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Review: Family History, by Vita Sackville-West


Pages: 315
Original date of publication: 1932
My edition: 1986 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: I like Vita Sackville-West’s books
How I acquired my copy: The Last Word bookshop, Philadelphia, August 2011


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.’”

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