Juliet Nicolson Breaks the Cycle of Unhappiness in ‘A House Full of Daughters’

Juliet Nicolson has a storied family tree, the family writing talent, and an unhappy legacy: which she reversed.

In A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson pens a moving family history spanning nearly a century. Yet A House Full of Daughters is more than a family memoir; it’s a remarkable story of change. By identifying a cycle of unloved mothers giving birth to unwanted, and in turn, unloved daughters, Nicolson, member of the Sackville-West family, does more than write about the pattern: with courageous insight, she breaks it.

As many individuals in this story have the same last name, the reviewer has referred to people by their first names where appropriate for clarity.

Nicolson begins in 1830, with her great-great grandmother, Flamenco dancer Pepita Duran. Born into poverty, Duran’s every move was controlled by Catalina, her hovering stage mother. At 20, she found herself in a loveless marriage. Months later, a scheming Catalina told both husband and wife that each was cheating on the other. The stunned couple split, but Catalina’s plan backfired. Duran, now the toast of Europe, traveled alone, all the better to meet her lover, English diplomat Lionel Sackville-West.

As divorce was illegal in Spain, Duran and Sackville-West could never marry. Their five children were illegitimate. In 1866, Duran retired from dance, moving to the French seaside town of Arcachon. An ex-dancer with illegitmate children was unwelcome. Lonely and isolated, Duran died in childbirth in 1871.

Duran’s nine-year-old daughter, Victoria Sackvile-West, was sent to a Parisian convent school. When she turned 17, Lionel sent for her. Newly posted to Washington, D.C., the shy, socially inept Lionel was in need of a hostess.

Multilingual, witty, and very pretty, Victoria quickly endeared herself to Washington’s insular elite. She banned the custom of sending floral bouquets during balls, a kindness to poorer suitors and less popular girls. Her refusal to admit to being “at home” in the afternoons stopped unwanted guests from “dropping by”. Loathing the American habit of shaking hands, Victoria began wearing gloves, launching an enduring fashion trend.

When a foolish mistake cost Lionel his Washington post, the family returned to Britain, taking up residence at Knole, the lavish family estate. There, Victoria met her first cousin, also named Lionel Sackville-West (called Young Lionel to distinguish him from Victoria’s father, Old Lionel). Smitten, Young Lionel began sending letters, which Victoria ignored, perferring to keeping house. She installed electricity and plumbing in the ancient estate, described by the author as:

365 rooms, fifty-two staircases, seven courtyards and thousands of windows. The house was completed during a hundred years of almost continuous construction from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth. Even Vita, who knew Knole better than anyone, never stopped having to work out the quickest way from one part of the house to another.

Young Lionel continued pressing his suit. When Victoria finally accepted his proposal, her motivations were practical: marriage to Young Lionel conferred legitimacy, the possibility of inheriting Knole, and the promise of staying near Old Lionel. Although Victoria entered marriage a frightened virgin, once in the marital bed, her fears evaporated. Nicolson writes of the newlyweds: “They were insatiable, grabbing any time of day or night in which to indulge themselves.”

On 9 March 1892, Victoria gave birth to Victoria Mary, nicknamed Vita. The protracted, painful labor terrified a woman whose mother died in childbirth. Victoria banished Lionel from her bed, only to be devastated when he sought companionship elsewhere. The newlywed and former darling of Washington, D.C. began behaving erratically, becoming obsessed with stationary, stealing (clean) toilet paper from Harrods, and hoarding used stamps. A “passion for fresh air” led to eating outdoors in all weathers, alone, even as snow fell.

Such lability made for poor parenting. Initially happy with the infant Vita, Victoria became disenchanted as her daughter grew into an individual with needs, demands, and a personality. “Gradually Vita’s independence began to irritate Victoria, and her own centre of interest moved from her child to herself.”

When Vita married the untitled, penniless Harold Nicolson in 1913, Victoria was appalled, angrily scrawling X’s across Vita’s wedding photographs. Lionel was more supportive, writing his daughter, “I have never minded in the least his not being a Duke.” In 1917, Vita gave birth to Nigel, the author’s father. Two years later, Vita ran off to France with her lover, Violet Keppel. The runaways were brought back England by an enraged Harold and Violet’s fiancé, Denys Trefusis. Vita and Harold later lived — happily — in an open marriage.

Meanwhile, the increasingly erratic Victoria, enraged over (old) Lionel’s philandering, moved out of Knole, but refused to grant him a divorce. Instead, she made Vita’s life miserable. In a letter addressed to “Vipa”, Victoria wrote her daughter: “You are a selfish, callous, ungrateful child to the best mother anyone could have ever had.” Incredibly, Vita never stopped hoping to reconcile with her mother. She never suceeded. When Victoria died, Vita wrote that she felt she’d been hit over the head with a mallet.

There was more to Vita’s headache than daughterly grief, however. In 1930 she’d purchased Sissinghurst, a derelict manor she set about restoring. Though Vita did her best work there, she also began drinking heavily. Harold addressed the issue in delicately worded letters as the gardeners, finding Vita unconscious in the flowerbeds, rolled her inside in a wheelbarrow.

Pepita, Victoria, and Vita all had some measure parental affection: Pepita had her overbearing mother, while Victoria and Vita were close to their fathers. But Philippa Tennyson d’Eyncourt, the author’s mother, was utterly unloved. Born to parents whose chief interests were card games and cocktails, Nicolson sums up her mother’s upbringing in a scathing paragraph: “Philippa was taught the rules, handed on in turn to me, that stressed how important it was to finish everything on your plate except the pattern, to say ‘vulgar’ rather than ‘common’ and ‘grown-up’ not ‘adult’, to chose Cadbury chocolates over Fry’s, to pass round the cigarette box at parties and to eat peas with the fork humped, as well as that ‘bugger’ was an acceptable swear word for women to use.”

By the time Philippa met Nigel Nicolson at a New Year’s Eve Party, her sole accomplishment was the completion of an apprenticeship in French Cookery. They had met less than ten times when Nigel asked Philippa’s father for her hand in marriage. Notably, he did not first consult Philippa. They married in 1953.

Nigel had not married for love, however. He was in politics, nearing 40, and in need of a wife. Philippa, youthful and pretty, appeared malleable. Nigel’s correspondence makes his feelings painfully clear. He finds Philippa “barely educated” and “unformed intellectually”. Worst of all, he expected to “mould” his new wife into “a Sissinghurst person”. Atop this, Nigel had a pronounced antipathy towards sex. Nevertheless, on 9 June, 1954, Philippa gave birth to the author, Juliet.

In 1961 Nigel moved the family to London. There, his daughter writes, “everything began to go wrong.” As swinging ’60’s began, Philippa struggled to assimilate, shortening her skirts and smoking Benson and Hedges cigarettes, “lit with a little flourish and a click of a Dunhill lighter.” Philippa’s unhappiness was evident. She did not share a bedroom with Nigel. Instead, she spent time in St. Tropez, where her parents had a villa. At home, Philippa paid scant attention to her family. The author relates vivid memories of her absence in times of crisis, of relying on a succession of nannies and housekeepers. In 1968, Philippa divorced Nigel.

The final portion of A House Full of Daughters turns from biography to memoir. Nicolson, like the women before her, longs for her cold, distant mother while maintaining close ties to a loving father. As she nears adulthood, she tries to please both, a difficulty as their expectations differ widely. Nigel hoped Juliet would attend Oxford; meanwhile, Philippa arranged for a coming our party, complete with photo sitting by Cecil Beaton. She even offered to pay for Juliet to have a nose job. All of these efforts were in service to landing a wealthy spouse.

Passing on the nose job, Juliet attended Oxford. When she married the untitled James Macmillian-Scott, Philippa showed her displeasure by saying little. Nigel was pleased with Juliet’s engagement. Philippa arrived at the wedding via helicopter. Her wealthy second husband did not attend. Philippa began drinking heavily, driving away friends and family. A lifetime of ingrained formality made it impossible for Juliet or her brother Adam to reach out. When Juliet’s husband got a job in New York City, communication shrunk to a telephone line: “I dreaded her calls, and I dreaded her silence. I was worried about her. I was infuriated by her. I was split between the adult impulse to look after her and the childlike desire for a mother who would love me like other mothers loved their children.”

Philippa died of alcoholism at age 58. Her second husband did not attend the funeral. At the luncheon afterward, he announced he did not wish to hear Philippa’s name spoken. Her death did not sadden him. He was ashamed.

With the births of Nicolson’s daughters, Clemmie and Flora, the familial cycle of dysfunctional mothers and unloved daughters came to a stop. Motherhood was a source of unconflicted joy. Reconciling work and motherhood proved more difficult. Nicolson was soon consumed by conflicts familiar to most working women: she loved her work in publishing. She loved spending time with her children. She worried they felt abandoned. There weren’t enough hours in the day to work and parent.

Atop this, her marriage was unraveling. A stressed Nicolson fell into a familiar pattern. She started drinking. Nicolson’s discussion of her alcoholism is one of the most moving portions of A House Full of Daughters. Understandably hesitant to share such private information, Nicolson decided to write of the experience, saying: “While there a few taboo subjects remaining, several are still misunderstood and fenced in by stigma. If my own experience with one of them offers hope, even to just one individual who might be in despair about this mental and physical dependency, then for me, the decision to write about it will have been justified.”

Nicolson’s drinking came close to killing her. There were scenes with friends, bad behavior at her father’s table, retreats into bed. When her brother and sister-in-law threatened her with losing the children, Nicolson came to her senses. She would not abandon her children. Nicolson checked into rehab and quit drinking. By refusing to succumb to alcoholism for sake of her children, Juliet Nicolson definitively broke the pattern of unloved daughters becoming loveless mothers. By speaking openly about her alcoholism, she brought a needlessly dark secret into the light.

Now happily remarried, Nicolson has made amends with her first husband. She is grandmother to Imogen, whose name in Old Irish means “beloved daughter”. Imogen, she writes, is born into very different world, a world that values open communication, respect, and equality. A world where she “will be proud and uninhibited to be a woman”. A world where daughters who break free of convention are not socially pilloried. They are loved.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers