A Book of Secrets, By Michael Holroyd

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The Independent Culture

This brief, rich work casts a mysterious spell over the reader. Its shimmering narrative of linked biographical sketches is imbued with romance, eroticism, obsession and comedy. The figure connecting the book's haute bohème cast is a Yorkshire banker with the Dickensian moniker of Lord Grimthorpe. While his immortal last words were "We're low on marmalade", Grimthorpe was vigorous in his pursuit of both art and women.

When he dispatched his 29-year-old mistress Eve Fairfax to be sculpted by Rodin in 1901, the inevitable happened. "I appealed to [Rodin]," Eve ambiguously wrote, "because I was not prepared to jump into bed with him at every occasion." Ditched by Grimthorpe, Eve was destitute but maintained an intermittent relationship with Rodin, for whom she became a femme inspiratrice, until the First World War. In later life, the "imperious, abrasive, amusing, lively, entertaining, cross and raucous" Eve lugged a huge book of memorabilia from place to place. Holroyd, who became obsessed with Rodin's bust of Eve in the early Seventies, regrets missing the chance to meet this muse who survived until 1978.

Eve's story segues into that of Alice Keppel, whose affair with Grimthorpe was "like a rehearsal for her role as royal mistress" with Edward, Prince of Wales. "If everyone is to be believed", Grimthorpe fathered her daughter Violet Trefusis, the novelist and lover of Vita Sackville-West.

Holroyd enters the story when a Yorkshirewoman called Catherine Till (who believes she is Grimthorpe's granddaughter), gives him a "white-knuckle" ride to Villa Cimbrone, Grimthorpe's house near Ravello. Though it is a comic highlight, this reviewer believes that all car rides in Naples are of the white-knuckle variety.

The final strand of the book takes up the story of Violet Trefusis and her affair with Vita Sackville-West, which culminated in a "transvestite experiment" when the couple stayed in a boarding house with Vita playing the part of "a rather untidy man called Julian". Here we encounter another present-day obsession. The writer Tiziana Masucci is infatuated with Violet. "I see her searching for a new identity," writes Holroyd, "a reinvention of herself." This bewitching kaleidoscope of a book, a cross between Aubrey Beardsley and Alan Bennett, is dedicated to Catherine and Tiziana. It brings something new and strange to the craft of biography.