Our book today is Knole & The Sackvilles by Vita Sackville-West, first published in its present form in 1922, and it is a slim little treasure-trove of biographies. Dozens of Sackvilles, many Earls of Dorset and Lords Buckhurst stride across its pages, along with their attendant wives, children, servants, and hangers-on (and shadowed always by their various monarchs, from Elizabeth I to
George VI, when in 1947 Knole was turned over to the National Trust for safekeeping (and tourism). It is the great good fortune of this huge and remarkable crowd that out of their midst should come a writer as thrillingly talented as Sackville-West, Bloomsbury member, object of scandal, and venerated in her lifetime for virtually all of her writings except this, her odd, idiosyncratic masterpiece.
But that crowd of Sackvilles and Dorsets and Buckhursts was not the only beneficiary of Sackville-West’s genius as a writer, nor even the main such. No, the best, most strongly-drawn and most sympathetic character in Knole & The Sackvilles is the great house of Knole itself, as big as four city blocks, as old as the Romans, and more steeped in story than any single mortal life could possibly be. Thousands of tourists visit it each year, chaperoned around carefully-managed segments of the house and grounds, and all but the most cynical are awestruck by tour’s end, but to the shy, hyper-sensitive little Vita Sackville, it was home. Indeed, since she was the one who signed the National Trust papers in 1947, she may well have been the last person to call the place home.
The sheer elegaic beauty of her prose when she’s describing the place is as strong and as wistful as anything Evelyn Waugh ever wrote about his fictional Brideshead, only the admixture of actual autobiography here gives the added punch of memory. As Sackville-West tells us, she was never frightened at Knole. “I loved it; and I took it for granted that Knole loved me.”
This autobiographical note runs throughout the book and is an almost mystical thing; the author is the last voice of an era that could very naturally, very organically feel itself linked with all the preceding eras Knole had seen – eras of horse-powered travel and candlelit writing tables and tapestries and bed-hangings meant for warmth, not decoration. Her book glitters all over with tiny vignettes no later writer encamped at Knole would ever see:
A stone lobby under the oriel window divides the Green Court from the Stone Court. In summer the great oak doors of this second gate-house are left open, and it has sometimes happened that I have found a stag in the banqueting hall, puzzled but still dignified, strayed in from the park since no barrier checked him.
Such vignettes are priceless, but they do not make up the bulk of the book. Instead, Sackville-West spends most of her allotted space taking her readers on a biographical tour of the house’s various great lords and royal advisers. In the process, she creates a series of portraits not just of people but of ages – in addition to everything else, this odd, gorgeously-written volume is an excellent, engaging history of England (albeit from a distinctly Kentish point of view) from the late Elizabethan to the late Georgian era.
This history includes some indelible accounts of figures the main movements of most such narratives might overlook, such as the 18th century Lady Betty Germain, frequent house guest at Knole, whose shock at receiving a scornful letter from Jonathan Swift about her host’s self-serving nature is gently, sardonically mocked:
One wonders whether such suggestions troubled Lady Betty. Was it possible that her great-souled friend would not be Lord Steward and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Lord Warden and Lord Lieutenant of Kent, did he not also happen to be Duke of Dorset? Was it possible that such people as the Sackvilles occasionally occupied positions due to their birth rather than to their intellect?
Another figure obscured by time, Lady Anne Clifford (mistress of Knole during the time of James I), is invoked with genuine sympathy and a trace of awe, no doubt provoked by this lady’s unbending determination to fight off all legal claimants to the property that was rightfully hers:
In the end she got the better of them all, and the last picture of her left by the “Lives” is that of a triumphant and imperious old lady, retired to the stronghold of her northern castles, where her authority could stand “against sectaries, almost against Parliaments and armies themselves”; refusing to go to court “unless she might wear blinkers”; moving with feudal, with almost royal state between her many castles, from Appleby to Pendragon, from Pendragon to Brougham, from Brougham to Brough, from Brough to Skipton; building brew-houses, wash-houses, bake-houses; kitchens; stables; sending word to Cromwell that as fast as he should knock her castles about her ears she would surely put them up again; endowing almshouses; ruling over her almswomen and her tenants; receiving, like the patriarchal old despot she was, the generations of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.
But in the end, it’s always Knole itself that brings out her most glowing prose. Just as two generations of television viewers will forever hear Jeremy Irons’ resonant voice when they read the descriptions of Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited, so too does this prose deserve its great embodier, to fully convey its beauties to the listening ear. Imagine the mighty Eileen Atkins reading this as a voice-over to some mini-series as yet unborn:
It [Knole House] has a deep inward gaiety of some very old woman who has always been beautiful, who has had many lovers and seen many generations come and go, smiled wisely over their sorrows and their joys, and learnt an imperishable secret of tolerance and humour. It is, above all, an English house. It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky; it settles down into its hollow amongst the cushioned tops of the trees; the brown-red of those roofs is the brown-red of humble farms and pointed oast-houses, such as stain over a wide landscape of England the quilt-like pattern of the fields.
Those of you who should find yourself in the beautiful country of Kent are urged to make time (during its open season, that is – 15 March to 2 November) to see at least that portion of Knole’s beauty that is ever open to the public. Those of you who should find yourself in the good city of Boston are urged to make time to visit the great Museum of Fine Arts to see two of the tapestries that once hung at Knole. And those of you who can’t easily get to either can still find their way to Powell’s website and revel in this wonderful book.