House Full of Daughters': seven generations in a literary family

Juliet Nicolson, granddaughter of Bloomsbury insider Vita Sackville-West, reflects on the experience of the female members of her all-too-famous family.

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    A House Full of Daughters:
    A Memoir of Seven Generations
    By Juliet Nicolson
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    336 pp.
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Juliet Nicolson comes from a literary powerhouse of a family.  Her grandmother was the author Vita Sackville-West, also famous for her gardening and love affair with Virginia Woolf.  Her father was Nigel Nicolson, founder of the publishing house Weidenfeld & Nicolson, one of the most important publishing houses in postwar England.  Her legacy includes celebrated family estates, unhappy marriages, great wealth, alcoholism, and sexual repression.

A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations draws on this legacy, along with family lore and personal memories, to reflect on the experience of its female members navigating their all-too-famous family and its sweeping history.

Juliet Nicolson’s family came to prominence through the remarkable career of her Spanish great-great grandmother Pepita Duran as a flamenco dancer.  After a short-lived marriage, arranged but later sabotaged by her mother, she took as her lover the British diplomat Lionel Sackville-West.  With Pepita began a family tradition of great romances, ambition, and secrets.  Pepita’s intense, yet strained relationship with a mother who moved from center to the peripheries of her life also set a pattern.

Pepita’s life ripened into fame and fortune through her art, but fell into disrepute due to her position as Lionel’s mistress and her children, born out of wedlock and shunned by the neighboring families in the French villa where Lionel had installed her.  (Her children only learned of the reason for their painful exclusion later in life.)  Pepita’s daughter Victoria replicated her mother’s trajectory, starting life as an ostracized, rootless girl, but growing into a celebrated beauty who occupied the pinnacle of social success while hosting her father’s parties in Washington, D.C. – then tragically plunging into isolation and emotional instability after becoming a wife and mother.

In each case, at the height of happiness and success, the daughter left the mother behind.

It was Vita who broke the pattern somewhat with her happy marriage, accomplished career as a writer, and satisfying, albeit unconventional, sex-life – she and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson had same-sex affairs in what effectively functioned as an “open marriage.”  She also had no daughters.  But Vita was a one-off, and the pattern of repression, secrecy, and unhappiness began again with Nicolson’s own parents, Philippa Tennyson d’Eyncourt and Nigel Nicolson, the latter of whom was frigid, if that word can be applied to men.

What Nicolson suggests, without dwelling on it, is the difficulty of forging strong, healthy mother/daughter bonds in cultures so twisted by patriarchal law – whether through Pepita's inability to marry her lover (since she couldn’t divorce her husband) thereby isolating herself and their children; or Vita's to keep her beloved estate, Knole (memorialized by Virginia Woolf in her novel "Orlando") which passed to a male heir; or her own mother's "finishing school" education that, coupled with her father's disdain, forever crippled her confidence, giving her no way to earn money and status other than through marriage – and she had two of them, both cold and emotionally punishing

The male dominated nature of these societies, too, led to what Nicolson refers to as "patriarchal bargains" made by the women – generally marriage for escape or security – or in a few instances a spousal type relationship with a father for much the same reason.

Her memoir is in this sense a portrait of different eras and how they (i.e., the conservative upper-class) treated their women and children, yet, really, what drives the narrative seems to be Nicolson’s desire to exorcise her family demons. 

Like her mother, Juliet Nicolson was as a child emotionally neglected by her largely absent mother.  She broke free by attending Oxford, attending lectures by the likes of Richard Ellmann, the James Joyce scholar, and the novelist Edna O’Brien.  Then she moved with her young family to New York, pursuing her own career in publishing.  Also like her mother, Nicolson went through a divorce and was an alcoholic, though unlike Philippa, who died young from that condition, Juliet recovered with the help of family support and treatment. 

While it’s brave to write of this period in her life – and I hesitate to criticize this attempt – the book falls a bit flat in this section.  Nicolson can seem oddly removed, even from herself, so readers may be left feeling something was missing.  Perhaps it’s hard not to self-censor when your children and ex-husband are still around.

But in the end, what Juliet Nicolson has found is clarity and compassion for her own mother, and all her female forebearers, as well as a note of hope in the lives of her daughters and granddaughter.  It’s a powerful contribution to her family’s legacy.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and a regular Monitor contributor.

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