A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations

A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations

by Juliet Nicolson

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A family memoir that traces the myths, legends, and secrets of seven generations of remarkable women

All families have their myths and legends. For many years Juliet Nicolson accepted hers--the dangerous beauty of her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita Sackville-West, her mother’s Tory-conventional background. But then Juliet, a distinguished historian, started to question. As she did so, she sifted fact from fiction, uncovering details and secrets long held just out of sight.

A House Full of Daughters takes us through seven generations of women. In the nineteenth-century slums of Malaga, the salons of fin-de-siecle Washington D.C., an English boarding school during the Second World War, Chelsea in the 1960s, the knife-edge that was New York City in the 1980s, these women emerge for Juliet as people in their own right, but also as part of who she is and where she has come from.

A House Full of Daughters is one woman’s investigation into the nature of family, memory, and the past. As Juliet finds uncomfortable patterns reflected in these distant and more recent versions of herself, she realizes her challenge is to embrace the good and reject the hazards that have trapped past generations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374715328
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Juliet Nicolson is the author of the works of history, The Great Silence: 1918–1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War and The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911, and a novel, Abdication. As the grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson she is part of a renowned and much scrutinized family and the latest in the family line of record-keepers of the past. She lives with her husband in East Sussex, not far from Sissinghurst, where she spent her childhood. She has two daughters, Clemmie and Flora, and one grand-daughter, Imogen.
Juliet Nicolson is the author of two works of history, The Great Silence: 1918–1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War and The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911, and a novel, Abdication. As the grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson she is part of a renowned and much scrutinised family and the latest in the family line of record-keepers of the past. She lives with her husband in East Sussex, not far from Sissinghurst, where she spent her childhood. She has two daughters, Clemmie and Flora, and one grand-daughter, Imogen.

Read an Excerpt

A House Full of Daughters

A Memoir of Seven Generations

By Juliet Nicolson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Juliet Nicolson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71532-8




Pepita, my great-great-grandmother, is responsible for the one-sixteenth of me that is proudly Spanish. Throughout my life I have been aware of the famous dancer, a spectacular beauty with what my grandmother Vita called her 'rapscallion background' who emerged from the backstreets of a southern Spanish town to conquer the stages of nineteenth-century Europe. My father always spoke her name with a deliberately exaggerated lilt, just as he pronounced 'Lolita' in the way Nabokov stipulated in the opening line of his novel. A framed drawing of Pepita wearing the tight-bodiced, sleeveless dancing dress that identified her as the 'Star of Andalusia' at the time my great-great-grandfather fell in love with her always hung on the sitting-room wall in our house. Pepita was a curious figure to me, foreign not only in look, but also in time and in culture. Hers was a sensibility wholly alien to an English upbringing in which teatime jam sandwiches had to be eaten before cake was allowed and children were more likely to learn the androgynous, cigarette-extinguishing footstep of the twist than the sexually charged strutting of the mid-nineteenth-century flamenco. My father was enchanted by the romance of Pepita's story, his mother having impressed it on him since his own childhood. He once gave me a Spanish doll made of hard pink plastic with a black lace mantilla over her face and highly rouged cheeks, and after a trip to Spain he brought me back a pair of wooden castanets with the word 'Málaga' in black ink painted over a pink hibiscus. Clueless what to do with them, I was encouraged to be pleased by even the faintest hint of a Spanish heritage.

Pepita was born in 1830 in the throbbing, poverty-riddled city of Málaga. Her father, Pedro Duran, was a barber, while the local glamour of her Gypsy mother, Catalina Ortega, was enhanced by rumours that as a young girl, she had earned money leaping though hoops at a circus. After the birth of her daughter, Catalina took in washing from neighbours and the local hotels; the clean sheets of Málaga's smarter districts would hang out to dry, suspended like huge truce flags, over Catalina's balcony. The family lived in Calle Puente, a small alley tucked away in a maze of slums not far from the river and where the heavy air, thick with southern heat, was impregnated with the smell of rancid olive oil, rotten fish, fresh manure and the combined scent of crushed cinnamon and chocolate. Calle Puente was choked with animal and human life. Neighbourhood chickens squawked for scraps on the earth floor, and the jangle of bells alerted dawdling pedestrians to mules carrying vegetables in their panniers and luggage on their backs. Bumping their way along the alley, the animals paused only to raise their heads, stretch their necks and bray, an alarming, jarring, semi-human combination of sobs and sighs. Dozens of tiny naked children ran and played together in the sunshine, while the women swept rubbish from outside their doorways and gossiped, the men plotted and smoked cigars, and the exhausted faces of the very poor were just visible in the shadows, retreating from the harshness of the sun and of life.

On the morning I went to Calle Puente, determined to begin at the beginning and to find Pepita's birthplace, flowery housecoated women were scrubbing their front steps as skinny dogs ran circles around them. There was no sign of a donkey, but families of cats and their kittens occupied the darkened street corners, licking and hissing, purring and scratching, tumbling and entwining and dozing in furry, sleepy heaps. A man in a blond wig with a five o'clock shadow and dressed in a silver miniskirt was making his unsteady way towards me on high heels while his companion, six inches smaller, trotted beside him, puffing on a cigar, a silky Pekinese tucked under his arm. The old 1830 houses of Pepita's day had crumbled away, but although the replacement buildings were new, a sense of deprivation and struggle lingered. A builder's van with its back doors open, revealing a stack of tools, was parked halfway down the street. The driver nodded a good morning, and at the sound of our voices a couple of windows above us flew open. Two women, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, stared down at me. In hesitant Spanish and with much backwards gesticulating with my thumb to indicate centuries past, I mentioned Pepita's name. At once one of the women broke into a smile, pointing with her finger in the direction of the river. 'Conservatorio Profesional de Danza,' she said triumphantly, mimicking a little dance movement as she spoke. How was it possible that memories of a child who had danced as light as a bird in that tiny street in the southern sunshine had lingered for nearly two centuries? I did not question it. Maybe they had been handed from mother to daughter in the way that family memories should be.

In Pepita's day, Málaga was an ancient, bandit-riddled city encircled by vine-clothed hills, a rough place to live, although foreigners were reassured that the Spanish knife was not as effective a weapon as the stiletto, the sharp instrument used by Italy's fiercest gangsters. The sunny, warm and dry climate attracted visitors looking for a cure for asthma and tuberculosis. The wide central thoroughfare was an aqueduct during the winter months, the murky water choked with rubbish and sewage, but during the summer it provided the parade ground for Málaga's best-dressed show-offs. Each week between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand spectators would assemble in Málaga's bullring for the fight. Outside the arena, shouting above the great din of the crowd, pedlars hawked fans, paper parasols, cigars, oranges, slices of watermelon, phials of brandy, yeasty churros fried in oil and dipped in sugar, and iced barley to refresh the mouth. Inside the ring, the procession was headed by the picadors, secure on horseback, high above the sawdust, hands on hips, their lances carefully balanced, as was the custom, on the crook of one ankle. Next came the capeadores twirling their heavy violet-and-gold capes, followed by the banderilleros brandishing their icicle-sharp hooks, before finally the matador himself arrived, strutting into the ring in his brilliantly coloured silk-and-velvet costume, preening, proud, lethal. Women joined their men in the auditorium, flashing their sequin-spangled fans. Known for their impervious expression in the presence of the puddles of darkening gore that pooled across the bullring each week, the Malageñas wore their blood-scarlet mantillas especially high on their heads for the fight. Their distinctive red lace veiling, in contrast to the dour black of their counterparts in Madrid, was pinned into place on their luxuriant loops of hair with a dried thorny cactus branch onto which sweet-smelling jasmine had been spiked. Richard Ford, travel writer and enchanted British onlooker, respected the haughty dignity of these women, aware that 'a Spanish woman's hair is the glory and the secret of her strength, a theft from Samson for her gender, while her fan is the index of her soul'. As the bullfight got under way to a backdrop of roaring spectators, each group of assassins took their turn in the murderous dance between man and beast, their lances and hooks progressively weakening the bull. When the final sword was plunged into the heart of the animal, the cacophony reached a crescendo and the huge beast fell to the ground.

Away from the flamboyance of the bullring, violence and criminality, prostitution and poverty, desperation and ruthlessness were endemic in the darkened corners of Pepita's city. Woe betide the visitor who wandered into the backstreets. By flipping a man's cape over his face from behind, a robber was free to stab him in the back while at the same time whipping his wallet from out of his pocket.

When Pepita was six years old, her father, Pedro Duran, was killed in a brawl during a street procession. His widow was left alone with their two children, Pepita and her brother, Diego. Catalina began selling women's clothes, knocking on doors in alleys so narrow that it was possible to shake hands across the streets by leaning out the protruding top windows. Diego was an independent child, wild, troublesome and determined to indulge in all the freedoms offered to an untamed and fatherless son. At liberty to be out and about with his gang of friends, he joined the army at the first opportunity and left for Cuba, remaining abroad and out of touch throughout the early years of Pepita's childhood. Although their house was small and cramped and even their friends considered it 'old and bad', Catalina treated her daughter 'with great delicacy'. A friend and fellow washerwoman was struck by the remarkable devotion Catalina showed to the child with the tiny waist, luminous olive skin and magnificent gold-brown hair that flowed down her back as far as the crook of her knees. While the other children of Calle Puente ran freely around the streets, Catalina scarcely let Pepita out of her sight, sharing a bed with her, ceaselessly combing and dressing her daughter's magnificent hair and behaving with what the washerwoman described as 'the fierce and possessive love which Latin women do often display towards their children'. While Pepita was Catalina's 'jewel, her treasure and her pride', the child's reciprocal devotion was interpreted by Catalina's disapproving neighbours as 'excessive', with the absence of any familial male presence exacerbating the exclusivity of the relationship.

Against all the odds, Pepita, a child born into poverty and hampered by the seemingly insuperable boundaries of her class and her sex, was inadvertently fortunate. Nineteenth-century Spain, contained behind the barrier of the Pyrenees, slouched in comparison with the rest of Europe in its progress towards the emancipation of even the most privileged of women. Queen Isabella II nominally ruled the country, but she was quite unlike Queen Victoria, her imperially powerful contemporary in Britain. Isabella was born in the same year as Pepita and acceded to the throne in 1833 at age three. She maintained her precarious hold as sovereign for thirty-five years even though it was continuously battered by challenges from male claimants. However, Isabella set no example for her sex and was never popular; she was described unkindly by an ex-patriot Englishwoman, Mrs William Pitt Byrne, as 'bulky rather than stately' and possessing 'no dignity either in her face or figure'. Unlike the Queen of England, Isabella never made constitutional duties her priority. As the mother of a dozen children of varying paternity, she preferred instead to concentrate on keeping an impressively buoyant love life afloat. In contrast to the Spanish queen, Pepita was blessed with what her neighbours called 'a face divine', but her greater, immediate advantage lay in being brought up by her widowed mother. Catalina, the hard-working saleswoman and washerwoman, was single-mindedly determined to overcome the restrictions of her circumstances and Spain's limited financial prospects for women.

* * *

Spain's all-powerful Catholic Church enforced women's accepted dual purposes as wife and mother, keeping academic and professional opportunities to a minimum. A working-class girl was instructed in the virtues of meekness and obedience and made to understand that a woman's body was under the direct control of her husband. While female adultery could result in imprisonment and even the death penalty, male infidelity was punished only if a mistress was actually caught in (or, equally culpably, beneath) the marital bed. Up until 1931 male marital supremacy was still so powerful in Spain that a wife could be sent to jail for between five and fifteen days if she went shopping without her husband's permission or lost her temper and swore at him. If a woman owned any property prior to her marriage, the legal bond to a man required her to relinquish that ownership. The laws for a married woman were no different from those for the deaf, the dumb and the insane.

In contrast, the single Spanish woman of 150 years ago was entitled to a more liberal life than her married counterpart, with none of the obligations imposed by marital duties. Even so, until the age of twenty-five a woman still needed her father's permission to leave home and was barred from signing any commercial or legal contract, including that of marriage, without parental authority. One way round the cat's cradle of limitation was to be blessed with an indulgent or preferably dead father, or to marry and then leave your husband without annulling the marriage. However, if a gifted daughter was born into the poorest of circumstances, into a Gyspy family, and if a parent encouraged her talent, then her opportunities to escape convention were far greater than if she had been born rich. Pepita was such a daughter.

The word 'flamenco' is arguably derived from the Arab felag, meaning 'fugitive' or 'escapee', and mengu, meaning 'peasant'. The flamenco dance had originated with the arrival in Spain of Gypsies from countries as diverse as Morocco, Egypt and India, and as Arabian and Jewish refugees joined them, an oral tradition of dance and song grew. Flamenco weaves together ancient stories of joy and desolation, gain and loss, passed down by society's outsiders, refugees from oppression. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the nineteenth century, the influence of the bullfighting culture, its taming and conquering of the wild, began to merge with the inherent Gypsy customs. Contemporary paintings show aristocratic Spanish men looking down from astride their horses with a combination of fascination and lust on the colourfully skirted and fringe-shawled Andalusian Gypsies who inhabited backstreets like Calle Puente. The women, their hands on their hips, return the gaze with their chins tilted, their expressions provocative, fearless and knowing. These uninhibited women have a vulgarity and a physicality that might be intimidating not only to the delicate sensibilities of well-born girls but to the opposite sex, who appear mesmerised and also threatened by an unmistakable demonstration of female supremacy. Here was a matador in female clothing, capable of dominating and taming the machismo male bull with one sweep of her dress, one glance from her haughty, hypnotic eyes. With ivory castanets slipped over their knuckles and clasped within the palm of each hand, and gold embroidered ribbons streaming from their heavily embroidered skirts, they would arch their supple bodies into curves of such sensuality that as soon as they began to dance, an electric current of desire ran through every onlooker.

Pepita learned to dance at the flamenco school near her house as soon as she learned to walk. She took at once to the lessons for which her mother washed, haggled and worked so hard to pay for, performing with a lightness and delicacy that the other students lacked. Neighbours watched her drifting and floating down through the dust and mud of Calle Puente 'like a bird in the air'. Before she was twenty, she had adapted the traditional Andalusian steps to suit her own style, merging the high leg kicks of la Aragonesa, the rhythmic el jaleo de Jerez and the encircled arms of the la Madrileña, working out for herself the choreography of an exhilarating performance. A stamp of a foot, a cleavage glistening with the energy of her movement and an expression both dismissive and alluring completed the composition of her pièce de resistance, the back-arching, leg-flaunting, spirit-rousing dance known as el olé. In one contemporary drawing Pepita is wearing her vêtements de scene, the dark blue velvet panels let into an ivory, breast-moulding top from which the shoulder ribbons slip provocatively, the outfit completed by a strikingly short ballet skirt of rose-red silk flounced at the edges with white and blue. In the picture Pepita's eyes flash and her lips are parted in a smile, and if you look carefully, the shiny enamel of a perfect tooth is just visible between the parted lips. The demarcation between the dancers and the other women who lived in the sweaty, throbbing density of Calle Puente and the surrounding streets and earned money from the sale of their bodies was sometimes hard to identify.

* * *

One and a half centuries after Pepita had electrified her audiences, I sought out the Spanish dancers for myself. In the plush upholstered atmosphere of a smart north London theatre I watched a restrained, controlled, almost sexless performance by a well-known visiting dancer. She was no less skilled than the younger members of the company who joined her in the chorus on the stage, but at first I missed the haughty dangerous sexiness of youth and the heady atmosphere of liberation that I had read so much about. However, before long I was drawn to her subtle defiance of the limitations of the body and began to notice something else. Even when the dancer stood still and the music stopped, there was a statement of dominance in that stillness, the dancer's supremacy needing no more acknowledgement. If the younger women demonstrated sexuality, this older woman exuded power, a balance of arrogance and assurance, before unleashing a seemingly unattainable sinuosity, standing her ground, entwining and releasing her arms and fingers with the dexterity of a world-class contortionist, lifting a skirt, flashing a thigh, wearing a red dress so tight and so revealing and yet so fluid that she appeared to be clothed in water.


Excerpted from A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson. Copyright © 2016 Juliet Nicolson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Family Tree,
1. Pepita: Dependence,
2. Pepita: Independence,
3. Victoria: Bargaining,
4. Victoria: Loyalty,
5. Vita: Ambivalence,
6. Philippa: Loneliness,
7. Philippa: Trapped,
8. Juliet: Confusion,
9. Juliet: Escape,
10. Juliet: Guilt,
11. Clemmie and Flora: Forgiveness,
12. Imogen: Love,
Also by Juliet Nicolson,
A Note About the Author,

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