With seven generations of family secrets, two notable English country houses and multiple writers, England’s Sackville-West and Nicolson families have served as material for multiple memoirs. In A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations, Juliet Nicolson—daughter of Nigel Nicolson and granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West—takes her turn at the family trade. With the benefit of hindsight, as well as cabinets of old letters and diaries, Nicolson casts a gimlet eye on family stories extending back to her great-great-grandmother Pepita, the legendary Spanish dancer who entranced a young British diplomat, Lionel Sackville-West, into a passionate, illicit affair.
The patterns Nicolson observes in her family—ardent love affairs, maternal abandonment and the destructive effects of alcoholism—are fascinating in their repetition, showing how families do tend to repeat mistakes across generations. Nicolson’s familial dysfunctions are, however, particularly glamorous, as they involve naughty Victorians, runaway wives and aristocratic privilege.
Her great-grandmother’s life makes for particularly compelling reading, as the young Victoria travels to Washington, D.C. to set up a diplomat’s house for her grieving widower father (Lionel never married Pepita, but their children were legitimized by the family). Victoria’s flirtatiousness was legendary, resulting in a proposal from President Chester Arthur himself. After 14 proposals (at least), she was swept off her feet by a first cousin, named—like her father—Lionel Sackville-West. Her introduction to the “arts of love” is quite spicy, and the story gains much from Nicolson’s access to her own family’s papers.
The author’s elegant and balanced assessment of the women in her family focuses on marriage and domestic life, and a strain of unhappiness that tends to result in middle-aged alcoholic isolation after the fading of the glamour and beauty of their youth. Nicolson’s candor and realism make this legendary family accessible and sympathetic, and her book a compelling work of memoir.