A Book of Secrets
Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
By Michael Holroyd
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374115586, 272pp.)
Publication Date: August 2, 2011
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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 hidden lives, uncelebrated achievements, and family mysteries. With grace and tender imagination, Holroyd brings a company of unknown women into the light. From Alice Keppel, the mistress of both the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales; to Eve Fairfax, a muse of Auguste Rodin; to the novelist Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West—these women are always on the periphery of the respectable world.
Also on the margins is the elusive biographer, who on occasion turns an appraising eye upon himself as part of his investigations in the maze of biography. In A Book of Secrets, Holroyd gives voice to fragile human connections and the mystery of place.
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 for Literature. His previous book, A Strange Eventful History, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography in 2009. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.
“Intoxicating . . . Burst[s] with the tremendous generosity of its author . . . From the first page A Book of Secrets casts the spell of a time long gone, of loves endured and lost, expectations dashed on the rocks of reality, of inner desires forever stilled, casting their shadows into history. It is written with the kind of elegance, ease and simplicity possible only from a master craftsman who has flown far beyond any learning curve and is relishing his free fall. [Holroyd] carries us as if on a magic carpet from one character to the next, and one time period to the next, with consummate grace. Holroyd is a kind of Fred Astaire on the page, his many steps becoming one grand, profound design . . . [H]is heart and humor bounce in vibrant rays off every hot-blooded, lovelorn, crazy, jealous and joyous woman—and what enlightened being would have any woman be otherwise?—in his book . . . A Book of Secrets is a book of magic, a sleight of hand by a master conjurer singing his swan song, sweetly, softly, with piercing wit and overwhelming compassion, his poetry in prose evoking a time past, with all its outrageous obsessions, its illegal passions, its melancholy perfume.” —Toni Bentley, The New York Times Book Review
“Michael Holroyd is that rare biographer who is read for himself as much as for the sake of his subject . . . It is hard to see how Mr. Holroyd could do better than this book.” —Carl Rollyson, The Wall Street Journal
“A Book of Secrets frequently casts a rosy comic glow . . . Mr. Holroyd is an impeccable writer and researcher, a man whose books are packed with intricate detail yet retain a buoyancy. They are aerodynamic; they run as silently as gliders . . . This book is a richly marbled meditation not only on the lives of several remarkable women but also on the art of biography itself . . . [Holroyd’s] new book contains many fine moments during which, holding on with white knuckles, you might hear yourself cry, ‘Brilliant!’” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Master raconteur and biographer of Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, the always elegant Holroyd is at the top of his game . . . Holroyd writes like an angel and memorably draws the rivulets of these fluid lives together.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A Book of Secrets is truly a book of revelations, of sudden, emotional jolts . . . The work of a master-biographer at the height of his powers . . . A beautifully structured narrative, punctuated by surprises and dazzling shifts in focus.” —Daisy Hay, The Daily Telegraph
“It’s a testament to Holroyd’s dexterity that this big, densely populated canvas never feels cluttered or confusing . . . As is always the case with Holroyd, the reader comes away equally inspired, equally curious, and lavishly entertained by a story-teller of the first rank.” —Lee Randall, The Scotsman
“Richly evocative and beautifully written . . . Holroyd’s skills as a researcher and detective are fully deployed, in miniature; and only a master could pull off such a book.” —Anne Chisholm, The Spectator