Juliet is Bloomsbury aristocracy, being the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, herself a much acclaimed author, but equally well remembered as a leading player in the Bloomsbury Group, that largely pre-war bohemian clique of artists and writers which still excites such fevered interest – for their sexual as well as artistic tastes and appetites. While named after London’s Bloomsbury, the group, which included Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, lived (variously) in grand, if unconventional fashion, in the Weald. This was primarily at Charleston, a farmhouse near Firle, as well as Sissinghurst Castle and Knole in Sevenoaks.
Joanna, cannily welcoming “this calibre of audience”, teased out Juliet’s fascinating account of the remarkable Sackville-West women, starting with Vita’s grandmother Pepita and working down the line of daughters to Juliet herself, and the traits which they inherited.
Having heard Juliet a fortnight before at the Chiddingstone Literary Festival, it was intriguing to compare the styles of the two different interlocutors, Imogen Lycett Green and Joanna. Joanna concentrated much more on Juliet’s life, and what some reviewers have called her “privileged background”. But Juliet felt, in many ways, that due to the lack of emotional warmth, of time and of praise from her parents, it could be called an underprivileged childhood – suggesting that for all the much-vaunted bohemia of the Bloomsbury-ites, they were as emotionally brittle and cold to their children as so many others of that generation.
Juliet also spoke of the lack of aspiration for women at this time. So in the early 1970s she was sent to a posh boarding school, Benenden, where the 300 girls would be granted a day off – for a picnic – simply when one of their number had managed to scrape into university.
After a childhood of whispered secrets and illicit phone calls at Sissinghurst Castle, Juliet learned that her mother Philippa was having an affair behind the back of husband Nigel Nicolson.
Philippa left Sissinghurst when Juliet was 13, taking her younger sister, Rebecca, aged four, but not her or her brother Adam, who has since won much acclaim as a chronicler of rural Sussex life and now presides over the castle and famous gardens.
Joanna concentrated much more on Juliet’s life, and what some reviewers have called her ‘privileged background
Though still a girl, Juliet was left to cook at the castle for her father Nigel. Her mother subsequently married the much older, but fabulously rich, Sir Robin McAlpine, head
of the construction firm, who had been a friend of Philippa’s father. This led to embarrassment for Juliet when her mother would arrive at her smartly understated school for sports day by helicopter – the only other chopper carrying The Queen to see Princess Anne.
Juliet confounded her mother by going to a crammer and being offered a place at Oxford to read English Literature. Her mother’s reaction was: “You are not exactly university material, I have found you a nice place in Florence to teach you about paintings and cooking.” An extraordinary statement when you consider the intellectual and cultural achievements of women in
the family (Vita, for instance, should not only be remembered as the lover of the acclaimed writer Virginia Woolf, but as the author of such beautifully-crafted literary classics as No Signposts in the Sea).
The put-upon Juliet was going along with this plan, until her father sent her a letter, by courier, with the first page stating the reasons to go to Florence, and the second, reasons for Oxford. Juliet then saw clearly that it would be folly not to take her books and boater off to university.
Joanna drew out the links between the women in Juliet’s family through the generations, of not feeling up to things, of no encouragement to educate oneself further – and of patterns of addiction and, allied to that, secrecy. When Juliet became hooked on alcohol (like her mother and grandmother), it was the secrecy which made it difficult to stop.
Juliet eventually found a way to face her problems by admitting her addiction and asking for help. By doing this she had empowered herself, and has not had a drink for 18 years. This is in marked contrast to her late mother’s alcoholic misery, and how destructive this was. Mama eventually died from liver disease, aged 58, a sobering reminder of the human unhappiness ultimately caused by such a hedonistic life.
In contrast, at Chiddingstone Castle, we heard more about the previous generations, the fascinating story of Victoria, Vita’s mother, who was the eldest of seven illegitimate children that the diplomat, Lionel Sackville-West, had by Pepita, a Spanish dancer. Pepita died during childbirth and eventually Victoria came to live with him.
He was appointed Envoy to the United States, but had no wife to be his hostess. Queen Victoria was asked if his illegitimate daughter, Victoria, could accompany him to be his official hostess. Whether because of her name, or for a previously well-disguised liberalism, Queen Victoria gave her blessing, and Victoria became a resounding success, even, according to her, receiving 25 proposals of marriage – including from the President.
Juliet felt that the book has allowed her to scrutinise her ancestors, and through that, work out for herself who she is. Both talks were illuminating, but Joanna’s last question was rather surprising when she asked Juliet when she was going to write a biography – as one felt that this book was both biography and autobiography on a mammoth and revealing scale.
Charleston is halfway through the Centenary Project, an £8.5 million mission to upgrade facilities, but already some of the improvements can be seen. The new access road and car park is very convenient for the Festival but keeps car parking away from the house, which has been restored to bring it back as close as possible to how it was when it housed the group and played regular host to everyone from the artist Roger Fry to the economist John Maynard Keynes.
At the Festival there were additional eating areas, a great improvement on previous years, with little queuing. Once the two original barns have been preserved and a new barn added, there will be gallery space for exhibitions, a Collection Studio housing the extensive Charleston archives, a new auditorium and a larger cafe. This will allow Charleston to offer schools and community groups an increased educational programme and boost the year-round visitor capacity, but many may miss the old-fashioned loos always with a vase of flowers from the garden.