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January 5, 2011

Robert Sackville-West

By Spear's

My book is the story of a house with (allegedly) 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards that has been inhabited continuously over the past 400 years by thirteen generations of my family

WHEN MY RECENT book, Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles, was shortlisted for the Spear’s Book Awards 2010, I had no expectation of winning — principally because the previous year’s winner, Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, by my cousin Adam Nicolson, was about… another stately home and garden in Kent, created by… another Sackville-West. Can’t these people ever stop writing about themselves, one reviewer in The Independent suggested?

My book is the story of a house with (allegedly) 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards that has been inhabited continuously over the past 400 years by thirteen generations of my family: a family described by Vita Sackville-West as ‘a race too prodigal, too amorous, too weak, too indolent and too melancholy; in short a rotten lot, and nearly all stark staring mad’. Particularly since publication, my life has been that of a writer — a completely new experience for me — with all the attendant anxieties. Would anyone read the book? And if so, would they like it? Would it be savaged by real historians? And what would the family reaction be?
MY MIDDLE CHILD, Arthur, complained on reading the first page that it ‘doesn’t make any sense at all’, while seven-year-old Edie, her lips moving as she struggled silently to make out the words, claimed loyally that it did. I feared that other members of my extended family might be even more sensitive, for in an inheritance historically determined by male primogeniture, there has only been one direct father-to-son succession over the past 200 years, and over the course of eight generations.

Mine was an uncle-nephew succession, bypassing five girl cousins. What would their reaction be — and that of my own siblings? Would the book stir up old resentments? With one largely unwitting exception — an interview in the Daily Mail, headlined ‘From the manor torn’, in which a cousin revealed, as ‘a single tear ran down her cheek’, how ‘in an echo of Downton Abbey, her inheritance was cruelly snatched away’ — it was greeted with great generosity by all of them.
OVER THE PAST few months, I have given a series of talks on the book, at a range of venues, from the Biggin Hill branch of the Women’s Institute to literary festivals across the country, where my (generally elderly) fans settle down at 2.30pm for a post-prandial snooze, to the background drone of my description of life in a stately home. They come suddenly awake at the end to ask questions, from the intensely practical ‘who does all the hoovering?’ to the more metaphysical ‘what does it mean to you to live in a place so steeped in beauty and history?’

I have also discovered some of the solitary pleasures and pathetic gratifications of the writer: Googling myself compulsively, monitoring my Amazon sales rating and working out all manner of ways of coming out on top. If you’re thinking of buying it, however, please make sure not to confuse my Inheritance with two other recent books of the same title, a fine novel by Nicholas Shakespeare and a novel by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.
ALL THIS SELF-OBSESSION has distracted me slightly from my other, more collaborative commitments: as a director of a company I founded 25 years ago, which creates illustrated non-fiction books for an international market; and as executive chairman of Knole Estates, the property and investment company that runs the Sackville family’s interests at Knole. One of the most interesting aspects of this job is our relationship with the National Trust.

‘How do you get on with the National Trust?’ I often get asked in a concerned, conspiratorial tone that seeks out and anticipates the answer ‘terribly badly’. My answer, as I explain how well we have begun to get on, can come as a disappointment.

The relationship between the resident family and the National Trust, as in all its houses, is potentially tricky. Knole is a hybrid, where landlord and tenant live side by side. The National Trust owns the house itself, the garden and a small portion of the park. The family has 140 years of a lease left on large areas of the house and owns 90 per cent of the park, much of the collection in the show rooms and all the collection in the private rooms. If the two parties fell out, it would be a disaster for the house and the collection.

Instead, both parties have invested in a shared vision. At the moment, just fifteen or so of Knole’s legendary 365 rooms are open to visitors, plus a couple of courtyards and staircases. If more of the house is accessible, Knole will become easier to understand and appreciate.
HOWEVER, THE HOUSE is undergoing something of an identity crisis, as it presents itself to the world in many different guises. It has featured as the Palace of Westminster (in The Other Boleyn Girl) and as an Edinburgh market place (in Burke and Hare). Last week one courtyard became a Bavarian castle in Sherlock Holmes 2; and next week the road to the tea rooms will be transformed into the execution dock at the Tower of London for Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

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As I write, the Stone Court has been given a light dusting of fake snow to give it the appearance of a prison entrance in winter, for Hysteria, a rom-com starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. My children keep asking me what the film’s about — apparently it tells the story of the invention in Victorian times of the vibrator. I’m afraid that I’ve been a bit evasive, but I’ve decided that next time they ask I’ll be referring them for answers to the National Trust’s ‘learning team’ and their child-friendly mascot, Trusty the Hedgehog. 

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