This month, we are introducing our first book review in collaboration with the publisher Vintage! A biography, a history, a series of myths - whatever you’d like to call it, A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson interweaves the stories of generations of incredible women that made the author who she is today.
In Nicolson’s words, ‘There must be a reason why the word “daughterhood” has no counterpart in sons’. In this book, she asks - what is the thread that ties generations of women - of daughters - together? Does that thread necessarily bring them closer to each other for the better, or can it ensnare women in a claustrophobic version of daughterhood? She asks - first and foremost - can someone’s family history help others navigate their own relationships?
And how better to do this than by retracing the steps of her own female ancestry? A House Full of Daughters guides us through the lives of a series of incredible women - whether it’s Nicolson’s great-great grandmother, the famous Spanish flamenco dancer Pepita, her great-grandmother, the irresistible Victoria, or her grandmother, the eccentric writer Vita Sackville-West - among many others.
Though these women are incredible examples of female strength and, in many ways, success within patriarchal settings (Nicolson often talks of the ‘patriarchal bargains’ that they had to make), they are by no means two-dimensional. Where there was strength, there was isolation, manipulation and secrets.
Nicolson’s in-depth research into the lives of her ancestors was obtained by going through endless publications found in the London Library and published histories and memoirs, but also unpublished letters, photographs and stories found at Knole House and Sissinghurst Castle, where her ancestors lived. To me, this, along with the memories conveyed to her by living family members, is what must have allowed her to truly capture these women’s struggles and flaws in their relationships, as well as their virtues and happy moments in their lives. This account is wonderfully balanced and as objective as an account about one's family can be.
Indeed, the places that led Nicolson to explore her lineage are characters within themselves. They are the thread that links these women; whether it’s the Malaga slums, Villa Pepa in Arcachon, France, or the two Sackville-West estates, the attachment to (but also disenchantment with) place is key in this book.
This was an incredibly powerful and moving read. Knowing Juliet Nicolson’s reluctance to write this book, knowing how heartbreaking it was for her to decipher secret relationships within her family, knowing about her own struggles with alcoholism and loneliness, moments in her life she was once ashamed of - makes this book all the more impactful.
But, emotional and tragic as parts of this account are, this book is not a shameful, sad or pessimistic read. By revealing the secrets and patterns of secrets that have lasted throughout 7 generations (but also the moments of love and affection), Nicolson shows how manipulation and secrets can harm families - whether those secrets are hiding illegitimate daughters (Pepita), homosexuality (Vita) or a loveless marriage (Nicolson’s parents, Nigel and Philippa).
A House Full of Daughters is marked as a biography; every chapter is named after a different woman; it’s a chronological retelling of Nicolson’s ancestry. But towards the end we see an autobiographical take on the book as Nicolson recounts how these women have affected her life. Without the writer and her pen, we would not know about the 7 generations that made her who she is. And so, Juliet Nicolson, thank you for the courage it took to write this beautiful book.
Have you read A House Full of Daughters? Are you a Juliet Nicolson fan? What should we review next? We are always eager to hear your thoughts - tag #CSCVintage to join the conversation, and find out more about our collaboration with Vintage here.
You can find out more about A House Full of Daughters here.