A Time Top Ten Nonfiction Book of 2011
A Seattle Times Best Book of 2011
On a hill above the Italian village of Ravello sits the Villa Cimbrone, a place of fantasy and make-believe. The characters who move through Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets are destined never to meet, yet the Villa Cimbrone and one man unite them all.
This elegiac work is about the quest of unearthing and recounting the stories of women always on the periphery of the respectable worldfrom Alice Keppel, the mistress of both the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales; to Eve Fairfax, a muse of Auguste Rodin; to the novelist Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West.
Also on the margins is the elusive biographer, who on occasion turns an appraising eye upon himself as part of his investigations in the maze of biography.
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About the Author
Michael Holroyd is the author of acclaimed biographies of George Bernard Shaw, the painter Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, and Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, as well as two memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic. Knighted for his services to literature, he is the president emeritus of the Royal Society of Literature and the only nonfiction writer to have been awarded the David Cohen British Prize for Literature. His previous book, A Strange Eventful History, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography in 2009. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.
Read an Excerpt
Book of Secrets
The Importance of Being Ernest and Some Women of No Importance
In or about 1970 I was doing some research on Gabriel Enthoven whose passion for all things theatrical had led to the creation of the Theatre Museum in London. In those early days the museum was forever on the move. For some time it was lodged at Leighton House before settling uneasily for a period into the Victoria and Albert Museum where I was working. The archive was presided over by Alexander Schouvaloff, a legendary aristocratic figure with gleaming shoes, thick black hair brushed across his forehead and dark eyes that narrowed dramatically whenever someone spoke to him. It was rumoured that he had been recruited by Roy Strong who had then fallen out with him to such a degree that, in the Pushkin manner, Schouvaloff felt obliged to challenge him to a duel. The people I met were the deputy director Jennifer Aylmer, a grey-haired woman with bright pink lipstick who came from a well-known theatre family; and her assistant, a brilliant-looking young girl who quite dazzled me. I was still working there at closing time - after which we went out for a drink. My new friend often worked late and I would wait for her after the public had left the museum, wandering through the empty galleries and halls. It wasduring these evening promenades that I first saw Rodin's bust of Eve Fairfax.
It was a bronze bust cast in the early years of the twentieth century when she was in her mid-to-late thirties. Her face fascinated me. It appeared to change subtly depending on the angle and the distance from which I looked at it. Sometimes she appeared serene, sometimes she seemed clothed in a lingering air of melancholy and her sorrowful countenance gained a strange authority. Before long the sculpture began to exert a hypnotic effect on me and I started to make enquiries about Auguste Rodin and Eve Fairfax.
On 24 February 1905 Rodin dined in London with a new benefactor Ernest Beckett (shortly to emerge, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, as the second Lord Grimthorpe). Beckett was introducing him to several members of the English aristocracy and had been involved in raising a subscription to purchase a major sculpture, his bronze Saint Jean-Baptiste prêchant, for the nation. This purchase was celebrated by a banquet at the Café Royal which marked, in the words of Rodin's biographer Ruth Butler, 'Rodin's entrance into English Society'.
A fortnight before their dinner, Beckett had written to Rodin with an enthusiasm bordering on incoherence, to say how much he was looking forward to seeing 'the bust of Miss Fairfax and I know that you work to make it a chef d'oeuvre and have heard it said that you have succeeded ... I believe that your talent is yet more grand than the great appreciation that it has recognised at last in all the world. He had commissioned the bust of Eve Fairfax in 1901 to be, it was understood, a wedding present for her - he was a widower, his young American wife having died ten years previously, after giving birth to their son. He regretted that he could not afford the twenty-two thousand francs Rodin had asked and offered ten thousand francs or a delay of a year or two instead.It seems that Rodin preferred the delay. Meanwhile, Beckett ordered a small version of Rodin's The Thinker and was encouraging others to contribute money to pay for his monument to Whistler in the allegorical form of a Winged Victory to be placed on Chelsea Embankment.
Visiting his studio in February 1901, Ernest Beckett had described Rodin as 'a man rather below middle height, with incisive gray blue eyes, a broad curving, downward-drooping nose, a shaggy beard, gray, with gleams of red in it'. Rodin had explained to him 'in vigorous picturesque language the sense and meaning of his great creations'. And Beckett felt himself to be 'in the presence of a man, who is not only an artist of supreme genius, but who is a poet and a philosopher as well'. What most appealed to him was the power of his sculpture - what he described as its 'full-blooded prodigal abounding force'. He called Rodin 'the Wagner of sculpture ... with new capabilities and larger powers'. In March he had sent a laudatory article to Rodin who immediately recognised a new patron.
The article revealed Ernest Beckett as a man of great enthusiasms. More precisely he was a man of swiftly changing enthusiasms, a dilettante, philanderer, gambler and opportunist. He changed his name, his career, his interests and his mistresses quite regularly and on seeing Rodin's work, which made the work of other artists seem 'bound by the small, stiff, formal ideas' of the past, he sold his collection of old decorative French objets d'art and sixteenth-century pictures, and commissioned Rodin to execute a portrait bust of Eve Fairfax. She would be travelling to Paris, accompanied by a chaperone, to study the French language and would visit Rodin's studio carrying Beckett's letter of introduction. What he wanted was 'the head, the neck and the upper part of the shoulders, as you have done of the young French woman that so pleased me. I would also like this bust to have a pedestalfrom that same segment of marble.' Rodin's busts of men were usually done in bronze, those of women in marble - though he often worked initially with clay.
The sittings, which stopped and started and went on in this intermittent fashion for over eight years, stopped almost before they had started when her chaperone was obliged to travel back to England and Eve, who as a prospective bride could not remain unaccompanied in Paris, also had to return. She eventually found other companions to escort her to Paris and the work recommenced in April. Beckett wrote to Rodin somewhat optimistically in the second week of May that he would be 'very happy to see the bust of Miss Fairfax ... [who] tells me that she will go to Paris in June in order to give you the final sittings'.
From March 1901 until September 1914 one hundred and sixteen letters of Eve's to Rodin survive and twenty-five from him to her. It was 'an exceptional long period', noted Rodin's secretary René Cheruy, ' ... there was a love story at the bottom of this.' Eve was in her late twenties at the beginning of the sittings. Rodin initially treated the portrait of Eve as a commission from his new patron, and the correspondence between the sculptor and his sitter was formal. But gradually, as the Rodin scholar Marion J. Hare observes, their letters 'become more personal and even intimate'. To justify spending so much time in Paris and learn some French, Eve attended a Dieu Donné school for young ladies.
Eve writes in simple French, childlike and hesitant, her limitations of vocabulary and faltering syntax seeming to hint at tentative emotions. Her letters give a sense of possibilities just out of reach, half-remembered dreams - none of which she can quite catch and make her own. Rodin, too, is restricted in what he writes - yet occasionally, for a moment, breaking free from these restrictions. It is a polite explorativeconversation from a distant age, with delicate implications: oblique and unsophisticated. But where will it lead?
E.F.: I always think of you. Would you write to me?
R.: I think also that you will come one of these days and I will put myself completely at your service.
E.F.: I have been ill and the doctor tells me that I must take the electric baths ... I am so sad that I cannot come at present but it is not my fault.
R.: I am also sad to know you are ill. Alas my very dear model, you have great spirit and your body suffers from that ... I await you at the end of July ... and will be happy to greet you and to finish your beautiful and melancholy portrait.
E.F.: Your letter made me so much better and gave me courage ... it is the heart that makes the body suffer. Your great sympathy helped me a great deal ... I am always sad to say good-bye to you ... I think about you often ... I would like so much to be again in your studio ... you stimulate my heart.
An undated letter to Eve from a woman friend suggests that she may have had puerperal fever. From this suggestion a rumour arose that her engagement to Ernest had come as the result of her pregnancy, but that she suffered a miscarriage (an alternative interpretation is that this happened later and signalled the end of their relationship). There is no certainty of this and little evidence in her correspondence.
E.F.: I had wished to write something but could not find the French words to express all that I wished to say, thus the silence is alwayseloquent ... I am certain that the bust will be a chef d'oeuvre and I wish so much to see it again and you also grand maître.
R.: Your letter full of kindly feelings towards me restores me. Yes, I am tired of my life ... Give me some letters when the inspiration takes hold of you. Your French is very good for me for it shows pluck and spirit.
E.F.: Why are you sad; that causes me much pain.
R.: Your generous cast of mind and of body, your genuine grandeur, has always touched me ... Also I am so happy to tell you now that your bust will be worthy of you ... After your departure my memories vigorously coalesced and in a moment of good fortune I succeeded ... Voilà the bust.
This exchange took place during 1903 and Rodin's last letter was written on 24 December 1903. In her reply four days later, Eve does not mention the sculpture itself. The question that troubles her is, if the bust is indeed successfully completed, are the sittings completed too? And will she see Rodin again? She tells him that her heart is 'full of affection' and it makes her unhappy to think that 'I cannot see you more often'. Nevertheless she asks him to write 'me a line and tell me that you are well and that I am not forgotten'.
Eve lived very intensely in Rodin's imagination and they were to continue writing to each other and seeing each other at irregular intervals until the war. They gave each other energy. Sometimes when Rodin came to England they would meet, initially with Ernest Beckett and then on their own. Back in Paris Rodin continued working on Eve's portrait, trying to define her beauty. 'I always wait for you ...I always hope for your visit,' he wrote in the summer of 1904. 'You are the sun and the sky in the supernatural order ... Even when you do not speak your gestures, your restrained expression and desirable movements are of an expressiveness that touches the soul ... I am always with you, through your bust which is not yet made as marble.'
He had finished the clay model early in 1904 and this was gradually translated into marble during 1905. A second group of sittings began in May 1905. After Eve returned to England, Rodin wrote that he was continuing to work on the bust and 'I have been thus with you without you knowing it'.
The previous month, Ernest Beckett's childless uncle, a vituperative ecclesiastical lawyer, horologist, amateur architect and mechanical inventor, died: as a result of which Ernest was raised to the peerage and became the second Lord Grimthorpe. His uncle had been a marvellously rich eccentric, a scholar of clocks, locks and bells (best known for his design of Big Ben) and a champion of 'astronomy without mathematics'. His last urgent words, addressed to his wife, were reported as being 'We are low on marmalade'. Ernest must have expected to come into an invigorating fortune. But his uncle's many controversies continued to be fought out after his death and, being enshrined in over twenty codicils to his Will, delayed probate for two years. Ernest, who had been in America at the beginning of the year, travelled to Italy for the spring and did not attend his uncle's funeral (a little later, when asked if he intended to write his uncle's biography, he replied from the Hotel Continental at Biarritz that he 'had other more congenial work to do'). It was rumoured that after the death of his father in 1890 and now the death of his uncle fifteen years later, he was immensely rich - some mentioned the sum of £7 million. The scale of his expenditure seemed to verify this. He was travelling theworld, he owned houses in Yorkshire, Surrey and London and, as Lady Sackville observed in her diary on 24 February 1905, had 'done up his new house [80 Portland Place] in the Renaissance style, the mania that everyone has got in Paris now'. Unfortunately his father had left a mere £450,000 and, since he had not only a wife, but three sons, three surviving daughters and several grandchildren, his Will teemed with legacies, annuities and bequests. Ernest would have been fortunate to come into as much as £50,000. In addition to his salary as a banker this amount might have been enough for many young men, but Ernest had expensive and ever-changing tastes, as well as an instinct for losing money. He invested in Russian forestry in 1905, the year of the workers' strikes, the abortive uprising and October Manifesto; and he speculated in property in San Francisco in 1906, the year of the earthquake. He was a financial liability. In 1905, the same year in which he had become Lord Grimthorpe, his two brothers decided to remove him as senior partner in the family bank. 'I hate my title!' he said later. 'It has brought me nothing but ill-luck. I wish I could be Ernest Beckett again.' It was soon after inheriting the title Lord Grimthorpe that he seems to have finally walked away from the agreement to pay Rodin for the bust of Eve Fairfax - and walked away from his promise to marry her. Instead he bought the Villa Cimbrone at Ravello.
According to Beckett's daughter Muriel, there had previously been one or two periods of 'coldness' between her father and Eve. But this was a complete cessation of their relationship. The end came in the summer of 1905. Eve had been staying at Ernest's house, Kirkstall Grange in Leeds, during the spring. She went to see Rodin in May that year and then on 22 August wrote telling him in some distress that 'I cannot come to Paris perhaps for a long time'. She seems to have gone into a nursing home - and it was possibly then that she suffered from puerperal fever. On 3 September she wrote again,explaining that 'I have had great difficulties these past months, nearly more than I can sustain but I always have courage. Your friendship has helped me so much and that will be the saddest thing of all if I will not be able to see you. No, that cannot happen.' She proposed coming again to see him in Paris that November; but it was not until February the following year, when Rodin arrived in London, that they saw each other.
During all this time there is no record of any communication from Beckett/Grimthorpe to Rodin. But in March 1908, he suddenly offered to call at Meudon with 'two English women ... who would like very much to meet the great man and see some of his creations'. He was pleased, he later wrote, that 'you have not forgotten me because I treasure your friendship'. Regaining his early enthusiasm, Grimthorpe (as he now signed his letters) called Rodin 'the greatest man who lives' and in his last letter to Rodin in October 1911, he offered to bring to his studio 'a young, beautiful, and rich American who ... dances in the Greek style and I find the poses very artistic'. Eve had more difficulty in recovering her spirits. It became increasingly important for her not to lose contact with Rodin. He had written to say that he understood 'I cannot see you now'. By this he meant not that he would never see her again following her separation from Beckett, but that there would be an interval before their next meeting. 'Not hearing from you I am a little concerned,' he wrote two days before Christmas. And she, answering at once, explained that 'I have been ill and I could not write ... I would like to see you very much dear friend ... would you write me some words to make me happier.' What he wrote, linking her features to the sculptures of Michelangelo, the 'great magician' whose influence on his work was powerful and unique, explained why she was important to him. 'I regard you as a woman who resembles in expression as well as in form, one of the"faces" of Michelangelo.' There was no greater compliment he could have paid her (in a different fashion he was to say something similar to Lady Sackville). 'If you want me to come for more sittings tell me that and of the thought of your heart,' Eve wrote early in the summer of 1906. ' ... I am well but life is difficult and sad always, but it is the same for all the world with moments of joy. I would like to see you; that will be a moment of joy.' In November the sittings began again. 'I am so fond of you,' she wrote from her hotel in Paris. 'Then it is necessary that the bust be beautiful.'
There are ten studies of Eve Fairfax in plaster and terracotta at the Musée Rodin recording his progress. Among four translations into marble, Marion J. Hare has identified two different portrayals, one 'a subjective response to her beauty' that was finished by the end of 1905, and the other, an 'idealisation of her features' based on the sittings in 1906 that was carved in marble in 1907. Several it seems were made out of the same marble block. In one she is wrapped in the marble as if in a womb, in another she arises from it, seen from the side like the outline of a swan - and there is the impression of a struggle to emerge and peacefulness attained. The Austrian poet Stefan Zweig saw how Rodin picked up a spatula and 'with a masterly stroke on the shoulder smoothed the soft material so that it seemed the skin of a living, breathing woman'.
In the late summer of 1907, six and a half years after she began sitting for him, Rodin presented Eve with one of these marble busts, choosing the idealised version, with its unfinished aspect, serene and remote - 'the effigy of a wonderful woman,' he called it. Eve was overcome with happiness. 'It seems to me that it cannot be true that you give me my bust!' she wrote. 'You have made my heart full of joy ... You have given me courage ... I thank you with all my heart.'
It was a memory of their time together and 'it becomes more beautiful each day', she assured him a year later. But did this mean she would see him no more? She refused to countenance that - as she had refused before. Her friendship with Rodin, like a living branch from an otherwise dead tree, had grown and prospered, and her sittings for him were like moments of joy strung together in what seemed a life destined to be sad. Theirs was a loving friendship, an amitié amoureuse. It was not a sexual relationship - the marble busts, 'délicieux, dans sa grâce virginale' in the words of Frank Harris, were evidence of that. She knew that 'Rodin liked me very much' and this gave her confidence. Ruth Butler comments on Eve's naivety in not realising that Rodin liked all beautiful women. But she does not quote the whole of what Eve said, which is recorded in Frederic V. Grunfeld's Life of Rodin. 'Rodin liked me very much, and I say it quite humbly. He found me refreshing because at the time he was very popular and many French women were running after him. I think I appealed to him because, unlike most other women at the time, I was not prepared to jump into bed with him at every occasion ... The fact that I treated him rather indifferently made me different from all the others.'
The words 'at every occasion' leave the reader wondering. She protests her indifference too much, too unconvincingly. Her letters are full of anxieties that he will forget her, full of plans to see him again, full of sorrow at leaving him. She begs him to send her his photograph and wishes she were able to write better French so that she could tell him what she feels - 'but you understand how I love you - the feelings in my heart so poorly expressed.' She goes to see him in September 1908, and again in March and April 1909. These are not sittings. She invites him to the theatre, tells him how happy she is in his company, goes for a ride with him in a car and apologises for beingso silent during the drive 'mais nous étions trés contents parce que nous étions dans grande sympathie n'est-ce pas?'. And surely they will have further drives together.
Then, in the summer of 1909, comes another crisis. Eve, now aged thirty-eight and still unmarried, was destitute, unable to pay her debts, bankrupt. Twice she was summoned to court and pleaded that she did not have the money to do so. She had no home (almost all her letters to Rodin come from different addresses) and only one valuable asset: Rodin's bust. In July that year she wrote to her 'cher et grand ami' asking whether he would mind her selling it to an art gallery that was being built in Johannesburg - and, if he agreed, what she should charge for it. Soon afterwards she went to Paris and explained her embarrassing financial circumstances. Rodin advised her to charge the equivalent of £800 if it went to a gallery and £1,000 if she sold it to an individual. He also promised to give her one of his plaster studies - what she called 'la mère et son petit enfant' - in memory of their special friendship. In October Eve sold the bust to Lady [Florence] Phillips, the wife of Lionel Phillips, both wealthy patrons in South Africa, for twenty thousand francs (that is approximately £50,000 a hundred years later). Lady Phillips presented it to the gallery and Eve, though she felt 'tellement seule' since it had been taken away, was delighted to hear how it was admired - particularly by the children who 'throw their arms round the neck in high-spirited affection', she told Rodin.
'Il faut souffrir si on est pauvre,' Eve had written to Rodin. But what really pleased her was that, when she came to see him that August, he had asked her to sit for him again: and she was happy. He had told the artist Jacques-Emile Blanche that Eve was 'a Diana and a Satyr in one'. With 'those planes and bony structure' peculiar to English women and so useful to sculptors, she was a Diana in the sense of being a goddess of nature ('you shine always as the virtuous goddesses,' he had written to her in the summer of 1904). In his imagination she became a virgingoddess who might preside over childbirth (as she now presided over his plaster model of 'la mère et son petit enfant'). But Eve as a satyr is more difficult to understand - unless it is to be seen in the more sexual light that characterises the studies he made of her during 1909 and then cast in bronze. These are more intimate, taut, realistic than the marble busts. The profile has the enchantment and youthfulness that is consistent with all his studies of her; but the front and three-quarter views reveal a more experienced woman, the image recalling some of the words and phrases that Rodin used in his letters to her: the melancholy, the courage and patience as she waits for nature to provide a cure for her heartache and give her a sense of well-being. Some sense of that well-being arose from their partnership which, as he thought of it, was a partnership with nature: 'the germ of your beauty and character that you had left in my heart to open out and blossom in its own time'.
There are letters missing from both sides of their correspondence, but what has survived shows them meeting each other in Paris or London up to September 1914. The previous year Eve had rented a small house in Rodin's garden at Meudon. During her stay there he gave her a present: 'ce beau dessin' which she called 'un souvenir de mon coeur' and which 'je garderai toujours avec amour'. She accidentally left in his house or somewhere in the garden 'une petite casse pour la poudre'. Perhaps he would bring it to England when he came or she would retrieve it during her next journey to France. By the time war put an end to their meetings, they had been seeing each other for thirteen years. He was to die in 1917 in his late seventies and she, then in her mid-forties, lived on. What began as a professional relationship had grown into something significant for both of them. For Rodin she was a femme inspiratrice who gave rise to some of his best late work. For her this friendship, charged with emotion and deriving from the man she hoped to marry who had suddenlyvanished, was unlike any other. It was the most lasting and tender experience of her life.
What I did not know, as I walked through the empty rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1970, was that Eve Fairfax was still alive and that I might have visited her at the Retreat, a Quaker home for the elderly and destitute, in York. In any event my enquiries were postponed by other books I was beginning to write, books that often took me abroad. But I did not forget Eve Fairfax and the haunting image of Rodin's sculpture kept its place in my mind. Eventually, in the late 1990s, I recommenced my enquiries, and tried to discover more about her and Ernest Beckett, the equivocal Lord Grimthorpe. Their two families had lived not far from each other in Yorkshire and would invite one another to formal occasions: weddings, births and deaths. But the fortunes of the Fairfaxes were declining in the late nineteenth century as those of the Becketts rose. And it was less difficult, I found, to trace the contours of Ernest Beckett's life than those of Eve Fairfax because he was a public figure, while her life seemed to have slipped beyond the horizon.
He had started life under a different name. As Ernest William Denison he was born on 25 November 1856 at Roundhay Lodge in West Yorkshire, a few miles north of Leeds where his parents then lived. On the birth certificate, his father William Beckett Denison gave his occupation as banker (his wife Helen's occupation was that of being a daughter of the second Baron Feversham). As Ernest grew up, his father's occupations swelled impressively. He became the Conservative Member of Parliament for North Nottinghamshire and, though somewhat deaf, would (according to the Yorkshire Evening Post) 'give an ear to any matters which his constituents thought fit to bring before him'. But his heart was not in politics - it was in banking. The son of a banker, he entered the family bank, Beckett's Bank, in his twenty-firstyear, becoming senior partner on his father's death in 1874 and eventually steering his three sons into banking. He was also a magistrate, deputy-lieutenant for the West Riding of Yorkshire, chairman and director of various companies and a stern supporter of church charities. He was the very model of what he wished his sons to be.
Ernest was brought up in a succession of Yorkshire estates, the most forbidding by name being Meanwood Park at Leeds. His father (known for a time as 'the Meanwood Man') also owned a London residence at 138 Piccadilly, where he would stay when attending the House of Commons. In the 1870s he rented Nun Appleton Hall from the Milner family (the home of Eve Fairfax's mother Evelyn Milner who had spent part of her childhood there). This was a red-brick mansion with a huge Gothic wing set in well-wooded parkland and approached from the village of Bolton Percy along an avenue of trees two miles long. The greater part of this house had been built in the nineteenth century on the site of a twelfth-century Cistercian nunnery, and it incorporated the old north front of General Fairfax's seventeenth-century home where he had retired, a national hero, after resigning his position in the army. William Beckett Denison seems to have taken this house to raise his social position in the county (one of his daughters would later marry into the Milner family whose old money was running out).
He sent his eldest son to Eton. Ernest was a natural schoolboy - perhaps a natural schoolboy all his life. He did well in his examinations and, more importantly, shone at games - cricket, rowing, and the arcane intricacies of the Eton Field Game and the Oppidan and Mixed Wall Games. He founded a house debating society and acted in the school's dramatic society. As a mark of his success he was elected to Pop, the select Eton Society, which permitted him all manner of luxuries such as wearing brightly coloured waistcoats. From Eton hewent up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where much was expected of him. But there he vanishes. This is something of a mystery, as was to be his removal years later from Beckett's Bank and also his withdrawal from Eve Fairfax. It set a pattern. In each case there were rumours of scandal followed by silence and a spell overseas. He had arrived at Trinity College in May 1875 but did not last there beyond his first academic year. There is a mention of him as a non-rowing member of the 3rd Trinity Boat Club, but no mention of cricket or any other sport. His sole activity, apart from some acting, appears to have been speaking at a none-too-serious debating society called the Magpie and Stump, named after a local brothel. He took no degree. Instead he went abroad.
On his return to England, under the watchful eye of his father, he settled down into what appears to have been a conventional life, joining the family bank in Leeds, and establishing the foundations for an affluent career. He was to join a number of fashionable London clubs - the Reform and the National Liberal Club, the Marlborough, Brooks's, St James's, Turf. He also took up golf and shooting, and began collecting works of art for his new London apartment in Ebury Street. George Moore, author of Conversations in Ebury Street, met him several times and was to describe him in a letter to Lady Cunard as 'London's greatest lover'.
In the spring of 1882 he journeyed through France to Italy. 'Not at any moment have I experienced such sensations of delight, such an intense enjoyment of existence as I had at Naples,' he wrote to his mother towards the end of his tour. But 'to rush about madly guide book in hand from place to place seeing everything and taking in nothing is neither profit nor pleasure', he protests, 'though I have felt in duty bound to act as the tourist.' His eye is constantly being distracted from important buildings by the sight of pretty girls. He had been to the Baths of Caracalla on histravels after leaving Cambridge, but they were still 'completely new to me' because on that first visit he was in the company of a 'Miss P.' and 'I was looking into her eyes instead of at the Baths'. He struggles to confine himself to the strait and narrow tourist routes, with their long procession of churches and museums, but he is diverted wherever an eye-catching girl shows herself. At the Hotel Bristol in Rome, for example, he saw 'a very beautiful and very celebrated woman ... Madame Bernadocki [Bernadotti], a Russian [who] used to be a flower girl and was married to a Russian gentleman and speedily became famous in all the capitals of Europe including London where she was much sought after by H.R.H. [the Prince of Wales]. To my eyes she is of a more superb beauty than any of our professional beauties, and has a fascination in every place and in every movement.' Turning away, he feels irritated by the multitude of churches confronting him. 'I never wish to see another in the Italian style. I am tired to death of them, and do not believe there is one, not even St Peter's, as grand as York Minster.' He comes out strongly against the 'corrupt religion of Rome' and tells his mother that 'the pictures, the ornaments, the decoration, the candles, the incense and all the paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic religion continually offend one's eyes and one's taste ... For the life of me, except for the fact they substitute the Virgin for Venus, I can't see much difference between the ceremonies of the Roman Catholics and those of the Pagans. No, give me the Gothic temples and the pure and beautiful religion of England . .
But, he tells his mother, 'I have been rather lucky in the people I have met and the acquaintances I have made in Rome especially of the fair sex, and they have made my time here very pleasant ... The Storys (the great sculptor and his family) have been very kind to me, and have asked me to all their parties, and last night to dinner.' William Wetmore Story was a wealthy expatriate Bostonian-American lawyer turned sculptor whose work had become famous after Nathaniel Hawthorneput his statue of Cleopatra into an Italian novel, The Marble Faun (1860). He lived in an extraordinary, seventeenth-century, yellow-marble building on the slope of the Quirinal in the Palazzo Barberini. With its liveried servants, its chain of almost fifty rooms, many of magnificent and gloomy grandeur (its mysterious upper floors lit by candles), the place had a theatrical atmosphere recalling ancient scenes from papal Rome; while Wetmore himself, tall, handsome, with a grey pointed beard, contrived the archaic look of a Renaissance princeling. Henry James, who visited him several times in the early 1870s, observed that he had 'rarely seen such a case of prosperous pretension as Story' and concluded that his 'cleverness is great, the world's good nature to him is greater'. Ernest was part of that well-disposed world. He wanted his father to buy some of what Henry James called his 'endless effigies'. Story clothed what were essentially sensuous nudes in suggestive marble costumes, making them a popular soft pornography among the Victorians (Henry James called his muse a 'brazen hussy'). He was a sculptor utterly unlike Rodin - 'almost fatally unsimple' in James's words - who led his craftsmen, amid a chaos of female-shaped marble, like a conductor leading his orchestra. Henry James was to describe Story's career as 'a beautiful sacrifice to a noble mistake'. But the twenty-five-year-old Ernest concluded rather wistfully that 'the life of an artist seems a very pleasant one'.
The Storys were leaders of an American colony in Rome and it was at one of their musical evenings the following year (1883) that Ernest met the young American girl he was to marry.
Lucy Tracy Lee, whom everyone called Luie, had passed much of her childhood and adolescence at Ondeora, the family farmhouse in Highland Falls, a large estate near the American military academy, West Point, in upstate New York. These early years were radiantly happy. There were parties and picnics and tennis and dances (at which it didn'tmatter if you fell over) and hilarious amateur theatricals and, above all, riding her beloved pony all over the country. But when she was aged thirteen her father suddenly died and, to help Luie overcome her grief, her cousin, the financier Pierpont Morgan, took her away for a six-week tour of England and France with his daughter Louisa (Luie's closest friend). They had embarked on the White Star Liner Britannic shortly before Easter 1879 and passed much of their time shopping in London and Paris. 'Cousin Pierpont', Luie decided, 'is certainly the dearest, kindest man in this whole world.'
She was a naturally happy young girl, lively and good-hearted, and she became 'an almost legendary figure of perfection to our generation', one of her younger cousins remembered. 'All the little events of her life were kept polished as precious relics.' She was an only child, perhaps rather spoilt by her mother, sometimes a little lonely and increasingly bewildered by the prospect of life before her. As she grew up, a spirit of discontent began to rise within her. So many things that had pleased her just a year or two before now bored her in this 'quiet stupid life at West Point'. In the autumn of 1881, at the age of seventeen, she began keeping a journal to record 'how the world goes with me, so that these pages may bring back some of the pleasant times as well as the bitter'. She remembered with pleasure and an aftertaste of bitterness her journey to England: 'How much better and more easily one can live in Europe than ... in this horrid little out of the way place.' She was surprised to learn that some of the Highland Falls community thought her affected - and then she decided to take this as a compliment. 'I was, I know myself, very, very English,' she wrote in her journal, 'and did not care, or was rather pleased.' She found this stiff English manner useful when meeting people she disliked. It concealed her vulnerability.
Luie was not what connoisseurs like Ernest would have rated a professional beauty. 'I do not think I have the first element of a belle,' she notedin her journal. Yet people were strongly attracted to her. Her vitality was especially winning. She was tall and athletically built, had blue eyes and long horizontal eyebrows that gave the upper part of her face a mature look beyond her years. 'They say I am old enough to be 21,' she wrote while still seventeen, 'and I certainly feel old enough to be any age that people choose to call me.' Her mouth was like a baby's, but the line to her chin gave an impression of determination - and, being highly strung and of a romantic temperament, she needed determination to navigate the difficult passage that lay ahead. Living with her mother and grandfather, and with poignant memories of her recently dead father, she seemed poised between 'happy, happy times past and the sad days to come'. Uncertainties crowded in on her. 'Oh, I wonder, I wonder, I wonder! How will all this end? Love and pain go hand in hand as do emotions and tears in a maid of seventeen, Uncle Charlie says.'
Her heart and mind appeared to be in constant conflict. She was not unambitious. 'Later in my life I may be thrown with people who will be historical,' she predicted. 'I should hate to be a wallflower.' At the same time she was possessed by 'a most uncomfortable longing for I don't know what. Something unattainable.' She was horrified to hear that some people considered her a flirt. And how was she to solve the painful mystery of men? On her seventeenth birthday, she had received her first proposal of marriage: and was revolted by the memory of it. 'If all the rest I have in my life are as thoroughly disagreeable to me as that one was I shall surely remain in the virgin state until the end of my days,' she decided. ' ... I thought it perfectly disgusting ... I could hardly endure the sight of him afterwards.' She had one or two men friends who were 'a very good influence on me I think, but I do not mean so much morally as mentally'. Yet none of them really excited or attracted her - until she met Henry McVicker. 'He fascinated me more in half an hour ... than any other man I think I have ever met,' she admitted.' ... He is good looking, almost handsome, with round black eyes and an awfully good figure, very tall and nice ... How easily a maid of seventeen is won. He aroused all my most intense emotions ... I was fascinated and felt that he too was just, oh so little, but still a little fascinated too! But he is so much of a flirt, I could not imagine whether he meant a quarter of what he said then or afterwards ...' She continued seeing him until their meetings began to cause her Aunt Kitty so much alarm that she was obliged to speak very sternly to Mr McVicker, making him so angry that he left the house. And then Aunt Kitty explained to Luie that he probably did like her very much but that he was a womaniser who amused himself at young ladies' expense. After that Cousin Pierpont, who had become like a father to her since her own father's death, told her that he felt 'quite provoked at my going out so much and at my being allowed to know Mr McVicker who ... is a scelerat [villain]. I suppose he knows, but still no one seems to think him so ... They say he is not nearly as bad as his sisters but - that might easily be true and he not at all moral.' It was perplexing and she felt rather angry with everyone. But she did not forget Henry McVicker. 'I wonder what he really did mean ... To me he is a perfect enigma.'
For the first time Luie began to reflect that a simple moral compass might not after all direct her to the right man for marrying. Perhaps 'a man who has been wild and then really loves a pure, true woman, will make a far better husband than one who has never had any great temptations and has seen but little or nothing of a world which women, true women, should know positively nothing about'. Knowing and experiencing so little herself, she started observing engaged couples, trying to tell whether they were marrying for love, money or position. And she examined the behaviour of married couples such as 'a most amusing woman married to a German Baron whom she hates while the poor man adores her. She treats him horribly and he looks sovery sad. It is a horrible state of things, these people who do not care one bit for each other and are yet tied together for life.'
How could she be certain of avoiding such ties herself? Was she a pure, true woman any more, with this new liking she had developed for men with a taste of excitement in their lives? 'I do not think we love people because they have few faults,' she reasoned. A year earlier, at the age of sixteen, she would not have believed it possible to be lost in such a complex sexual-moral maze. 'I wonder if life always disappoints one as mine has lately. If I could only learn not to set my heart on anything ... perhaps we make our own disappointments ... I do think life is not worth living and if one could give up the struggle I think it would be a relief ... I know sometime that this dreadful longing and sorrow will be over & I shall care again for someone in the years to come but now it is all so hard ... When I am left alone I just cry my eyes out ... I don't think I care for a soul besides Mamma in this world ... I feel horribly restless and wish I could get rid of that constant trying companion, Self.'
Her melancholy was intensified by the death of her grandfather who lived with them at Highland Falls. She had been very fond of him; and she had seen him die. Once again Pierpont Morgan stepped forward and suggested taking Luie, her mother and aunt off for a tour of Europe and North Africa. But this time he planned for them to be abroad much longer - perhaps for as long as two years.
This plan provoked a crisis in Luie, turning upside down many of her thoughts. 'It is a dreadful break and there will be some chains that will be very very hard to unclasp,' she wrote. The 'quiet stupid life' at West Point seemed painfully desirable to her now that she was leaving it - there was a man she had recently met whom she particularly liked and now she would never know whether he liked her. Was it possible to wait two years to find out? It seemed a lifetime. Saying goodbye to himwould be awful (he came to the boat when she embarked bringing her flowers). How would she ever find the right man in England - that stiff, cold, formal country she had so admired when she was young and innocent? In those early days she had seen everything au couleur de rose. Now she recalled those empty words the English used over and over again - effusions of hot air over a sterile land: 'really', 'certainly', 'indeed' and 'Oh' and then 'Ah'. She had been taught French in America, but none of the other European languages. It seemed her only friends, as she travelled from one country to another, would be her favourite authors, such as Susan Coolidge, the children's author who chronicled the exciting adventures of What Katy Did. (In What Katy Did Next she went on a European tour and met a handsome naval captain whom she was destined to marry.)
In December 1881 Luie wrote a despairing farewell message in her journal: 'A week from today we sail and when I think of it, it seems too dreadful, too dreadful ... I dread and yet am utterly indifferent to this coming week ... Everyone and everything bores me ... I don't think I am worth one thought or care or in fact anything. I am not of any use. There is absolutely nothing to me - and oh dear I wish I felt young.'
Once they had reached Europe and began their long itinerary, Luie's melancholy lifted a little. In Paris and London she went shopping but 'dresses by the dozen are not so interesting as I had fondly hoped and standing to be fitted is the most tedious thing one can do'. More successful were her visits to the art galleries. She listed the paintings that most pleased her: Romney's Lady Hamilton, Gainsborough's Mrs Siddons and Joshua Reynolds's Age of Innocence in London; Rosa Bonheur's landscape of oxen ploughing seen against distant green hills, Dernier Jour de la Captivité de Madame Rolland by Goupil in Paris. She seems to have been drawn to pictures with a strong appeal to the emotions.
Pierpont Morgan, who accompanied them during these first months, gave Luie many presents, filling her rooms with flowers andbonbons. He 'is perfectly lovely to us ... He has thought of everything to make us happy ... He is so much to me.' This was all she had once longed for: so why was she not happier? If only Pierpont Morgan had been someone else, someone her own age ... But what awful thoughts these were! She deserved to be punished. 'I think if I were shut up in a room and endured solitary confinement I should be more agreeable after it.'
They went by train from Paris to Marseilles and sailed down the Mediterranean towards Alexandria in a 'dirty, nasty, vile, unreliable, disgusting smelling, uncomfortable & beastly boat ... a horrid old tub called the Alphée'. Even so, the first few days of their cruise were extraordinarily beautiful, passing Corsica and the Island of Monte Cristo, then on between Capri and Ischia, and the exquisite Bay of Naples - 'there cannot be in the world anything more beautiful than that Bay,' she wrote. But driving helter-skelter through Naples itself she was appalled: 'in the dirty smelling town one would wish to die only to get rid of the discomfort. I never want to go back to Naples ... A boat full of people came to the ship and sang to guitars and mandolins, but I think the songs, though musical, were most doubtful in sentiment.'
Egypt, however, was unexpectedly exciting, particularly Cairo. The people were so handsome. Their robes seemed fastened by some supernatural power (there was no sign of hooks or buttons). The beauty of these Arabs astonished her - the men were 'superb', the children in their red, yellow, blue and brown clothes so vivid and cunning. The women were all veiled, yet their eyes glowed through the enticingly thin fabric. And everywhere, through the streets and amid the orange groves, along the canals and in the doorways of the mud huts, men, women and children jostled with the donkeys, camels, sheep and goats in an endless traffic of life, which absorbed her so that she began to forget her unhappy self.
When Pierpont Morgan left the party, Luie was escorted to official dinners, Muslim processions and evenings of Arabian music by thecomposer Arthur Sullivan who was enjoying three months' holiday in Egypt. 'Mr Sullivan has been lovely to me and really all my pleasure has come through him,' she wrote in her journal. But he was even more devoted to a pretty young girl called Emma Colvin. Luie noted that 'English men are very familiar I think with all women, a strange thing to me; we have so little of it at home ...'. She could not make up her mind which culture she preferred. To Arthur Sullivan she appeared delightful but also rather strange: sometimes haughty, over-fastidious and always extremely frank. She had greatly enjoyed the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas she had been taken to in New York, but hated an opéra bouffe they saw in Cairo - 'a nasty, horrid piece and improper, though the music is most pretty'. And she was not pleased with the 'so-called dancing Dervishes' who twisted their necks most fearfully as they jumped in the air, all the time howling and uttering grunts and moans: 'anything more utterly horrible I never imagined.'
To her surprise, Luie became known in Cairo as 'la Belle Américaine'. A number of men told her they were 'wild about my looks' and that there were others desperate to meet her. But she protested: 'I am not a beauty.' Being praised for her beauty - while often feeling so ugly - gave rise to a strange tension within her. Perhaps it was that very sheen of unhappiness that gave her face its mysterious beauty. She wanted to be praised for other attributes: for her imagination, her aristocratic bearing and 'personal magnetism' (which in a later age might have been called her 'sex appeal').
They continued their journey on to Beirut, Damascus, Smyrna, Constantinople and Athens, spent some months in Florence and among the Italian lakes, prepared for a long stay in Paris and eventually came to Rome. If only Luie could have put all this travel into some bank, spending it in instalments between periods at home in America, it would have been perfect. But this was her sentimental education andalmost in spite of herself she was beginning to look forward rather than back. Her mother and aunt had decided not to return to the United States but to settle in Rome among the American colony there - much to the disgust of their friends in Highland Falls. 'The two old girls', one of their American cousins later wrote, 'went to Rome and joined the colony of American expatriates where they lived ever after. They took on all the vices of that worthless nondescript society and became the first graceless and worldly old women I'd ever seen.'
But this was not to be Luie's fate. 'I hope in Rome someone will take a fancy to me,' she wrote wistfully. She no longer expected to fall in love and be passionately loved in return - but that is what she still dreamed of and urgently needed. Her mother and aunt understood her need well enough, but they could not speak its name - it seemed as if such natural desires in women were immoral or in any case beyond words. The time had come for Luie to escape from these widowed sisters, neither of whom could deal with what she called her 'blue and discontented moods'. She had shrewdly observed how 'a great deal of unexpected pleasures come to me, but no expected ones'. So, when shortly before her nineteenth birthday on 21 June 1883, she met the twenty-seven-year-old Ernest with his eye for pretty girls, she probably entertained no romantic expectations.
For Ernest this was a year of great sorrow and then happiness. In the spring his eldest and 'dearest' sister became seriously ill. 'She is quite sensible at times and not at others,' their mother wrote to him; 'it's curious how it is mixed up from one hour to another. I wish and pray that the crisis may be over soon and the fever break.' Ernest replied at once expressing his anxiety both for his sister and over the strain her illness was having on his mother. 'I suppose doctors can do little. Nursing, nature and God's good providence can alone save her.' Butthe fever mounted and before the end of March 1883, at the age of twenty-three, she died. Her name was Violet.
That summer Ernest met Luie in Rome. Their courtship, engagement and marriage were threaded through less than five months. 'Her mother and her aunt saw to it that there should be no delay, such as a wedding in America,' one of Luie's cousins remembered. Each was dazzled by the other. She had finally met someone in Europe who took 'a fancy to me'. And it was more than a fancy. Ernest felt passionately drawn to her. She thought him a marvellous proper man - but not too proper: he had a few faults, or so she hoped, guessing he may have been rather wild, seen much of the world and probably known temptation. In short, he was the man she had been looking for these last years. Her tears dried up, her blue moods faded away: she was in love. And was she not marrying into the English aristocracy? Her honeymoon was an enchantment and she felt intensely alive. The unattainable had been attained.
Ernest, too, was happy. 'A more perfect jewel of a girl I never saw,' he wrote to his mother. 'The devotion that all who know her, young, old, men & women show towards her really is quite touching. They think nobody is like her and nothing is too good for her. She is so bright, clever, sweet and unselfish that living with her is like living in perpetual sunshine. Everybody tries to spoil her & yet she is not in the least spoilt. I find I am the object of universal envy ...'
They went up to Yorkshire so that Luie could meet Ernest's family and see the place where they would live. Set on a plateau, Kirkstall Grange was a large Georgian house built in 1752 by the architect Walter Wade as an appendage to the derelict twelfth-century Abbey. Originally called New Grange, it had been acquired in the early 1830s by the Beckett family who changed its name, made major alterations to the building, and improved the farmland and private park belonging to the estate (later known as Beckett's Park). This is where Ernest and Luie were tospend part of their married life, while in London they bought an expensive property just off Piccadilly, at 17 Stratton Street. 'My precious old boy,' his mother wrote after they had left Yorkshire, 'God ever bless you and your dear bride and give you all possible happiness this world can give darling, remembering it's only the preparation for afar happier one. You have always been such a very dear, affectionate child that I am sure you will be an equally good husband.' Ernest seemed even more pleased on Luie's behalf than his own. 'It was such a pleasure to her & to me to think that you do care for her a little,' he replied. 'She is so anxious that you should all love her, and she is so worthy of your love.' In September they went to Paris to buy Luie's trousseau - and this time she was not bored by the fittings. 'Only a fortnight to-day before I am to be tied up,' Ernest wrote ominously from Paris that autumn. 'It is a serious thought, but I don't flinch.'
The marriage took place on 4 October 1883 at St Peter's, Eaton Square, in London. The ceremony was performed by the Archbishop of York 'in the presence of a large and fashionable assembly'. They came from Italy, France, America and Yorkshire, and included the newly knighted Sir Arthur Sullivan, the beautiful Lady Sackville and, as one of the chief witnesses, William Wetmore Story. Luie's family had taken over the whole of the Pulteney Hotel in Albemarle Street where a breakfast for eighty guests was laid and an array of glittering wedding presents exhibited for inspection: clocks and candelabra, several silver flower vases, numerous china dessert services, a gilt-mounted dressing case alongside an assortment of fruit knives, fans and vegetable dishes and thermometers, table lamps, hairbrushes, inkstands ...
Like Lily Hamersley (who married the eighth Duke of Marlborough), Grace Duggan (who married Lord Curzon), Consuelo Vanderbilt (who married the ninth Duke of Marlborough) and the ambitious Jeanette Jerome who married Ernest's friend Lord Randolph Churchill, LucyTracy Lee followed those 'Pilgrim Daughters' who left the United States for the Old World during the early nineteenth century and were to replenish the British aristocracy through their alliances. This permeation of British high society by American heiresses reached its peak in the late years of the century and became recognised as a significant component in the history of Anglo-American relations.
For their honeymoon Ernest and Luie went to Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight before settling into Kirkstall Grange where, almost exactly nine months later, on 10 July 1884, Luie gave birth to their first child, a daughter, whom they named Lucy Katherine but who liked to be called Lucille. There was a slight atmosphere of disappointment in the family that this first child was not a son and a suspicion, in later years, that she (who needed 'a firm hand') was not quite so favoured as Luie's second daughter, 'my little pet' Helen Muriel, born in 1886.
The importance of having a son was emphasised by changes in the family name - changes, inexplicable to foreigners and indeed to most British people, that seemed to emanate from a comic opera world. Ernest's great-grandfather had assumed the surname and arms of the Denison family out of respect for his wife (or rather the expectations of his wife - she was a celebrated Denison family heiress). But their son relinquished the name Denison after his father's death, leaving the rest of the family in some confusion as to what they should call themselves. Ernest's father somewhat hedged his bets by inserting a hyphen and becoming William Beckett-Denison and finally, by royal warrant, assuming the single surname Beckett, the surname of his ancestors. The position was further complicated by Ernest's uncle (his father's elder brother) who, being raised to the peerage and created a baron at the beginning of 1886, chose the forbidding Dickensian name of Grimthorpe. Ernest then followed his father's example, expungingDenison and replacing it with Beckett. So the family at Kirkstall Grange was now the Honourable Ernest Beckett, his wife Lucy Tracy Beckett and their two daughters, Lucille and Muriel (both Denisons at birth but soon growing into Becketts). Since the first Lord Grimthorpe had no children, the baronage would pass to his younger brother William Beckett and then to William's eldest son Ernest - hence the importance of producing a male heir.
This requirement was made more dramatically urgent in 1890. On Sunday 23 November that year, Ernest's father William Beckett instructed his butler at the family home in London, 138 Piccadilly, to put his luggage in a cab and have it sent to Oxford Street, indicating that he intended to spend the night there. He then set off himself in the opposite direction from his luggage telling no one where he was going. Some said that he was looking forward to seeing a granddaughter in Dorset; others that he was determined to inspect Lord Lonsborough's new house at Brockenhurst; and there were those who believed that he was visiting Lord Wimborne to discuss financial matters. But he saw none of these people. Alone and luggageless, he took an early afternoon train from London and arrived at Wimborne a little before three o'clock. Enquiring of a porter what time the next train for Bournemouth left, he was told there was one in five minutes and another in an hour and five minutes. It was a sunny if rather boisterous day and he decided to take the later train so that, it was claimed, he could look at the 'interesting old Minster' in Wimborne. A little later he reached the central square of the town and, a witness reported, 'he was standing still as if undecided which way to take'. On his arm was folded a mackintosh and in his hand he carried an umbrella. 'He did not appear to be under the influence of drink,' the witness volunteered.
Then, as if suddenly making up his mind, he hurried off across a field to Oxley Farm and, after some unaccounted-for time there, walkedrapidly along Canford Park Drive towards the station. The railway track ran through Canford Park along a high embankment. Near an ornamental bridge stood a signal box with steps leading up to the line which the signalman used to reach the station quickly. It was by now almost time for the four o'clock train to arrive and William Beckett, climbing up the signalman's steps, began walking hurriedly back along the line. With the high wind in his face and because of his deafness, he did not hear the train approaching behind him. As it drew level his hat flew off, he raised his hands to his head and the umbrella and mackintosh, like a mast and sail, filled with the rush of air, flung him violently under the second carriage. His body rolled beneath the wheels, he was dragged along the bridge for some sixty yards and, in the words of The Times, 'cut to pieces'. The train driver had noticed nothing, but the signalman alerted two railwaymen who found portions of his mutilated body strewn along the line. No one recognised who he was, but a policeman noticed the name 'W. Beckett Esq. MP' on the collar of an undercoat. In his dress coat pocket they found an envelope with a lady's name and address (not disclosed in the newspapers) written on it, together with a one-hundred-pound note. There was also a ring, a timepiece, a five-pound note having a recent stamp of the Bachelors Club on it - and, some way off, the umbrella. William Beckett was aged sixty-four.
Ernest was enjoying what the Yorkshire Post called 'a well-earned holiday' in Algiers and could not get back for the inquest. The jury was taken up on to the ornamental bridge and, encountering a fierce gust of wind, almost perished themselves. They returned the obvious verdict of accidental death. But behind the fatal accident lay a mystery. Why was William Beckett there? A rumour wafted round the community that he had been visiting his mistress - the envelope with a lady's name and the terrific bank note (worth £8,000 today) seemed to lend colourto this story. Later there was an attempt to extort money from the Beckett family, which Ernest successfully resisted.
William Beckett's fragmented body was gathered together, taken to the Railway Hotel and put by the undertaker into a shell, which was carried by train to the Beckett family residence in Piccadilly and then conveyed to Yorkshire. The funeral took place on 6 December at a remote little stone church at Alcaster, a mile and a half away from Nun Appleton Hall. No invitations had been sent out except to close members of the family, but no restrictions were imposed on people wishing to attend. The terrible nature of his death had caught the public imagination and the railway companies arranged for special trains to take sympathisers from other parts of the country to this remote destination. At Bolton Percy station over a hundred carriages waited to drive them to the burial ground. This thin black line of carriages, a cavalcade stretching over half a mile, moved slowly between fields of thick snow while from the opposite direction a family cortège with the hearse carrying William Beckett's remains set off from Nun Appleton. Men and women of all ranks and opinions assembled for the simple service: bankers and railwaymen, politicians, churchmen, country gentlemen, friends and servants. Heads bared, they formed an aisle down which the coffin was carried in silence to the church. The nineteen-year-old Eve Fairfax was also there with her mother. Ernest had arrived back via Paris and was accompanied by his wife Luie. But his elderly uncle, the first Lord Grimthorpe, sent apologies for not risking the bleak weather to attend his brother's funeral.
Ernest Beckett was now the heir presumptive to the Grimthorpe title; but Luie had recently suffered a miscarriage while she was visiting her mother in Rome. 'The Dr says I am doing perfectly well and should be on my sofa in a few days - I don't suppose anyone has had an easier fausse couche but it is tiring,' she wrote to Ernest. She reassured him that this did not mean she could not bear him another child: aboy. 'There will be no weakness or liability ... Don't let anyone worry you into thinking so.' Being apart from him and feeling vulnerable, she declares: 'I have loved you so my darling these last few days and feel no woman ever had such a sweet, dear husband as mine.' Her one regret is that he does not write to her as much as she would like. 'I am quite sure you would not have failed to write when you knew I was ill - I have been so cross with the postman, & servants all day, for every knock at the door I hoped was a letter from you.'
On her recovery, Ernest arranged for Luie to be painted by the Royal Academician, Edward Hughes. It is a studio portrait staged against a backdrop of trees, showing Muriel charmingly perched over her shoulder and Lucille, standing next to her mother, carrying some flowers. A sympathetic and celebratory picture: Luie in her décolleté evening dress is seen as having regained her figure. She looks young and happy.
Her letters to 'my beloved darling' suggest that these first six or seven years of married life were untroubled. In the autumn of 1884 they travelled to America, staying for the most part in New York. 'People have been so exceedingly kind and hospitable', Ernest wrote, 'that now I shall be almost as sorry to leave as Luie. Every night during this last week a dinner is given in our honour ... All the best people in New York have called upon us.' In a letter to his mother, Ernest suggests they were being lavishly entertained 'as a bait to make us stay. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that Luie receives more attention than any woman in New York. We have opera boxes sent us nearly every night ... And the papers are continually saying nice things about us. Luie seems to thrive on all the love & admiration that is showered upon her ... and I feel a different man altogether. I think all this agreeable society does me good. As it is such a contrast to the life I have led for so many years.'
But though 'in every way this visit has been a pleasure & success',Ernest added, 'I feel as if we ought to be home again before the year's end.' There is an indication that Luie would have preferred living in America. But Ernest missed the Yorkshire hunting and the shooting. And there were other considerations. What he admired most in America was the ostentatious display of wealth. There is a revealing passage in one of his letters in which he describes a visit to the spectacular house of William Henry Vanderbilt, 'the richest man in the world', he writes with schoolboy enthusiasm. 'It is known positively that he has £50 millions.' Ernest is dazzled by the marble entrance hall with its mosaic pavement and also by the many opulent rooms - one hung round with red velvet and gold into which precious stones have been worked, another lined with mother-of-pearl and bearing Japanese curtains, and a third of carved wood with its ceiling painted on canvas 'by one of the best French painters who charges £1,000 for a single picture'. But most wonderful of all was the picture gallery 'with the best collection of modern pictures in the world, a perfect enchantment. One small picture cost £1,200. Mr Vanderbilt has excellent taste in pictures and he has always the pick of the market.' Ernest seems interested in the price of everything and the identity of nothing. He was drawn to wealth but he also needed power. He met many powerful and wealthy people in America, but he met them at one remove as Luie's husband. His own best chance of advancement lay in England.
At the age of seventeen Luie had dreamed of being 'thrown with people who will be historical', and when Ernest was elected the Conservative Member of Parliament for Whitby in November 1885, her dream appeared to be coming true. Whitby was traditionally radical, but Charles Stewart Parnell, the influential Irish Member of Parliament, had called on all Irishmen in England to vote Conservative, and although the Liberals won the General Election, Ernest was returned with a majority of 340 votes. Standing on the slopes and looking outto sea, with the crowds gathered below on the sands at Whitby, he resembled a classical orator in a natural amphitheatre. In his election address he had called on voters to 'reject the Feeble and Futile policy of the late [Liberal] Government through five years of failure and disgrace', condemned the 'waste of men and money in unjust and unnecessary wars', defended the Established Church as 'a strong bulwark against infidelity' and appealed for the maintenance of the Imperial Parliament's jurisdiction over Ireland.
In the summer of 1886 Gladstone, who had formed a third Liberal ministry, introduced a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which was defeated on its second reading and, Parliament being dissolved, a new General Election was called. This time the Liberal Party was split in two by the Irish question, and the Conservatives won. Lord Salisbury became Premier and Ernest quadrupled his majority at Whitby. 'I regard myself as your representative and not as your delegate,' he told the electors. 'Fishermen, sailors, miners and working men of every sort and condition have joined with landowners and professional men to make up my big majority. And why? Because from the bottom of their honest English hearts they believed their country was in danger [and were] determined to maintain the union between England and Ireland. I have received my orders and shall stand by my guns.'
He liked making political speeches - and his audiences enjoyed them too. He flattered them nobly and made them feel important. If necessary, he discovered, he could speak with ease and fluency for over an hour, enriching his rhetoric with fine-sounding biblical quotations, interspersing it with clever topical jokes and producing a swell of reverberating invective. On the Irish Home Rule Bill he declared: 'It sweats difficulties at every paragraph, every provision breeds a dilemma, every clause ends in a cul de sac, danger lurks in every line, mischief abounds in every sentence, and an air of evil hangs over it all.' He castigatedGladstone as a man 'who had been tinkering at Ireland for twenty years, and under his treatment the last state of Ireland was worse than the first. And this was the man who had got the amazing effrontery to come forward and ask to be allowed to have a free hand to boggle at the job he had so much mismanaged before.'
For the first year Ernest enjoyed his time as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. It reminded him of his happy debating days at Eton and Cambridge. But soon he began to grow impatient with the limitations of the party system. He wanted more than laughter and applause. He looked round for someone with whom to align himself. He had been polite to Lord Salisbury but his praise was always lukewarm and he calculated that, his health being poor, Salisbury had little political future. There was only one man whose verbal swordplay excited him and that was the maverick figure of Lord Randolph Churchill (son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough and father of Winston Churchill). In the early 1880s Randolph Churchill had formed a small group called the Fourth Party which attacked everything the Liberals proposed and, sidestepping the guidance of the party whips, set out to force reforms on the Conservatives. Ernest quickly joined this small band of ambitious malcontents. Churchill's brilliant speeches were making him the most popular politician in the country and the Conservative success in the 1886 election was largely credited to him. 'He carries the Conservative party and its fortunes,' Ernest declared. 'No man has done so much to mould it into its present shape. In all its words and works it bears the impress of his hand. It is popular mainly because he won popularity for it.' Few people doubted that Randolph Churchill would one day be Prime Minister. Nevertheless he was considered a dangerous figure within the party. He was, however, given high office in Salisbury's new administration until, at the end of 1886, in the face of Cabinet opposition to his budget, he suddenlyastonished everyone by resigning both as Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In his biography of Lord Randolph Churchill, his son Winston Churchill describes Ernest as an intimate friend of his father who 'stood by him, worked with him and rendered many political services in the years that followed his resignation' - services, he adds, 'which were not extravagantly beloved' in the high places of his party.
Luie, who took a careful interest in her husband's political career, seems to have had some doubts about Randolph Churchill. 'You are the only person I am sure who can get together a Randolphian party,' she wrote to Ernest early in 1889, 'but you must be sure he will lead you to Austerlitz & not to Moscow - or that at all events intends to!!' But then, thinking perhaps this was too inconsiderate, she added: 'He is an Englishman & gentleman therefore it will be safe to trust his word.' Yet she was pleased with Ernest for distrusting Gladstone's word, and also told him she was 'very glad you had a fine dig at Ld Salisbury'. She welcomed, too, the distance he kept from Salisbury's nephew, Arthur Balfour, who was attempting to act as mediator between Randolph Churchill and Lord Salisbury. There was something she did not like about the self-aggrandisement of these top dogs in party-political life. 'The Balfourian worship is as odious to me as Gladstone worship,' she wrote to Ernest, 'and I only hope there will never be Randolph worship. It turns men into automatons and takes away their reasoning powers ...' Perhaps she feared that Ernest himself might be drawn too far into this mechanistic political life.
Ernest's reasoning powers told him that Randolph Churchill's star would indeed rise again. He was a natural successor to Disraeli and nothing could stop him. 'Raised by his genius far above the common herd, he has that penetrating insight which is the imperial prerogative of genius to possess,' Ernest declared in one of his speeches, 'and his eyelike that of the eagle hovering in the heavens, discerns things clearly which are hidden from the view of ordinary mortals.' Why then did his party distrust him? Ernest's answer was clear: 'When the Tory party gives birth to a genius they always stare and blink and rub their eyes and fidget about uneasily and ask each other anxiously what manner of man is this? "Is he a spirit of health or a goblin damned? Brings he airs from heaven or blasts from hell?" They begin foolishly by suspecting and trying to suppress him, and not being able to do that, they end wisely by trusting implicitly to his guidance. So will it be with Randolph Churchill.'
Ernest saw in Randolph Churchill a version of himself, a superior version to which he aspired. Churchill was said to have been 'too proud to care for any but the first place' and he believed that you should never resign until you were indispensable. But in becoming indispensable to the Conservative Party, he had also become what Salisbury called a boil on its neck. He was admired but not liked by his colleagues. They were disturbed by his cleverness, his individuality and the way he came out with opinions that were entirely his own. These were all qualities that appealed to Ernest, who invited him to speak at Whitby and to stay at Kirkstall Grange. Churchill had the extravagance and charm of someone who has been much spoilt as a child. He could be petulant, rude and capricious when thwarted in what he wanted. What he wanted was power over men and the love of women.
And so did Ernest.
It was strange, with such important work to occupy him in banking and politics, how often Ernest disappeared abroad. During another of his visits to Rome in the late 1880s he was taken by William Wetmore Story's son, Waldo Story, to a ball where he met Josephine Cornelia Brink, a voluptuous, nineteen-year-old girl from South Africa whom everyone called José. She was one of the five children of a prominent legislatorwho, dying at the age of fifty-five, had left his family near Cape Town in financial difficulties. His widow, 'the golden-haired Mrs Brink', found José the most spirited and unruly of her children. When Lady Robinson, an Irish aristocrat and wife of the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Hercules Robinson, offered to bring her up at the official Cape residence, Mrs Brink readily consented. The Robinsons treated her like their own daughter and introduced her at dinner parties and country-house weekends to smart society. Tall, fair, with great vivacity and 'a gorgeous figure', she was an immediate success, receiving impetuous offers of marriage and, on travelling to England with Lady Robinson, being presented at Court to Queen Victoria. 'You will have much joy and much flattery as well as much temptation in your life,' Lady Robinson advised her. 'Snatch at every ray because they may never return again.'
José seemed determined to follow this advice - even after her mother joined her in London. It was when she was visiting Rome as the guest of Lord and Lady Dufferin, the British Ambassador and his wife, that she met Ernest. José's picture appeared in many newspapers and magazines, and Waldo Story used one of these photographs to help him create a marble statue of her entitled Victory. Seeing her at Story's studio, Ernest entreated her to write to him after they were both back in London. She did so. He replied inviting her to lunch at the Savoy Hotel and enquiring whether she might come without the formality of her mother's consent. She had no intention of doing otherwise and met him in a private suite there. 'So much in love were we with each other that it seemed quite natural when he took me into the bedroom adjoining his suite and with love and fondness I let him unclothe me,' she wrote. This was the beginning of her first serious love affair. 'I want to teach you what love means,' she remembered Ernest telling her.
To assist with this tuition, Ernest took a small flat in St James's Street, between Piccadilly and Pall Mall, where they continued meeting.He let her know he was married - though she must already have been aware of this. But he does not appear to have told her that, by the late summer of 1890, Luie was again pregnant. He said she was ill and that if she died he would marry José - that at any rate was what she recalled. And probably it explains her decision not to accompany her mother back to South Africa to prepare for one of her other daughters' marriage there. José was no longer under the protection of the Robinson family and her own family threatened to stop her allowance if she did not return immediately. However, she had recently inherited a legacy of six hundred pounds and this may have emboldened her. But how long would this money last her in London? Where would she live and what would be her future? She had found a wonderful little house called Leinster Lodge in Bayswater, overlooking Kensington Gardens - should she risk taking a long lease on it? She put these questions to Ernest who, according to a short Life of her by Daphne Saul, 'made himself responsible for the down payment, which she declared she could not afford, and also for the rent of £150 a year'.
In an early unpublished autobiography, José writes of her time at Leinster Lodge as being extraordinarily happy. The house, its garden and stables, were encircled by a high brick wall. Her bedroom was situated on the ground floor with the drawing room, reached by a Jacobean staircase, above it. A conservatory opened on to the back garden, and the kitchen and servants' rooms lay somewhat obscurely in a 'wonderfully ventilated' floor below stairs. José was looked after by a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid and a lady's maid, while the horses and brougham were under the care of her coachman. She rode most mornings in Rotten Row, but her social life as Ernest's mistress was restricted. No longer could she be invited regularly to 'At Homes' and for country weekends. When she saw people it was usually at small dinner parties she and Ernest gave at Leinster Lodge.
On Sunday 3 May 1891, in the family home at 138 Piccadilly, Luie gave birth to a son, Ralph William Ernest Beckett. Six days later she died. She had suffered from a bronchial attack the previous month, gone into premature labour a week before the birth and caught influenza, which developed into pneumonia after her son was born. Losing a lot of blood, she fainted and lay unconscious for two days before dying on the Saturday afternoon. She was twenty-six years old.
Her death was, in the words of one Yorkshire newspaper, 'of a peculiarly pathetic and painful nature'. When Ernest was in London, Luie had often stayed at Kirkstall Grange and it was in Leeds, and also round Whitby where she stood on election platforms with her husband, that she was best known and most missed. People knew she was ill but had felt confident that her natural vitality would pull her through. What they called 'her sunny disposition and gentleness' had made her a popular figure in the county, and her charitable work was everything that could be desired from the wife of a prominent politician. Her funeral in the churchyard of St John the Baptist at Adel on Friday 23 May was attended by her two young daughters, her mother, members of Ernest's family and also the Fairfaxes. But what gave the procession its unexpected poignancy were the number of children, almost outnumbering the adults - children from St Chad's Home for Waifs and Strays and the Mill Street Mission in Leeds, charities she supported - as well as what the newspapers called 'the poorer classes of the people' in whose welfare she had been so active.1
A BOOK OF SECRETS. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Holroyd.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xv
Preface: The World Turned Upside Down 1
1 The Importance of Being Ernest and Some Women of No Importance 7
2 Ernest Goes Abroad 49
3 All About Eve 69
4 With Catherine at Cimbrone 97
5 Excitements, Earthquakes and Elopements 125
6 Women in Love 141
7 Ultraviolet 175
8 Emergency Exits 191
9 Looking Round 219
Epilogue: Time Regained 229
Afterword: A History of the Books 233
Family Trees 248
Select Bibliography 251