Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles, By Robert Sackville-West

A rummage through the attic proves fruitful
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The Independent Culture

There are many hidden drawbacks to inheriting a country house – leaking roofs, inefficient heating, jealous siblings – but one perk, as I discovered in this new history of Knole, is that you never have to throw anything away. Thirteen generations of Sackville-Wests have been hoarding tat in its cupboards and drawers since 1604, when Thomas Sackville bought a large Kent manor to prove his arrival in society. After years as a favoured courtier of Queen Elizabeth, who would send him on awkward foreign missions to find her a husband, Thomas wanted a house he could show off.

Country-house buffs will know Knole as the calendar house, as it allegedly has 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards. Nobody seems to have actually counted the rooms, but Knole is certainly big, about the size of an Oxbridge college, with as many gables and chimneys, and even a clock tower.

All these attics have provided a rich mine for the author, Knole's current occupier. His is a family obsessed with its own history, and he has a wealth of sources, from the vivid diary of Anne Clifford to the better-known Vita Sackville-West, lover of Virginia Woolf, who wrote 17 novels, almost all centred on Knole.

Taking inheritance as his theme, the author charts the cruel twists wrought by primogeniture, which prevented Anne and Vita from inheriting. Vita was obsessed with Knole, and would lose it twice, the second time when her cousin handed it to the National Trust in 1946. "It's silly to mind, I know, but I do mind... Why should stones and rooms and shapes of courtyards matter so poignantly?" she wrote, acknowledging the futility of forming a sentimental attachment to a building.

Vita's 1922 history, Knole and the Sackvilles, is comprehensive, and one can only marvel that the present author persuaded Bloomsbury that what the publishing world needs is another history of this well-documented family. Yet I'm glad he did, for it's an entertaining read. Sackville-West rattles through his family history at a judicious pace, artfully avoiding getting bogged down in any one period. Early on, he quotes Vita describing the Sackvilles as "a rotten lot, and nearly all stark staring mad", and some vivid portraits emerge.

There's Charles Sackville, the Restoration rake who would have done the Bullingdon proud: after being served dinner by six naked women at the Cock tavern in Covent Garden, he "acted all the postures of lust and buggery that could be imagined" from the window, causing a rumpus in the street below. Vita's grandfather Lionel had five illegitimate children by a Spanish dancer; the eldest, Victoria, Vita's mother, became the supreme Edwardian hostess, installing electricity in 1902 and entertaining the Prince of Wales. Old Lionel cut a forlorn figure in later life, reading Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in a bare room, after which he would say, "Good book, that," and start over. Which is what future Sackville-Wests will doubtless say of this book, before sitting down to write their own versions.