Juliet Nicholson, A House Full of Daughters: 'Family tree with rotten branches', book review

 Nicolson is perceptive on difficult mother-daughter relationships

Leyla Sanai
Sunday 20 March 2016 14:24
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Nicolson’s book about her female ancestors brings to mind George Orwell’s words: “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun ... a land of snobbery and privilege.”

Two of the author’s female ancestors featured here achieved something: Pepita, the author’s great, great grandmother, a Spanish dancer, and Vita Sackville-West, the author’s grandmother, the writer and horticulturalist of Sissinghurst fame.

The others sound a ghastly, sponging lot. Pepita’s daughter Victoria was so vain that she kept a life-sized plaster cast of her own hand in her sitting room, and “throughout her life ... boasted of the unmarked delicacy of her skin.”

She surrounded herself with pictures of herself, and kept scrapbooks of fawning media articles about her life as a socialite, and a list of the men who proposed to her. She accepted thousands of pounds worth of gifts from one suitor for years, even though she had no intention of marrying him.

She made use of her father’s wealth and prestige, yet was snappy to him when he was old. Nicolson spends three pages marvelling at Victoria’s sex life with her first cousin, including her pet name for his “valiant” penis (it was “Baby”).

She chose to marry him because he would inherit the 365 room mansion. But she was such a miser that she stole toilet paper from Harrods.

Yet Nicolson claims that this woman, who “enjoyed the bowing and scraping of the servants” and achieved no more than ordering an army of them around her 1000 acre property, had “a maturity and capability that outdid most other women her age.”

The supposed history is riddled with supposition, expressed in the clichés of romantic pulp fiction: “Hard hearts” “soften”. Shoes are “so shiny ... she could have eaten her breakfast off them.” There is a jarring absence of empathy.

Nicolson sniggers at “the 16 stone wife of a senator ... shown to a sturdy chair”, allegedly “disconcerted” to see Victoria seated to the senator’s right. By further acts of telepathy, we’re informed that this woman spent the night counting the flowers.

There are jibes at “an enormous woman ... singing an interminable requiem ... in a voice like a trombone”. A cake made by the author’s mother’s chef mentor is sneered at for being “embarrassing”. We’re told that a pizza parlour owner’s wife in the same maternity ward as the author smells of pepperoni.

There are numerous superficial details about clothes, hairstyles and hats.

It’s a shame, because Nicolson is perceptive on difficult mother-daughter relationships, and there are plenty of pioneering women, or even Nicolson men, with interesting lives that she could have written about instead.

A House Full of Daughters, by Juliet Nicholson. Chatto & Windus £16.99

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