For March’s 12 in 12 Challenge I have decided to read biographies and memoirs. I find that I have a lot of these on my to-be-read pile which is because this is a genre I have always enjoyed so I tend to pick them up when I see them. I have a couple of shelves of biographies which I have read in the past and notice that many revolve around families and secrets. That is true of my first book read for this month’s challenge which is Disinherited by Robert Sackville-West.
The Sackville-West family are minor aristocracy and a well-established and well known family in English literary history and also because they own one of the largest stately homes in England. This story is about a fifth son of the family who had a long-standing affair with a Spanish dancer which produced five children. All these children were illegitimate which left them in an unenviable situation when their father unexpectedly inherited the title and the stately home. The difficulties were compounded as the eldest daughter married the man who would be the next legitimate heir.
This family was seriously dysfunctional from the start. The children were passed around people who were prepared to look after them when their mother died. Their father abdicated from caring from them but made arrangements for the sons to go to South Africa so that they wouldn’t embarrass him. Members of their own family wouldn’t see the children because they were illegitimate and the children were known by lots of different names. They never seemed to have any money and all the things which they did to earn seemed to fail. In the end the youngest son challenged his illegitimacy in court and further split the family.
This is a book that reminds us that it was not that long ago when illegitimacy was a serious stigma and also that documentation of births, marriages, etc. has not always been accurate or available. This is a book about jealousy, the restrictions of women, class and the ability of people to reject others because of their birth. It is also a fascinating story about a particular family and their issues. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them even while realising that this is not exactly a common problem or one that happens to most “normal” people.
A good start to my month of reading. This is the sort of biography/memoir I particularly like and I have now added this book to my shelves. Eleven to go !