Portraits Out of Focus: Family History


I spent the past few days with this lovely copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Family History (1933).
Note the copyright restriction warning on the front cover: “Not to be introduced into the British Empire and U.S.A.”

The book is in good shape considering its age and the soft paper cover. I found it in a second-hand bookstore in Bochum, and decided to buy it for 3 reasons: 1) for its look & feel, 2) because I really like Woolf very much, and she was very fond of Sackville-West, and 3) because of the author’s remarks at the very beginning.

In the foreword to this novel, Sackville-West explains that she has “spelt the word ‘that’ in two different ways: either with one ‘t’ or with two, in order to differentiate between the conjunction and the demonstrative adjective and demonstrative or relative pronoun.” Sackville-West adds that she “should like to see the decimal system introduced into England, to save the English young many hours which might be better employed than in wrestling with our extraordinary and obsolete calculations in pounds, shillings, and pence; rods, poles, and perches.”

To illustrate how she is going to use the two spellings henceforth, she closes the foreword with this sentence: “I do believe that in the interests of clarity, the addition of the extra ‘t’ should abolish for ever the confusion of thatt ambiguous little word” (my emphases). I have to say that after a few chapters, I stopped noticing the ‘new’ that (‘thatt’) because I was drawn into the story enough to not really pay attention. Still, every time I put the book down and picked it up again, it took a few pages to get get used to it again.

It’s the mixture of idealism and pragmatism in this idea that simply found charming, and I’ll admit that this was probably the main reason I bought the book. The foreword was written in 1933 (maybe 1932 at the earliest), so in hindsight it’s rather obvious that her suggested approach didn’t exactly catch on. Still, I wonder how many people tried it — writers, like Sackville-West, and readers who came across it in their books. If you come across any book(s) or ephemera that use the two versions of ‘that’ I’d love to hear about it!


Vita Sackville-West

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about Sackville-West before reading this book. I knew she was a close friend / girlfriend of Virginia Woolf’s for a while, and that the title character of Woolf’s Orlando (one of my favorite books) is modeled after her, but I was not aware of how much writing Sackville-West herself had done. In her lifetime, she wrote at least 17 novels, 12 books of poetry, and 8 books of non-fiction, as well as publishing some translations of Rilke’s poetry (source). That’s a lot of books! This fits well with the impression we get from the foreword, namely that this woman cared about and thought about language.

I thoroughly enjoyed the voice in which the book is written, and I could sense some kinship between the way language is used here and the way Woolf uses language. Still, Sackville-West’s voice is distinct and different from Woolf’s. What they do share is a love for language and a fascination with watching / divining the thought processes of people.

The Story

This is very much a book of ideas and emotional / thought processes. If you’re looking for action, this book will bore you. Little happens here. After all, we are watching the life of the British upper classes, those people who are wealthy enough to do whatever they please and not move a finger if they don’t feel like it. The book is divided into 4 parts, each of which is a ‘portrait’ (at least according to the section titles):

The “Portrait of the Jarrolds” introduces us to the setting and the main character, the beautiful, young-ish widow Evelyn Jarrold. After losing her husband to WW1, she has stayed single and focused her energies on raising their only son, Dan. We learn about the Jarrold family, nouveau-riche thanks to old Mr. Jarrold’s successful mining operations. The book spends quite some time on characterizing the differences between the generations: Old Mr. Jarrold has never been ashamed of his own humble beginnings, but his children largely try to pretend they have always been part of the upper classes, rich and entitled.

Social commentary is a recurring motif here, and at times as a reader I wanted more — for example, we learn that Dan (destined to inherit the Jarrold estate and business) has rather progressive ideas regarding the rights and pay of those who made / make his family rich, but in the end, the story does not follow Dan’s plans further. This is because neither Dan nor soci0-political commentary are the focus of this book. The focus is Evelyn.

Part two, “Portrait of Miles Vane-Merrick,” does provide us with a portrait of Miles, and in part 3, “Portrait of Lesley Anquetil,” we do learn how Lesley enters the story, but as with parts 1 and 4, the bulk of each ‘portrait’ really shows Evelyn more than anyone else. Think of the parts as a series of selfies with other folks.

Central characters

  • beautiful war-widow Evelyn Jarrold, the mother of
  • Dan Jarrold, 17 and idealistic, who will inherit the Jarrold fortune
  • Miles Vane-Merrick, a dashing, 20-something progressive / provocative politician
  • the unconventional Viola Anquetil, a sort of godmother to Miles
  • Lesley Anquetil, Viola’s intelligent daughter, close to Miles in age

There are a number of other characters, some of them quite interesting, but they have no real impact on the story.


Vita Sackville-West (r.) with Virginia Woolf

In the end, this book is a large-scale, detailed sketch of upper-class British social life around 1930. It is also a love story. I’ll admit I half expected Dan to fall madly in love with Miles (which in a way he does, but not in that way). No, the central story is the approach, collision, and separation of Evelyn and Miles. And at the heart of the story is Evelyn, who tries to find a way to live a life that’s more than keeping up appearances and mastering etiquette rules.

She is a modernist character, complex, never fully good or corrupt — she is manipulative and willful, and sometimes cruel, sometimes indulgent (especially toward her son), and she knows these things about herself. The narrator does not pass judgment on her or her behavior, and so it is up to us to figure out what to think.

Tired of sitting-rooms and polite parties, Evelyn wants love in her life. Love, “as Evelyn understood it was an entire adsorption of one lover into the other” (249), a relationship in which she becomes an inseparable part of her beloved. She wants to give herself up, but not unconditionally.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so will leave it at this. If you’d like to time-travel to England in the 1930s, this book just might do the trick for you. You might also enjoy this idea-driven novel from a similar period: Tono Bungay by H.G. Wells.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. Pingback: The Bigger Picture: Modernism | Outside of a Cat

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