Family History by Vita Sackville-West

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Family history recounts the ill-fated relationship of Evelyn Jarrold and Miles Vane-Merrick. Evelyn is widowed and has a teenage son. She keeps in close contact with her in-laws, the Jarrolds, who are a family of society and appearances. She feels welcomed among them and clings to their company and good graces. Miles is a young bachelor making a career for himself in politics. Evelyn’s teenage son Dan, who struggles with the expectations of his family, is smitten by Miles. He gushes to Evelyn:

    “I never met anybody so full of ideas. In fact I never met anybody in the least like him. He seems to be everything one is told not to be, and to believe everything one is taught not to believe in, and yet I can’t imagine anybody not being impressed and convinced by him.”

It is important to understand both their backgrounds to understand why their relationship is tragic. Evelyn represents a set of ideals that are quickly being replaces by those of the new generation, of which Miles is a part. She is 15 years older than Miles though she is still young in appearance and fashion.

Separately, but acting as the backdrop for their relationship is a portrait of an England that is in transition. Victorian ideals are being ushered out and the 1930s in. Miles represents radical ideals while Evelyn tries desperately to cling to what is known and comfortable. Evelyn is aware of the forward thinking that Miles represents and she sees the difference between her social circle and thus herself and Miles-sometimes she is impressed and at other times she is irritated.

    She was dreadfully bored at Newlands; not only bored but irritated. The irritation was new, and had come upon her since she had known Miles. The total absence of ideas among the younger Jarrolds, their perpetual heavy banter which passed for wit, the limitation of their interests, their intolerance, their narrow-mindedness, all appeared insufferable to her now in contrast with Miles’ alertness and gaiety.

But the pull of what is proper will not allow her to love him as he is and Miles’ ideas will not allow him to love Evelyn as she is. Evelyn refuses to marry Miles yet she exhibits a possessive fussiness. She is dependent upon Miles for her happiness. Miles however, is too busy to be in so deep-he has his book and his close like-minded friends. Evelyn has tradition.

The last few pages are intense. Whether intensely happy or intensely sad, I don’t yet know.

Other passages

    She revelled in the lights, and the music, and in the privileged crowd of which she was one. Surely, she thought, the English upper classes (a horrid expression, but she must define them somehow) were the most decorative on earth. They looked as though for generations they had been well-fed, well-warmed, well exercised, and nourished in the conviction that the world could not produce their peers. The standard of looks was amazing; they had the distinction and beauty of thoroughbred animals….What did it matter that their code should strangely enough involve a contempt for the intellectual advantages which might have been theirs? What did it matter that they should immure themselves within the double barricade of class and their nationality? But Ruth had no such thoughts, being herself one of them, or, at any rate, so good an adaptation as to resemble them in almost every particular.
    Look at the way he [Miles] marks his books, Mummy! You always told me not to scribble in books, you said it spoilt them. But look here,-he’s left a shoe-horn in this one, to mark the page, and he takes notes at the end. If I did thatt, there might be some chance of my remembering the books I read. Books aren’t meant to be looked at, surely? And what a lot of different things he must be interested in! How does he find the time?

This was my second Sackville-West. Because I enjoyed All Passion Spent so much I figured I’d read another. I don’t think Family History gripped me in the same way as as All Passion Spent but it was a great book and served to take hold of another part of me. I enjoy her writing style and her characters even though she is not always kind to them. They are complex yet seem to be just like anyone you would know.

I don’t own any books by Sackville-West. These two I borrowed from the library and they have no more, well that’s not exactly true, I have requested Some Flowers which appears to be a gardening book with illustrations in watercolor. Worth peeking into and maybe it will help me get ready for spring planting though that is far off. Anyhow, I will have to wait before I read The Edwardians and No Signposts in the Sea.

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2 responses to “Family History by Vita Sackville-West

  • Mrs. B.

    Hi Danielle, I’m Tuppy from LT. Didn’t know you had a blog. It’s lovely! The only Sackville-West book I’ve read is No Signposts by the Sea and I loved it. I have 3 more of her books on my To-be-read pile and I’m not sure which one to pick up next. But based on your post maybe I’ll start with All Passion Spent.

  • LeaningSun

    Astrid, thanks for stopping by and commenting. All Passion Spent was wonderful and I would definitely recommend it. I’ve been eying No Signposts by the Sea and since you enjoyed it I’ll have to read it soon. Sackville-West hasn’t disappointed me.

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