The Disinherited by Robert Sackville-West by Robert Sackville-West - Read Online
The Disinherited
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In the small hours of the morning of June 3, 1914, a woman and her husband were found dead in a sparsely furnished apartment in Paris. Only when the identity of the couple was revealed in the English press a fortnight later did the full story emerge. The man, Henry Sackville-West, had shot himself minutes after the death of his wife; but Henry's suicidal despair had been driven equally by the failure of his claim to be the legitimate heir to Knole, one of the largest and stateliest houses in England.

Henry's father, Lord Sackville, had been introduced to Pepita de Oliva, a beautiful Spanish dancer born in the backstreets of Malaga, in 1852. Their affair lasted until Pepita's death in 1871, and produced five children, of whom Henry was the youngest. One of his older sisters, Victoria, would eventually become mistress of Knole through a judicious marriage. But Henry and the other illegitimate members of the family, Max, Flora, and Amalia, were gradually eased from the historical record. The Disinherited rescues them from the shadows to which they had been consigned, revealing the secrets and lies that lay at the heart of an English dynasty. It is an absorbing and moving tale of sibling rivalry as the brothers and sisters struggle for their father's love and against the stain of illegitimacy that had condemned them to lives of poverty and disappointment.
Published: Bloomsbury USA an imprint of Bloomsbury USA on
ISBN: 9781632860446
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The Disinherited - Robert Sackville-West

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One evening in October 1852, my great-grandfather, William Edward Sackville-West, accompanied his older brother Lionel to the theatre in Paris. Lionel pointed out to him a very pretty young woman sitting on the other side of the hall, and expressed the wish that he would meet her soon, as he knew her only by sight. His wish was soon to be granted. Just over a week before Lionel was due to return to Stuttgart, where he had been posted by the Foreign Office, Sir Frederick Arthur, an older friend of his, and man of the world, took him to the Hôtel de Bade on the Boulevard des Italiens and introduced him to the pretty young woman, who had taken rooms there. She was a dancer, generally known as Pepita de Oliva, and was en route from Madrid to Germany to fulfil a series of professional engagements.

Many years later, those who had met Pepita in her twenties would still remember her beauty, and the airy and graceful way she walked: ‘muy airoso’, they would say as they recalled the young woman who had caught their attention as she swayed down the street. Hers were the sort of striking features that ‘would remain impressed on one’s memory’: her olive complexion, her tiny waist, her large, dark, almond-shaped eyes, the gentle smile that always played on her lips. But it was the extraordinary luxuriance of her hair that was her crowning glory: black, shiny, and naturally waved, without the aid of curling irons. Those who had had the good fortune to see her hair down, as she combed it, always commented that it reached below her knees. On occasion, she even let it down on stage to prove to the audience that it was real. In all portraits of Pepita, a lock of this fine hair forms a kiss-curl, or sortijilla, on each temple, licking the tip of her ear.

My great-great-uncle Lionel later recalled how Sir Frederick and he ‘treated her as a respectable danseuse, with respect and propriety, for aught I know she was at that time living a perfectly respectable life’. Nevertheless, his ‘intimacy’, as he described it, with Pepita started soon after his introduction to her, and at her initiative: ‘She first suggested this condition of things to me on the occasion of my second or third visit to her. I seriously say this. I visited her partly with the intention of its leading up to that object, the actual fact came about at her solicitation.’ For his last week in Paris, he visited her every day, and although he did not reside at the hotel, he ‘lived in adultery with her’.

Lionel was the fifth son of the 5th Earl De La Warr and his wife Elizabeth, who, as it happens, were in Paris at the same time as their sons, but unaware of Lionel’s romantic adventures. He had entered the diplomatic service at the age of eighteen, as one of the few career options considered suitable for Victorian gentlemen. His older brothers had already chosen the others – Charles the Army, Reginald the Church, and Mortimer the Court – and so it was that, in February 1852, at the age of twenty-four, Lionel had been appointed to his first salaried posting, as attaché in Stuttgart. As a fifth son, he had, or so it appeared, very little prospect of succeeding to either of his family’s two inheritances: Buckhurst Park, a comfortable house and estate in Sussex, or Knole in Kent, a stately home (where I now live) with its legendary 365 rooms, fifty-two staircases and seven courtyards. Lionel’s father had been Lord Chamberlain to the Royal Household in the 1840s, and his mother was a close friend of Queen Victoria, who was a regular visitor to Buckhurst.

Pepita’s origins could not have been more different to her lover’s. She had been born in the backstreets of Málaga in southern Spain in 1830. ‘Oh such a slum it is,’ her granddaughter Vita Sackville-West wrote, when she was taken by the poet Muñoz Rojas to Pepita’s birthplace in 1949 on a lecture tour for the British Council; ‘very narrow, you could almost shake hands from one little balcony to the other overhead, crowded with people and children, but there can be no doubt at all that it was exactly the same when Pepita was a little girl’.

Pepita’s father, Pedro Duran, was a barber by trade, who died when Pepita was about six. Accounts vary as to the cause of his death, from being accidentally shot in the finger during a festival to expiring from a bad cough. After Pedro’s death, Pepita’s mother, Catalina, who had grown up helping her own father make canvas sandals, moved house to the Calle de la Puente, where she took in washing for about a year, before starting to sell clothes door-to-door. It was not long before Catalina’s lover, Manuel Lopez, a shoe-maker, moved in with them, bringing with him his daughter Lola.

Pepita’s older brother Diego was always rather wild – or ‘harum scarum’ as people described him – and generally eluded his mother’s control, and so Catalina channelled her energies into her daughter. She was very ambitious for Pepita, paying for her to go to school, and then to dancing lessons, and for the silk dresses that she had to wear for those lessons. But her efforts were not wasted. By her late teens, Pepita was dancing in the Theatre Principal in Málaga, where a cousin of Catalina recalled her first night: ‘She was the best dancer . . . She was just like a bird in the air, she danced so well.’

In January 1849, Catalina and Manuel moved to Madrid to seek their fortune, and in the autumn took Pepita for an audition with Antonio Ruiz, director of the ballet at the Teatro del Principe (or Teatro Español). Ruiz arranged for her to have lessons in Spanish dancing with a member of his company, but another dancer, a twenty-year-old called Juan Antonio de Oliva had seen Pepita and fallen in love with her at first sight, and managed to replace him as Pepita’s teacher. Within a few months of their first lesson, Pepita and Oliva were engaged.

They were married on 10 January 1851 in the parish church of San Millán, where Oliva had been baptised. Pepita was ‘dressed in black and wore a black lace mantilla but no veil’, causing Oliva’s Madrilenian sister to remark – with some regional snobbery – that ‘she looked like an Andalusian going to a bullfight’. The ceremony was followed by a wedding breakfast at the Café Suizo, and then dinner at the Fonde de Europa, with dancing afterwards in a hall hired for the occasion. The couple lived at first with Catalina and Manuel at 15 Calle de la Encomienda, travelling around Spain on dancing engagements, to Toledo, and then to Valencia, where they separated in the spring of 1851. The causes of the split are unclear. According to his sister, Isabel, Oliva himself was ‘always very reticent in the family circle as to the relations between himself and Pepita’ but ‘stated that the causes of the separation were not honourable to Pepita, and that there were some things which he could not tolerate and that he blamed mostly her mother’. Some people said that Oliva was a spendthrift and a gambler, while others felt that Oliva was holding Pepita back in a career that was just beginning to take off. In October 1851, Pepita danced in the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, and the following May at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. The Times ‘respectfully’ announced ‘the first appearance of the Spanish dancer Dona Pepita Oliva’ in a divertissement following a production of Bellini’s celebrated opera Norma.

The fact that Pepita was already married when Lionel first met her in October 1852 – a fact that was later to have significant consequences for all the characters in this story – made him think that ‘it was a wrong thing to have this liaison with her’. But it did little to deter him. Over the course of an on-off relationship that lasted until her death in 1871, Pepita was to have seven ‘illegitimate’ children, five of whom survived into adulthood. The second of these children was called Victoria, and was the mother of the writer Vita Sackville-West.

In 1936, Vita came across a trunk of unpublished documents as she was clearing out her mother’s house near Brighton, shortly after Victoria’s death. The papers included witness statements taken in Spain and France fifty years before, in preparation for a high-profile succession case, and they helped Vita to clarify a number of family myths that had grown up around her mother’s heritage: for example, that Pepita was not the illegitimate daughter of a gypsy acrobat and the Spanish Duke of Osuna. Vita took the papers back to Sissinghurst, and began to research and write Pepita, the double portrait of her mother, Victoria, and her grandmother, Pepita. It was published to great acclaim and commercial success in October 1937 (it sold 10,000 copies in the first two months) and was to be perhaps the most personal, warm and appealing of all Vita’s books.

Vita used Pepita to explore the duality in her own nature: her mixture of conventionality and unconventionality, the English and the Spanish, the grandee and the gypsy. In her attempts to describe her relationship with her mother, Vita emphasised Victoria’s ‘Spanish’ characteristics. ‘Although on one side of her lineage,’ she wrote, Victoria ‘had the opulent Sackvilles aligned behind her, on the other she had all that rapscallion Spanish background.’

I remember reading Pepita as a teenager. Like many others, I was captivated by its deeply romantic account of the affair of an Andalusian dancer with an English lord. I had been brought up on the staider, more conventional side of the Sackville family, a side apparently unstirred by passionate Spanish blood. And so I was thrilled by this washing of the family’s dirty linen in public, just as I was thrilled by Portrait of a Marriage, which I read around the same time. Portrait, an account by Pepita’s great-grandson, Nigel Nicolson, of the unconventional marriage of his parents, both of whom were homosexual, divided opinion within the family, just as Pepita had done. For me, it came as a rather delicious revelation that life at Knole could ever have been quite so rackety and louche. It also highlighted a difference in temperament between two branches of the family: the Sackvilles, who have always been a reserved and reticent family, keeping their secrets safely guarded; and the Nicolsons, who have always lived their lives more publicly. At the time, Vita’s uncle Charlie wrote to her to say that he was ‘cross’ and upset by the way the Sackville men were portrayed in Pepita, just as a generation later my uncle Lionel was furious with Nigel at his revelations in Portrait of a Marriage.

Many years later, I was researching Inheritance, my book about Knole and the Sackville family, who have lived there for the past 400 years, and was beginning to worry that it might become simply the story of one damned duke (and his dancing girl) after another (for Pepita was by no means the first foreign dancer in the family). And then it dawned on me that the book was really about the power of a place. For hundreds of years, Knole has pulled generations of Sackvilles in and then pushed them away with an energy and character far more intense than that of any of the individuals who have lived there. This power was felt particularly by those members of the family who never had a hope of inheriting – the daughters, the younger sons, the widows. But what about the bastards, the doubly disinherited? One of these illegitimate children, Victoria, was the subject of the second half of Pepita and featured prominently in Inheritance. I have spent many days in her mercurial company, in the improbably bucolic setting of the University of Indiana in Bloomington, immersed in her detailed personal diaries that now reside there. But Victoria had four equally illegitimate siblings – Max, Flora, Amalia and Henry – and it is their story, too, that I set out to tell here.

In the family albums in the Library at Knole there are photographs, as you would expect, of all the ‘official’ Sackvilles: of elderly dowagers plodding around the gardens at Buckhurst; of my great-grandfather William Edward; of Mortimer looking saturnine, a pair of mutton-chop whiskers almost meeting at his chin; of Lionel as a foppish young man, around the time he met Pepita, lounging against a pillar, his hands stuffed into the tops of his trousers and his hat at a jaunty angle. There are pictures of him as an older man as well, with those heavy-lidded Sackville eyes and a lugubrious, hangdog expression. But what came as more of a surprise was the inclusion in these albums of the ‘unofficial’ Sackvilles, of children with swarthier, Spanish looks.

As I was writing Inheritance, I was continually sidetracked by photos of these very different-looking children, many of them taken in photographers’ studios in France in the 1870s. There is Flora, with her luxuriant hair, in peasant costume; Amalia, a young girl in a smock with a lace collar; Henry, heavy-set and glaring at the photographer, as he sits on a barrel in a sailor’s suit against the painted backdrop of a storm-tossed sea. There are photos of Flora on a steamship to America, and of Amalia as a young woman at Knole and in Cannes, with her cinched-in waist and her bird-like features. The children’s guardians are there too: Count Henri de Béon, looking dashing as a young man, and later, as he leans against a haystack in a makeshift agricultural setting, very much the gentleman of property, his waistcoat beginning to strain at the paunch; the Count’s mother is there, and so is Lionel’s friend Marion Mulhall. And who on earth is that frightful bounder in a monocle and bowler hat, with his wing collar and waxed moustache?

After his first week in Paris with Pepita, Lionel returned to Stuttgart in November 1852, and used his influence with the manager of the theatre there to get his new lover a dancing engagement. Pepita performed in Stuttgart for three weeks before moving on to other theatres in Germany. Once Lionel had been appointed first attaché in Berlin in June 1853, where he was to remain for the next five years, it was easy for him to visit Pepita in the towns in which she was dancing: Hamburg, Breslau, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Cologne, Bremen, Heidelberg. Pepita always stayed in what Lionel referred to as ‘first-rate hotels’, and he would join her there: at the Marquardt in Stuttgart, the Bade in Paris, the Trombetta in Turin. And, in this way, what he described, rather forensically, as the ‘immoral intercourse’ between himself and Pepita continued over the years and across the capitals of Europe. There were the occasional separations, for example when Lionel heard that Pepita was living with a Prince Youssoupoff in Munich in 1855, and felt obliged to write to her ‘expostulating with her on her conduct’.

Pepita was always more celebrated abroad than in the land of her birth. She was one of several Spanish dancers who found fame and fortune in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, dancing traditional dances from their native country: La Madrilena, La Aragonesa, El Jaleo de Jerez, and her favourite, El Ole, a dance from Andalusia. Spain was seen at the time as rather exotic, and these dances captured some of the passion and pride, sensuality and raw energy popularly associated with the country. The rattling of the castanets, the clicking of the fingers, the swaying of the body, the flashing of the eyes, and the stamping of the feet were far from the orthodoxies of classical, French-Italian ballet, the pirouettes and entrechats. At the height of her career in 1854–5, Pepita would be filling theatres night after night, for three to four weeks running in a major city, before moving on – generally by train – to the next venue on her European tour. She usually topped the bill in the large commercial theatres, where she performed in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Copenhagen, coming on solo for half an hour at the beginning and end of a show, which might also include a play or another variety act. It was very hard work, and the only real time off was the summer months when the theatres were closed.

There was undoubtedly an erotic, as well as exotic, draw to her performance. By the standards of the time, she was scantily dressed: her bodice tight, to draw attention to her bust, and her skirts short and often swirled into the air with flamenco abandon to reveal her legs. Commercially produced lithograph portraits of Pepita appeared in the cities in which she was performing. These draw attention to her tiny waist, lovely eyes and heavy, winged eyebrows, her thick wavy hair parted at the centre, and the kiss-curl at each temple. In some of the portraits she is dancing, her arms arched above her head, her fingers clasping castanets. Vita had a portrait of her grandmother dancing La Aragonesa, which conveyed a great ‘impression of energy and vitality’.

The short ballet skirt of rose red silk is flounced with white and blue. She wears a tight bodice of white satin with panels of dark blue velvet. Her throat and shoulders are bare, but for the narrow shoulder straps provocatively slipping. She is lightly poised on one toe, her tiny foot pointed in a pink satin slipper. Two pink roses lie dropped on the ground beside her; a third one nestles in her dark hair behind her ear. A heavy gold bangle encircles one wrist; the castanets are lightly held. Her eyes flash, and her lips are parted in a smile.

Another portrait in Vita’s possession was of Pepita dancing El Ole, in which ‘she is wearing a tight bodice and short flounced skirt, also a wide sash with long heavily embroidered ends. In her ear is the brilliant ear-ring; her hair floats loosely far below her waist. Again, as in the other picture, her lips are parted, but this time she is not smiling.’ Contemporary cartoons, meanwhile, show gentlemen plucking the flowers from their wives’ hairdos to throw at Pepita’s feet on the stage. There were several precedents for liaisons between these Spanish dancers of the demi-monde and European aristocrats – notably, that of the Irish-born Spanish dancer Lola Montez with King Ludwig of Bavaria in the late 1840s.

I could not help noticing an echo of a previous passage in Knole’s history. During my researches into Inheritance, I was increasingly struck by a number of recurring themes: how Knole was built and then furnished on the profits of public office; how the family fortunes reflected those of the English aristocracy in general; how depression afflicted generation after generation of Sackvilles, prompting their gradual withdrawal and the withdrawal of their house from the world; how they tended to take Italian or Spanish dancers as mistresses. In the late eighteenth century, John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, installed his mistress, the Italian ballet dancer, Giovanna Baccelli, at Knole, and commissioned the painter Thomas Gainsborough to produce a full-length portrait of her. He captured Baccelli mid-movement, in a moment of perfect equilibrium. You cannot help feeling that the work of these commercial artists in the mid-nineteenth century presents a rather cheaper, cut-price version of Pepita the dancer.

Pepita returned regularly from northern Europe to visit her friends and family in Spain, and sometimes her mother and Manuel would follow her to Germany. Each year, Pepita appeared more prosperous than the year before. On one of her trips home in the early 1850s, she was staying at the Peninsulares in Madrid, one of the splendid hotels to which she had grown accustomed, and arranged to meet Manuel Guerrero y Casares, director of ballet at the Teatro Real. Although Manuel never thought much of her dancing, he did note the magnificence of her jewellery, in particular a heart-shaped gold pendant hanging from her neck with a large emerald in its centre and a surround of diamonds. A cousin of Catalina’s, who earned his living selling fruit off the back of a donkey, was struck by a very similar piece of jewellery when he had lunch with Pepita and her mother in Málaga, on their brief return to the city of her birth. ‘They seemed much better off – they were all dressed like gentle-people,’ he observed.

By the mid-1850s, Pepita was at the height of her career, and a wealthy woman. When, a couple of years after their meeting in Madrid, she bumped into Manuel Guerrero again, this time in Vienna, she was dressed as splendidly as before, with the same superb jewellery, but this time she also had ‘a magnificent carriage with a splendid pair of horses, coachman and footman and everything of the first order’. He could not help noticing that, however polished and refined Pepita had become, there was still ‘something in the carriage of her body which stamped her as not being a lady of birth’. Manuel Guerrero saw her once more in 1858 in Copenhagen, where Pepita was performing her trademark El Ole at the Casino Theatre. She was staying at one of the most expensive hotels in the city, probably the Hotel d’Angleterre, ‘in great style and ostentatious luxury’. And yet again, he had something slightly sniffy to say about Pepita – perhaps due to some professional rivalry with his own wife, the Spanish dancer Petra Camara. When shown a portrait of Pepita he recalled that this was ‘exactly the posture in which she used to place herself though I do not consider it artistic’.

By now Catalina and Manuel had settled in Granada, at No. 8 Calle de las Arandas. The lawyer who lived opposite remembered Pepita visiting, and their talking several times across the street from their respective balconies. Pepita was ‘beautiful and sympathetic and of pleasant conversation’. She was, he continued, ‘in the habit of going to and coming from foreign countries where she performed, gaining a lot of money, with which she supported her mother’s house, which always displayed excessive luxury . . . It was said that she had relations or an engagement with some foreign personage of importance, very rich and who gave her heaps of money.’

In the summer of 1855, however, Catalina and Manuel were driven out of Granada by an outbreak of cholera, and escaped to the small town of Albolote, four miles away. Here they bought the Casa Blanca, a house in the main square, which they refurbished extensively. ‘It was handsomely furnished for people in that class of life,’ noted the local priest. They had a four-wheeled carriage with a cover over the top, and two carriage horses called Malagueño and Garbozo – all in all, a very ‘stylish turn out’. In addition, Manuel had a saddle horse, a dark chestnut named Esmeralda, and there was a horse for Pepita to ride when she visited, a piebald called La Preciosa. The garrulous Catalina would boast about her daughter, ‘The Star of Andalusia’, La Estrella de Andalusia, as she was known abroad, and describe the exalted company she kept in Germany, including veiled references to some Bavarian prince. Catalina told everyone that it was Pepita’s money that kept them in such style, a fact confirmed by her next-door neighbour who observed that Catalina and Manuel certainly did nothing themselves to earn a living – ‘all they did was to spend their daughter’s money’.

Some of their new neighbours were snobbish about Manuel and Catalina. Goggle-eyed, and short and stout of stature, an ‘insignificant, common-looking chap’, Manuel swiftly became a figure of fun, ‘like a workman dressed as a gentleman’, wearing a gold chain and rings. He ‘seemed to be the sort of man who might have risen from the position of artisan and had suddenly become better off’, claimed the village priest; ‘Catalina looked very well when dressed, but when one entered into conversation with her – one plainly saw traces of an inferior origin.’ She and Manuel were said to quarrel frequently, ‘and she had been heard to tell him during these quarrels, that she would kick him out and send him back to his trade’.

The couple gave themselves a great many airs and graces. For example, they would have their servants carry up to four luxurious armchairs from the Casa Blanca to church every Sunday – one for Catalina, one for Manuel, and one each for Pepita and Lola if they were there. These would then be placed prominently facing the High Altar, in front of the congregation. One villager overheard the priest telling Catalina that the ‘Church was not a Theatre and the chairs must be taken away’. ‘So far as I know,’ he continued, ‘they did not attend Mass again.’

In the summer of 1856, Pepita came from Germany to stay with her mother at the Casa Blanca, accompanied by Manuel’s daughter Lola, a couple of servants, and two black dogs with long woolly coats called Prinnie and Charlie. The party alighted from the stagecoach at the point where the road to Albolote leaves the main road from Granada to Jaen, and was met by Pepita’s family in their carriage, who took them back to the house. A day or two later, Catalina held a party for Pepita at the Casa Blanca, to which she invited the local magistrate and the entire town council. A brass band from the neighbouring village of Atarfe was hired to serenade her, and there was dancing into the small hours, as chocolates, sweets and liqueurs were handed round. Pepita, who was wearing ‘a rose-coloured silk skirt with flounces, and very good jewellery’, greeted everyone and went out onto the balcony to salute the people in the square below. ‘It was a regular fete,’ recalled Micaela Gonzalez Molina, the wife of a local cattle-dealer and Catalina’s next-door neighbour.

Pepita stayed for almost two months. Villagers remembered her many years later, strolling in the street, or chatting from the balcony of the house. She dazzled the local landowners’ sons with her striking looks. José Ramirez Galan was one of those who, as a teenager, serenaded Pepita soon after her arrival, and then became a regular visitor to Catalina’s evening receptions where there was music, dancing and light refreshments. ‘I remember Pepita teaching me to waltz – she wore slippers of gold-brocaded velvet. I thought I should have died of ecstasy – she was so charming and handsome . . . Her face and figure remain engraved upon my memory, notwithstanding the lapse of time.’ After Pepita had left Albolote, Catalina gave him a portrait of her daughter as a souvenir, which he kept in a drawer with his