Knole House in Sevenoaks is arguably Britain’s greatest private house. Home to the same family for thirteen generations, Robert Sackville-West, the author of The Disinherited is himself the latest line of this famous family to inhabit a house that at one time reputedly had 365 rooms and in whose commodious surroundings kings and queens would happily lay their heads.
The house itself, replete with its own lake, has featured in films such as The Other Boelyn Girl, Sherlock Holmes and Pirates of the Carribean. Meanwhile, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is based upon the author’s relationship with Vita, the author’s grandmother and probably most famous of all the Sackville-Wests.
The Disinherited though is not a history of Knole or its aristocratic owners. It’s a tale of the ‘other’ Sackville-Wests, the illegitimate side of the family whose roots lay in the back street slums of nineteenth century Malaga. For this was the birthplace of Pepita, mother to the five children of Lionel Sackville-West.
As the fifth son of Lord Sackville, despite his family’s lofty position, Lionel, born in 1827, faced an uncertain future. The laws of succession dictated that the young man would, to a large extent, have to make his own way in the world. That would mean finding a job. And for someone in Lionel’s position that would inevitably mean the diplomat service. Thus, for much of his life Lionel would find himself posted to various British legations round the world from the US to Germany and Argentina.
While living in Berlin he met and fell in love with Josefa de la Oliva aka ‘Pepita,’ at that time a much sought-after performer of Spanish dance. Indeed, the girl from Malaga’s back streets had found fame and fortune. The English aristocrat was smitten. Lionel and Pepita’s relationship would span several decades as well as continents, but would never be officially recognised in law. The feckless Lionel preferred to set his mistress and young family up in a villa in France while he went off to his latest posting.
And so, the couple never married. However, it appears to have been a situation that suited both parties. Once, a young Pepita had married a dancer, but the union had lasted only months. Crucially, they had never divorced. In the pages of The Disinherited the reader is drawn into a family tragedy that ensued as a direct result of these and other youthful indiscretions.
With the demise of each of his brothers one after another, in 1888 Lionel became Lord Sackville, improbable as it might once have seemed. It would not be long until his heirs began to jockey for position. There was just one problem, an insurmountable problem at that: all five children were illegitimate, unacknowledged by society and more importantly in the eyes of the law.
When eldest child Victoria married her first cousin thereby securing the role of mistress of Knole House, it signalled the start of a lifelong alienation from her brothers and sisters. Lionel could never have believed that one day his family would tear itself apart in the quest to assume control of the family pile and the Sackville-West legacy, but that’s exactly what did happen. Pepita, long since, dead would have been appalled.
Robert Sackville-West relates a vivid story of sibling rivalries. What unfolds is a tragic tale of jealousy and injustice. As a consequence of their uncertain legal status Victoria’s (Lady Sackville) brothers and sisters spent the rest of their days petitioning their wealthy sister for funds. Tensions culminated when the siblings united in a doomed attempt to wrest control of the estates from Victoria.
A family wrought apart, The Disinherited truly is a tragic tale which ended in estrangement, bitterness and even suicide. Whether Malaga, Washington, Berlin or Sevenoaks it’s a story told vividly and engagingly. Thanks to access to personal letters sent between the siblings, it’s a tale that has a fair amount of emotional impact as the reader bears witness to the power that money and titles can command over the human species, families too. As such it’s a book well worth delving into.