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Family History by Vita Sackville-West
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Family History (1932)

by Vita Sackville-West

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Showing 5 of 5
It seems that at one time this novel by Vita Sackville West was fairly neglected, and apparently even Vita herself wrote of it quite disparagingly. However as well as being a really good story – it a wonderful 1930’s exploration of the complexities of family life, relationships and society in an England on the brink of great change. West also seems to have quite a bit to say about love in this novel, romantic love, obsessional love of people and places and the difficulties when the lovers are mismatched in the eyes of society, alongside the perils of staking too much on one person.

Evelyn Jarrold is a beautiful, elegant woman, nearing forty a widow with a seventeen year old son at Eton. Her father in law is a self-made man, wealthy with a large country estate, he is proud of the coal industry which made his fortune. Living in a London flat Evelyn has kept close to this large family of sons, daughters and grandchildren since her husband died in the First World War. Evelyn is trusted and respected by her in-laws; her conduct has never been in question. The Jarrolds are a traditional family, hunting, shooting conservatives that Evelyn’s son Dan, his Grandfather’s heir, finds himself to be rather at odds with. Evelyn’s niece Ruth adores her glamorous aunt, visiting her and chatting to her at length – although Evelyn finds her adoration rather wearisome.

Miles Vane-Merrick is a twenty five year old rising Labour politician. He too is from a privileged background – a younger son he has no money, although he has a picturesque ruined castle and surrounding lands buried deep in the Kent countryside, where he lives much of the time with a couple of faithful old retainers. Miles’s home is an almost exact representation of Sissinghurst – the Nicolson family home that Vita herself loved so dearly and where in the 1930’s she created some spectacular gardens .

“The lane widened, and the fan of light showed up a group of oast-houses beside a great tiled barn; then it swung round on a long, low range of buildings with a pointed arch between two gables. Miles drove under the arch and pulled up. It was very dark and cold. The hard winter starlight revealed an untidy courtyard, enclosed by ruined walls, and, opposite, an arrowy tower springing up to a lovely height with glinting windows”

When Evelyn and Miles begin a passionate relationship they are flouting several social conventions and inequalities. Evelyn is a fashionably and expensively dressed woman right off the cover of a fashion magazine, used to a life of comfort, ease and idleness. Miles is an idealistic socialist working on an economics book; he loves the countryside and his castle almost obsessively. Evelyn and Miles strive to keep their relationship a secret – spending time together at Miles’s castle or at Evelyn’s flat while Dan finishes his year at Eton. Evelyn’s love for Miles is of the all-consuming variety, he becomes her reason for living, and yet she is concerned about how her son and family would re-act to her relationship. Evelyn is jealous of Mile’s work, of his bohemian friends who she dislikes. Dan meanwhile is delighted by Miles, hangs upon his every word, impressed by his ideologies he see in Miles all the things he aspires to – things the Jarrolds will never understand or approve.

“Love as Evelyn understood it was an entire absorption of one lover into the other. He wanted to retain his individuality, his activity, his time-table. He wanted to lead his own life, parallel with the life of love, separate, independent.”

There is a story (referred to in the introduction to my VMC edition) that Harold Nicolson read Family History during a train journey and wept the entire way. Throughout the story of Evelyn and Miles, the reader has the distinct impression that this love affair cannot survive the difficulties which each of these mismatched lovers place upon the other. Evelyn cares deeply about her beloved son, but outside of her relationship with Dan she is quite able to be spoilt, selfish, vain and dreadfully jealous – yet she is not unlikeable, there is a sympathetic vulnerability to Evelyn – she is conventional with few if any interests. Yet in idealist Miles – a man who likes his women “idle and decorative” and hates “clever women” I found much more to dislike. The ending is perhaps inevitable in one sense – yet Vita Sackville-West gives her readers an ending that is really very sad, but beautifully written. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Jan 10, 2014 |
This is the story of Evelyn and Miles. She a 40 year old widow with a 17 year old son and he a 24 year old land holder, writer & political young man.
From the beginning of the novel the reader realizes that this is an affair that will not end well. They meet through friends at a dance and fall for each other. They yearn to be together but that desire comes to each of them very selfishly. She wants to be with him most of the time and wants him to want, need & desire her above all else. She wishes to be everything to him. Whilst he wants to be with her, he has so many interests that keep him away from her for periods of time. He is a new thinker and doesn't live by the Victorian rules of the time. How society sees him is not important to him while to Evelyn it is all important and she begrudges him every moment away from her for she has no other interests than he and her son.
As they go through their affair they attempt to hide it as Evelyn cannot bear for people to gossip about her nor to think poorly of her. She has always been very proper and done what was expected of her and this certainly isn't expected behavior for a lady of her breeding. It doesn't matter to Miles. He wants to take her out and spend time openly with her. And of course as she succumbs to his wishes over time, people begin to talk. This angers Evelyn and she begins to blame Miles. It also angers her a great deal when he spends time on his writing, on his country work and that he needs to spend a certain amount of time with people of like mind with himself. She doesn't understand his needs nor does he understand hers. And so they squabble, fuss & argue. Then come together for wonderfully romantic make-ups but then it all goes to pot again.
It took me a bit to get my head wrapped around all of the characters for there are quite a few. Evelyn still spends a great deal of time with her in-laws even though her husband has been dead, killed in the war, for quite some time. So there are all of them to get to know plus Miles' politically thinking friends.
I liked this book a great deal. I cared about most all of the characters, even the slackers and I fully intend to give it a reread sooner rather than later for I feel I didn't give it my full attention, or that I missed some subtle nuances. I will also say that while reading the last portion of the book, one is unable to set the book aside. This part of the book is a grueling read but a necessary and actually beautiful part of the story.
I rated Family History 4 out of 5 stars and think if I had been able to read it without interruption I would have rated it even higher. ( )
3 vote rainpebble | Apr 6, 2013 |
Family History is the story of a middle-aged woman’s relationship with a much younger man. Evelyn Jarrold is the mother of a teenage son, and although widowed, is still very much connected to her husband’s aristocratic family. She strikes up a relationship with Miles Vane-Merrick, an up-and-coming politician and writer 15 years her junior. The novel is set in the interwar years; a few characters from The Edwardians play a smaller role in this book (Viola and Leonard Anquetil, and Lady Roehampton).

It’s a flawed relationship, which the reader immediately senses isn’t going to turn out well. I loved how Vita Sackville-West depicts the relationship between Miles and Evelyn and the differences between them. Evelyn has a pretty conservative view of how relationships should be, and she’s never been in love before, so she turns out to be jealous, possessive, and domineering—exactly the wrong kind of woman for a man like Miles, who values independence and freedom above everything. Either way, both of them have very strong personalities. The problems are compounded by the fact that society certainly wouldn’t approve of their relationship, if they were ever open about it, for reasons of the age difference and social status.

You would think that, with the differences and problems between them in age and temperament, they wouldn’t be compatible, but Vita Sackville-West makes her reader understand why they’re attracted to each other. It’s inevitable that the relationship will end, but how will everyone fare, eventually? Sackville-West’s treatment of age is somewhat odd; Miles seems very middle-aged for a man in his twenties, and Dan, Evelyn’s seventeen-year-old son, seems much, much younger than his age. However, I love Vita Sackville-West’s descriptions of the English upper classes; she skewered her peers in The Edwardians and to a lesser extent in Family History.

I was a little confused by Vita Sackville-West’s use of the words “that” and thatt,” until I went back and read the Introduction to the VMC edition. “She attempts in this novel to introduce a spelling reform, writing ‘that’ as ‘thatt’ when it is used as a pronoun, to distinguish it from its other grammatical functions, as in, for example, ‘I fear that thatt will irritate my readers.’” ( )
2 vote Kasthu | Jan 27, 2012 |
The author decided to show the difference between that and that by spelling one of them thatt; in her foreword she says this may irritate some readers and she is correct. There is a love affair between a beautiful, elegant older woman and an up-and-coming younger man and her relationships with the extended family of her late husband and with her son all, perhaps, in service of showing what life was like for certain classes in England at that time. ( )
  raizel | Jul 21, 2011 |
This is the story of a doomed love affair between Evelyn Jarrold and Miles Vane-Merrick. One that is as all consuming and destructive as that of Heathcliff and Catherine's, with no less tragic an ending. But it also a portrait of a country in transition. Evelyn, fifteen years older that Miles represents the values of Victorian England, whilst Miles represents the energetic forces of change and radicalism.

I found it an uncomfortable novel to read; Vita Sackille-West does not spare her characters. However, their vengeful, spiteful behaviour towards each other does little to detract from the compelling narrative. If you have ever been bedridden with illness or cared for someone who has, the last pages of the novel will be an excruciating ordeal. ( )
4 vote Louise_SDY | Jan 25, 2008 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vita Sackville-Westprimary authorall editionscalculated
Glendinning, VictoriaIntroductionmain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glendinning, VictoriaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"M-m-m, my dear," said old Mr Jarrold, taking his daughter-in-law for the hundred-and-twentieth time round his Museum, "thatt's the first bit of coal brought up from the pits at Orlestone. Look at it. Thatt's what sent Dan to Eton. Thatt's what made a gentleman of Dan. A dirty lump, I daresay, but worth more than all those cowrie-shells I brought back from Java. M-m-m."
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"For God's sake, leave me alone. Keep your friends, and leave me to mine! I'm too old for you, I belong to a different generation, I belong to the Jarrolds!"

Old Mr. Jarrold is proud of the coal which has made his fortune; he is also proud of his daughter-in-law Evelyn, who has kept close to the heels of the family since her husband's death in the First World War, a caring mother to her son, Dan. At thirty-nine Evelyn is a woman of irreproachable conduct who parties and plays cards with the best of society. Then she meets Miles Vane-Merrick, a rising Labour politician, fifteen years her junior. Theirs is a love affair between people of different temperaments and different eras, for Evelyn knows only the social mores of her own circle and with Miles these securities dissolve. In this finely balanced novel, first published in 1932, the uncertainties of one relationship mirror the wider uncertainties of the 1930's, producing an elegant portrait of a country on the brink of change.
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