30 April 2016 Susannah

The Nicolson family

Harold-Nicolson-and-Vita-Sackville-West image

Last month I wrote about the writing family of the Brontës. This month I’d like to share with you my pleasure in the works of another writing family – the Nicolsons.

Vita Sackville-West married Harold Nicolson in 1913. Both were authors, and they began a writing dynasty. I love Vita’s novel All Passion Spent (1931), a tender story of an elderly woman who decides the time has come for her to live for herself, rather than for others. There is also a nice film version with Wendy Hiller you may like to watch. Harold wrote biographies of Byron, Tennyson and Paul Verlaine. He and Vita were prolific letter writers.

Adam Nicolson with his father Nigel and grandfather Harold image

Adam Nicolson with his father Nigel and grandfather Harold

Their son Nigel Nicolson, who I once had the privilege of meeting, wrote a famous biography of his bisexual parents, Portrait of a Marriage, an excellent book about Jane Austen, and a fascinating memoir, Long Life. In my view the best writer in the family is Nigel’s son Adam Nicolson. His Power and Glory: The Making of the King James Bible (the US edition is called God’s Secretaries) is one of my favourite history books ever!! Other excellent books by Nigel include Mrs Kipling, Sea Room, and Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History. There’s not one of his books I have not really enjoyed.

Nigel’s daughter, Juliet Nicolson, is also an excellent writer. I loved her The Perfect Summer about the summer before WWI, and her latest book, which I have yet to read, is A House Full of Daughters about the women in her own unusual family starting with her great-great grandmother Pepita, a Spanish dancer, through to Juliet’s own story of feeling abandoned by her mother. This new book is being much praised by reviewers, so I can’t wait to read it.

I hope this remarkable family continues to produce authors. Their works have given me much reading pleasure. Have you read any works from the Nicolson family? Who do you think is the best writer in the family?

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Featured image- Sir Harold Nicolson with his wife, the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, in 1960 at their home, Sissinghurst, Kent. Photograph: Corbis. From:  http://www.theguardian.com/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2009/may/06/public-faces-harold-nicolson
Body image- Open Letters Monthly an Arts & Literature Review. http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/february-2009-quarrel-with-the-king/
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Comments (10)

  1. Nauha

    Hi Susannah
    Thank you for bringing back the memories of my visit to Sissinghurst
    I have read Vita s biography which I enjoyed
    A fascinating person
    Maybe I will get a chance to read some of her books
    Love the info you put out

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t Sissinghurst a glorious place. Vita is an intriguing woman. You should try ‘A House Full of Daughters’ by her granddaughter Juliet Nicolson. I loved reading that.

  2. Carole

    Alarm Passion Spent is a favourite of mine the Wendy Hiller film was so well done – I do wish it would get another screening on television. Thanks for all those references, Susannah.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a lovely version. I would love to watch it again. I first saw it late one night on TV many years ago.

  3. Marisa Cano

    Being of Spanish background I think I might do a bit of research about “Pepita” – she sounds like an interesting character! Thanks, Susannah, your newsletter is always such a pleasure to read!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you enjoy my newsletter. Pepita was fascinating – she had several children by Lord Sackville, was a famous dancer and, if I remember correctly, had hair that reached to her feet. Vita was very proud of her exotic Spanish heritage.

  4. Maggie Lane

    I agree with Susannah that Adam writes the best prose, including his sparkling journalism, though it’s a close-run thing, and I’ve yet to read Juliet’s new book. Like Susannah, I thoroughly admire Vita’s All Passion Spent. It is interesting to compare it with other books about women at the end of life like Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and Norah Hoult’s There Were No Windows (available from Persephone Books) – all very different in approach and character. Back to the Nicolsons: I too had the pleasure of meeting Nigel, when we worked together on the possibility of making a museum to Jane Austen in her Bath town house – efforts that came to nothing, but produced much correspondence which I treasure. I also had the privilege of staying at Sissinghurst twice. It was wonderful to take a walk in the moonlit gardens after all the visitors were gone, and to wake to the gentle sound of gardeners deadheading roses! Nigel kept a diary every day and I keep hoping the family will publish it. He was on the committee of the UK JA Society for a few years. Happy days!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Maggie, thanks so much for sharing your memories of Nigel. I love to know that when he was dying, his daughter Juliet read to him from the works of Jane Austen. Thanks also for the book recommendations – I have never heard of Norah Hoult, so she is another author to add to the pile of books-to-read.Lucky you actually staying at Sissinghurst. The garden is usually so crowded, and I can imagine how fabulous it would be to walk there alone, just soaking up the beauty.

  5. Christine Park Strauch

    Hi Susannah,

    I am also a huge Vita fan. Her biography by Victoria Glendinning is excellent. I also have a couple of her gardening books and also books on Sissinghurst. Juliet Nicolson is very good too. There also is The Disinherited by Robt Sackville West which is about Henry Sackville West one of the illegitimate children of Vita’s father. All Vita’s novels are very enjoyable as is her poem The Land which won the Hawthornden Prize. My books also include Challenge, Twelve Days In Persia, English Country Houses, Passenger To Teheran and also a biography of her mother Lady Sackville by Susan Mary Alsop,

    As I said, a big big fan!!


    • Susannah Fullerton

      Like you, I love Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Vita. I have yet to read Robert Sackville West’s book about the family. They are so fascinating and eccentric! I have also enjoyed Vita’s poetry – she won the Hawthornden twice, if I remember rightly, for The Land and for The Garden. I will add the biography of her mother to my reading pile.
      Many thanks for your comments.

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