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A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

3.03  ·  Rating Details ·  247 Ratings  ·  70 Reviews
A Time Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction book of 2011
A Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction title for 2011

On a hill above the Italian village of Ravello sits the Villa Cimbrone, a place of fantasy and make-believe. The characters that move through Michael Holroyd’s new book are destined never to meet, yet the Villa Cimbrone unites them all.

A Book of Secrets is a treasure trove of hi

Kindle Edition
Published (first published November 1st 2010)
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Marissa Morrison
After reading the first 75 pages and feeling as though I ought to give up, I logged into goodreads and saw that some people wrote that the book would be getting much better in the second half. Let me tell you, IT DOES NOT GET BETTER.

This is one of the worst books I've read in a long while. The main problem is that the biographical details of the subjects' lives aren't fleshed out through any sort of compelling narrative. Holroyd does not bring these figures to life, in spite of the fact that the
Oct 11, 2011 Larry rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: bloomsbury followers
Shelves: kindle
When I started A Book of Secrets... I didn't know where it was headed. It talked about a model for Rodin I had never heard of (Eve Fairfax), her history, who she didn't marry, who she knew (which was just about everyone), what she knew, and the whole host of the liaisons of the late 19th century through the 1950's. Alice Keppel (mistress to the Prince of Wales and other notables), mother of Violet Trefusis (the lover of Vita Sackville-West),appearances by Lytton Strachey (author of Eminent Victo ...more
Feb 22, 2012 Jennifer rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Just when I thought that surely the last word had been wirtten for a while about the Bloomsbury set, here is celebrated biographer Michael Holroyd with a nonfiction narrative about a villa in Italy, its turn-of-the-century visitors, and their offspring of very uncertain parentage. Holroyd is a master of pulling all this material together. I love how he brings a little life to what could have been a week with many dull moments reading through a bunch of disordered papers: "Hurtling round the York ...more
Jan 10, 2012 Jennie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book cover-to-cover, not because I couldn't put it down--in fact, I literally threw it down in exasperation several times--but because my book club chose it. I read out of duty and kept hoping to find some redeeming qualities somewhere.

The gushingly positive review from The New York Review of Books and other noted media are misleading. I wonder if the NYRB reviewer really read the book or simply skimmed it and wrote his review on the basis of Holroyd's previous, prize-winning biograp
Vivian Valvano
Disappointed. Holroyd is one of the kings of biography (Shaw, Strachey...), and the TIMES review of this piqued my interest. But the only thing I found interesting (while not terribly earth-shattering or revealing) was the information about the relationship of Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. The title is totally misleading. Sure, there are illegitimate daughters and absent fathers (e.g., Violet was the illegitimate child of Ernest Beckett/Lord Grimthorpe [heaven help him with that stupi ...more
Oct 06, 2011 Millie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Holroyd is a superb biographer. He claims this one to be his last. Since he focuses on some members of the Bloomsbury group, it was a must read for me. A secondary pleasure was enjoying his comments on the history of the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, Italy. We've had the pleasure of visiting the villa twice. Its setting is one of the world's most beautiful. Apparently, the Bloomsbury set, as well as others such as Gore Vidal, thought so too. Holroyd has also written on Lytton Strachey and Bernard S ...more
Jenny Brown
Sep 19, 2012 Jenny Brown rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The only reason this mess of a book got published and got the great reviews it received must be because Holroyd is deeply entrenched in the English literary establishment.

This book has no theme, the title bears no relationship to its topic, and what it really is, is fragments of biographical research the author collected that never came together.

On top of that, the people profiled here are wealthy nonentities (the wealth inherited), with unpleasant personalities, trivial or nonexistant accompl
Dec 18, 2011 Brittany rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
This was an OK book, but it fascinated me far out of proportion to its merits. I don't know if it was the descriptions of glamorous times and places or the dramatic life stories, but something hooked me, and I could hardly stop reading it. However, I couldn't tell you how all the main characters were related, how they interconnected or how they all related to the Villa Cimbrone on Amalfi Coast of Italy. The writing was fine, but not exceptional, and what seemed like significant details of charac ...more
Sylvia Gruner
Jul 26, 2012 Sylvia Gruner rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: no one
I have to agree with others here. I had to force myself to finish this. There seemed to be a lot of meandering and no real point. I never did figure out what the subtitle referred to. If the author meant Violet Trefusis, he failed to show in any depth how her suspected illegitimacy harmed her or effected her. Maybe I missed it. Anyway, he spent a lot of time on several women who seemed to flit through the book without any real purpose or to make a point. As far as the Villa Cimbrone, again, no r ...more
Michael Spring
It is an odd and confusing book, with so many twists and turns and changes of perspective. The one really good thing in it is the last words of the first Lord Grimthorpe, which, while they may not echo down the years, have a distinct ring of truth about them: "We are low on Marmalade." But what else would you expect from a Yorkshire banker facing eternity? I gave up in the second half.
Sep 21, 2011 Rick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
A strange, bifurcated, autobiographical biography of 3-4 different people, loosely associated around the themes of illegitimate children and a lovely, albeit slightly tacky, Italian villa on the Amalfi coast. The Violet-Vita romance in the latter half was fascinating, and it's influence on the Virginia Woolf novel Othello was news to me. But I am still not sure why this exists, and many tangents left the reader slightly frustrated. What has become of Catherine, for example? Also the foreword lea ...more
May 16, 2013 Pascale rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book contains much fascinating material, and like all of Holroyd's biographies it is well-researched and engagingly written. The 2 principals are Eve Fairfax and Violet Trefusis, linked by the fact that the first one was once betrothed to Ernest Beckett, a failed politician close to Winston Churchill's father, while the second was his illegitimate daughter. Both became increasingly eccentric and pathetic as they grew older. Fairfax never married and survived as a hanger-on in aristocratic c ...more
Dec 27, 2011 Featherbooks rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers was a bit of a slog for me. While the characters were interesting, the information provided seemed too thin to merit a book. The author based it on a villa in the South of Italy but then we moved to England, to France, to Vita & Violet, to an Italian friend, disparate characters, places, and the book's focus and especially its passion suffered.

"With his oblique anecdotes about Salman Rushdie, and a footnoted reference to one of his wi
Jan 07, 2012 Kelly rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I read this in a couple of days this week and did not like much of it. The author never really knew what he was doing and calls this his last book in the epilogue. Like the people he writes about, he seems to wonder what his life has amounted to: not much it seems in spite of his many books. Holroyd admires the passions he finds in these aristocrats who moved from lover to lover because their lives were full of immense joy and pain. He seems to see himself as someone in the middle - someone for ...more
Alison Barber
Aug 20, 2013 Alison Barber rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book left me absolutely elated. I loved the way it wended its way from a Rodin bust of the mistress of an obscure aristocrat I had never heard of to the lonely death of his increasingly eccentric and unpleasant better known daughter Violet Trefusis. I am in awe of the details unearthed about the lives they lead, the letters they wrote, what people thought of them and the very many interesting people they met and the sometimes breathtaking way these lives intersected. Fascinating, and humane ...more
Oct 02, 2011 Sarah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Book of Secrets, another book about the British aristocracy that I popped into my suitcase at Christmas, is about notorious affairs and illegitimate children. The story fell into two parts. The first was about wealthy aristocrat Edward Beckett, a true lothario with numerous wives, fiancées and mistresses, the most famous, and interesting, of which, was Alice Keppel, long time mistress of King Edward the VII. The second part was about Violet Trefusis, the daughter of Beckett and Keppel.

I like
Lauren Fritz
I really loved the last 100 pages, when it really got into Violet and Vita, especially Violet, it made me want to read a whole book about just her. And the ending was so depressing, so good. But the first 150 pages I didn't like that much, it was supposed to be about women who were not written about, forgotten by history but he spends many pages on the Violet's father, who is interesting for sure but too much was about him. Also, the very intimate style he uses, weaving in his own story and that ...more
Mary Ronan Drew
A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd. This book was one of the Time Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2011 and a Publisher's Weekly's Best Nonfiction Title for 2011. I'm not sure why. The book was interesting but it didn't have the spark to light my biblio-fire. Here's what the publisher says: "A Book of Secrets is a treasure trove of hidden lives, uncelebrated achievements, and family mysteries. With grace and tender imagination, Holroyd brings a compan ...more
Feb 14, 2013 Laura rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is part biography and part memoir making the purpose of the book somewhat confusing. I think Holroyd should have expanded the biography aspect and ditched the memoir. He tries to make Villa Cimbrone some sort of spiritual tie between the historical characters presented in the book, but it seems forced and contrived; however, his presentation of Lord Grimthrope, Alice Keppel, Eve Fairfax, Violet Trefusis, and Vita Sackville-West, and others, is delightful. The descriptions are just enou ...more
May 26, 2015 Pat rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a birthday gift from a friend and, at the start that was all that kept me reading it. I was quite interested in the references to Yorkshire and Leeds in particular as it is a place I have known well in the past, but I did get hooked once the author moved on to Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. This part of the book was much more enjoyable and kept me interested right to the end. As far as Michael Holroyd goes, this is the first book of his that I have read although I have re ...more
May 29, 2013 Martha rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Like other readers I too think this had some really interesting facts about the lives of his subjects. However, my interest in them was not book length. Part One could have made a nice long article about the marginalized women. Part Two suddenly seemed an effort to launch the career of an Italian writer whom Holroyd takes a shine to. She sends him "playful emails "we are told. In my thinking, Holroyd thought he was on to something and either didn't have enough material and or fell under the sway ...more
The Book : An Online Review at The New Republic
WHEN IT COMES to reading other people’s diaries, biographers claim a sort of diplomatic immunity. In what he calls his final book, Michael Holroyd gleans salacious details from the life of Ernest Beckett, a womanising English nobleman (he inherited the title Lord Grimthorpe—a name Evelyn Waugh might have struggled to coin) and minor politician. “Ernest’s diary made it clear that an innkeeper’s beautiful daughter in Naples had fallen in love with him,” Holroyd writes half-admiringly. Read more...
Sarah Harkness
Jul 06, 2013 Sarah Harkness rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nelly
Ultimately a bit disappointing. The first third, about Beckett, was to me the most interesting. There didn't seem to be much new in the longer sections on Vita and Violet that I hadn't read before, and as I haven't read any of Violet's novels, and don't intend to, the long section on them didn't grip me. Also I was disappointed not to know more about the villa. The other lovely piece of writing, if slightly out of place here, is the description of the drive with Catherine Till to Ravello, which ...more
Laura Santoski
Make no mistake: Michael Holroyd is a very good writer and biographer, and while reading this book I was continually impressed by the research that must have gone into writing it. However, I felt the book as a whole was not cohesive. It focused on people who had been "united" by the Villa Cimbrone in some way, but the actual villa played only a minor role in the book (most of it discussed other aspects of the figures' lives), so there was not enough to link each person. Many of the individual st ...more
Aug 08, 2012 Maggi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
loved this book. When I was a surly teenager, and sick with flu, my mother gave me Portrait of a Marriage to read. Sort of a funny book to give a teenager to read, I agree. But I was transfixed by the era and the people. I think Michael Holroyd was too, and he gives a very thorough, sympathetic, and completely engaging account of those lost days. Lots of bed-hopping and art and high conversation. But I couldn't put it down. I am now stuck on finding those lost books for re-reading. And I want to ...more
Beverly Swerling
I am loving this, but then, I'm a sucker for anything Bloomsbury. (If I believed in reincarnation I would know for sure that in a past life I was a cook/general for Virginia Wolfe - in London before the war, so before they were bombed out and decamped to the country. Definitely for sure. Except I find the idea of reincarnation painfully cruel.)

Just getting to the section on Vita and Violet and that luscious scandal that has inspired so much terrific writing. Will write a proper review when I'm d
Dianne Lange
Sep 02, 2011 Dianne Lange rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved it. But it helps to be fascinated by Virginia Wolf, Vita Sackville-West, and Violet Trefussis. Violet was new to me...and what a compelling, sad, and passionate character. Holroyd's retelling of Trefussis' novels gets a bit tedious, but that's the book's only fault. From the description of an aging Gore Vidal to the life and loves of Earnest Beckett and his villa Cimbrone, I lapped it up! Now that I know who all the characters really are, I must read Orlando. If you read it, keep a list of ...more
Partway through, I almost gave up -- my reaction to the sad tale of Eve Fairfax was essentially "so what?" Her life isn't interesting enough to devote half a book to, even a short book. The second half of the book, primarily about Violet Trefusis, was more interesting but her life is already covered in more depth by several biographies. I can't understand what all the critical hoopla over this book was about; I find it slight.
Oct 13, 2011 Bobsie67 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Perhaps the best-written biorgaphy of wacky rich Brits people and their lurid lives that I've ever read. All the love affair connections and who si related to whom can get confusing. Happily, the author gives a family tree at the end which I needed to review several times just so that I could remember the familial connections. The added plus is that Mr. Holroyd writes so lovingly of Villa Cimbrone, where my wife and I spent an enchanting day on our honeymoon.
Aug 17, 2011 Leslie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Those interested in Violet Trefusis are better served by Souhami's excellent biography, "Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter."

For Eve Fairfax and the Villa Cimbrone, there must also be other books or other stories... Sadly, Holroyd's "Book of Secrets" doesn't really live up to its name, at least for anyone familiar with its subjects. It might be better read in stages, as a series of essays, rather than gobbled up in toto.
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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 f ...more
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