The author shares the stories of unknown women who played significant roles in the lives of prominent figures, including a mistress shared by the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales (Alice Keppel), a creative muse of Auguste Rodin (Eve Fairfax), and a novelist lover of Vita Sackville-West (Violet Trefusis). He also reflects on himself as investigator and biographer.
All roads seem to lead to Villa Cimbrone, and Holroyd, of course, travels there. The description of his visit with Catherine Till brings those mysteries of the past into a new, and current focus.
Seven years later he invited back to the Villa Cimbrone by Tiziana Masucci. Chapter Five, ‘Excitements, Earthquakes and Elopements’ continues the autobiographical theme, as Tiziana’s own absorption with Violet Trefussis is explored. From then on, however, the book seemed to me to lose its focus, and to descend into yet another episode of the long-running and oft explored Vita-Violet (+Virginia) saga—albeit seen heavily from Violet’s point of view.
One expects that all this will lead back, in some way, to the Villa Cimbrone, but it really doesn’t. The Villa makes a fleeting, and rather token appearance, in the Epilogue, but only as a symbol, and one very loosely connected to Violet herself.
Lady Sackville and Mrs Keppel might almost be seen as unifying characters in this book, sailing like imperious galleons, getting closer and closer to the waterline as the book progresses, until, with little ceremony, they sink.
The highlight (to me) is the bust of Medusa that Vita Sackville-West gives her lover Violet as a wedding gift, and that it did not signal the end of their relationship. That detail alone warrants 3 stars.