Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter

by Diana Southami (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997)

Review by Cathleen Myers

This double biography is a fascinating study in contrasts. Hon. Mrs. George Keppel ("Alice") was the last and most glamorous of the mistresses of Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. One of the secrets of her success was her skillful playing of the Rules of the Game: She was not only a charming mistress to prince and king but an absolute master of the art of discretion and of making the RIGHT friends (ranging from her lover’s wife - the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, to bank managers and financiers) and managed to preserve both her marriage to handsome but clueless Colonel Hon. George Keppel and her reputation. The public adored and admired her and she never ended up on the cover of a tabloid - though such publications flourished back then. On the contrary, Mrs. Keppel remained a financially and socially successful woman for the rest of her life.

Not so her lovely, talented but rebellious daughter Violet ("Daisy"), who wanted no part of her famous mother’s "dishonest" lifestyle, though she envied its romance. At the age of 10 Violet met Vita Sackville-West, destined to become a famous novelist and model for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and their childhood friendship eventually developed into "the love that dare not speak its name" - even after Vita had married Harold Nicholson and Violet had allowed herself to be trapped into an arranged marriage with a nice young war hero, Dennis Trefusis

Violet’s tragedy is that she simply wanted to live in an honest and open monogamous relationship with Vita - something that would have been social suicide for both of them. Vita, on the other hand, agreed with Mrs. Keppel about the necessity of discretion and had no intention of destroying either her marriage or her social position by "eloping" with another woman. Violet’s marriage ended in disaster and quasi-exile. Vita, on the other hand, found apparent happiness in her own open marriage with Harold (who was also gay and reasonably sympathetic to his wife’s needs), their children and home and her writing. Vita had learned the Mrs. Keppel secret of success: "Discretion above all!" and retained her social position in spite of numerous affairs with other women.

The problem with this eminently readable and well-researched book is that author Southami has an ax to grind and her sympathy for Violet as a Lesbian/feminist martyr leads her to accept everything Violet says at face value. Ms. Southami also seems to lack a real understanding of Edwardian Society and is, as a result, dreadfully unfair to Mrs. Keppel, who was hardly unique in handing her daughter over to nannies and governesses. And to assume that Mrs. Keppel couldn’t have possibly loved "an aging overweight womanizer" like Bertie is hardly going to win Ms. Southami converts among American feminists. (Besides, it’s hard not to like a King who gives his mistress presents like "a brooch set with precious stones, the initials spelling DEAREST.").

Ms. Southami’s book has a wealth of anecdote - much of it by Violet herself - but forgets at times that Violet was herself a novelist with a vivid imagination. The author accepts Violet’s fanciful stories of her childhood and youth at face value, no matter how preposterous. The story about the time Violet was sent to her room for asking her mother, in the King’s presence, why they call grandpapa ‘Majesty’ is almost certainly apocryphal!

By a strange coincidence, Mrs. Keppel’s great grand daughter is Camilla Parker-Bowles, long-time lover of Prince Charles - whose ill-fated marriage Alice would not have approved of. "We managed things better in my day," she once said of that other Royal casualty - King Edward VIII’s abdication in order to marry ‘the woman he loved.’

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