Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
“O darling, aren’t you glad you aren’t me?” wrote Violet Trefusis to her pined-for lover, Vita Sackville-West, in the summer of 1921. “It really is something to be thankful for.” On the face of it, Trefusis—née Keppel—didn’t deserve anyone’s pity. At twenty-seven, she was brilliant, beautiful, and privileged beyond compare. Both her grandfathers had titles: an earl on one side and a baronet on the other. She had grown up in various grand homes with frequent foreign trips, spoke French and Italian fluently, and planned to be a novelist. Influenced by Oscar Wilde and Christina Rossetti, she was an aesthete whose god was Beauty. “If ever I could make others feel the universe of blinding beauty that I almost see at times,” she wrote, “I should not have lived in vain.”
The only black mark on Trefusis’s illustrious background was the question mark over her father’s identity. As was then customary among the upper classes, her parents had an open relationship. All through Trefusis’s childhood her mother, Alice Keppel, was the mistress of Edward VII, whom the young Violet knew as Kingy. But he wasn’t her father: her birth predated the relationship, a fact that didn’t stop Trefusis dropping hints about her royal lineage. Nor was Alice’s complaisant husband, the Honorable George Keppel, the father. The likeliest contender was William Beckett, a banker and Conservative MP whose nose Trefusis apparently had. “Who was my father? A faun undoubtedly!” she joked to Sackville-West. “A faun who contracted a mésalliance with a witch.”