'A Book of Secrets': That's amore

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REVIEW

A BOOK OF SECRETS: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, by Michael Holroyd. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pp., $26.

Michael Holroyd is known for remarkable biographies of figures like Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, expertly written doorstops that helped set a new standard for literary biography. So it's curious that his self-proclaimed swan song, "A Book of Secrets," is a wisp of a book. As he notes in the preface, "Secrets" is best read as the end of a line Holroyd started with his autobiographical works "Basil Street Blues" and "Mosaic," books that chart his rocky childhood, education as a biographer and formative love affairs from his past.

Love affairs are also the crux of "Secrets," which is structured around two trips Holroyd made to the Villa Cimbrone, a house high in the hills of Ravello, Italy, "which answers the need for make-believe in all our lives." Biographers are supposed to seek the truth about lives. What is the British Holroyd doing mucking about Italian villas that manufacture make-believe?

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The answer is again wrapped up in a love affair, one between Holroyd and this place. Just as the British seem to have a particular knack for biography, they are also prone to fall in love with property, be it the staid English country house you marry or the wild Italian mistress who fuels the romantic imagination. Holroyd falls hard for the Villa Cimbrone and spills her "Secrets" in his book.

In the first half, the characters include the hapless British MP Ernest Denison and his lover, Eve Fairfax, who posed for and befriended Auguste Rodin. Fairfax kept her own book of secrets -- a combination scrapbook, diary and collection of quotations jotted down by Eve and her large circle of friends, among them Somerset Maugham, John Betjeman, Ellen Terry and various minor royals and celebrities.

"While I slowly turn its stiff and crackling pages I feel I am about to come across something unexpected and significant," Holroyd writes. "I trawl through many famous names that have signed up to the statement that [Fairfax] 'will never be forgotten by . . .' Yet she makes no appearance in their biographies and autobiographies." Fairfax appears here, though; because of her connection to the villa, and thanks to Holroyd, she is now one of the fortunates whose story has been told.

"Secrets" really takes off in the second half, when Holroyd focuses on Violet Trefusis, lover of Vita Sackville-West and the supposed inspiration for Virginia Woolf's "Orlando." (A family tree explains the connection to Denison and Villa Cimbrone: Trefusis' mother was the illegitimate daughter of Denison's father.) The story of Trefusis and Sackville-West's affair -- both are married to men but keep running off together -- is so passionate and unruly that in a moment of frustration Holroyd writes, "At this point, reader, I throw up my hands in despair at any of these characters behaving with proper consideration for their biographers." When even a veteran like Holroyd throws up his hands you know you are in for a corker, and Trefusis' life delivers.

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