Robert Sackville-West’s “The Disinherited” | Bloomsbury | A Review by Ginnie Singh

Illegitimacy, baby-farming and wet nursing are not lately coined terms or blurred activities. Though kept in veil, these are the rotten branches of that embellished society which cherishes to flaunt the leaves of morality, protocol, and etiquette. Breathing simultaneously with the ‘socially carved principles and standards’, these activities are criticized often for carrying wrong perception and presenting cheap conclusion, thus compelled to bear the stigma of dishonor and disgrace. “The Disinherited: A Story of Family, Love, and Betrayal” by Robert Sackville- West lock the gossips, secrets, shocking revelations, stains and struggles of ‘Nobody’s children’, or to say the five misbegotten forced to live the lives of seclusion, rivalry, and disappointment.

“For hundreds of years, Knole has pulled generations of Sackvilles in and then pushed them away with an energy and character far more intense than that of any of the individuals who have lived there. This power was felt particularly by those members of the family who never had a hope of inheriting- the daughters, the younger sons, the widows. But what about the bastards, the doubly disinherited?.”

Knole, and the other broadly expanded ancestral abodes, witnessed the strife that occurred between the two branches of Sackvilles family – legitimates and the illegitimates. Lionel’s, the second Lord Sackville and a spendthrift, involvement with Pepita, a Spanish dancer, flared up the disputes which lashed the bastard branch of “illegitimate” Sackvilles intensely, making them to exist under the perpetual shadow of abuses, isolations, and queer gazes: Max, Victoria, Flora,  Amalia, and Henry (the illegitimates). Neither living peacefully nor dying satisfyingly, “The Disinherited” describes the journey of these siblings who were the potential source of embarrassment to the Sackville family. The work holds ‘a number of family riddles’, comments, witnesses, letters, and hatred accumulated through generations, exposing the heart of an English dynasty.

With the publication of ‘Pepita’ by Vita Sackville West, a grand-daughter of Pepita,(as mentioned in “The Disinherited” initially), many concealed and tangled secrets come to the core which apparently aided Robert Sackville- West, an existing heir brought up in the more conventional side of the family, to shape up his second work on the family legacy- “The Disinherited”. Keeping the genre and the theme aside, this resolute and bare face writer also captured his society in different poses, making even a trivial matter to reflect its new side.  A slightest knowledge about the structure and working of Victorian aristocracy will make reader approve the facts which the novel whispers. Pepita or Dona Josefa Dominga Duran, an Andalusian dancer, sweats really hard to turn the card of fortune for her children born outside of wedlock. At times it is easy for aristocrats to continue their extra-marital affairs and also to curtain their lustful appetites by braiding tales of convincing lies and making excuses for ‘genuine love dying an unfortunate death’ just to keep their shoulders untouched by the hands of  shame and infamy. Despite knowing her in and out, Lionel’s attachment with Pepita and her ‘unlicensed’ children ignited suspicions which eventually pulled the entire Sackville family in court and scandals. Throughout her life Pepita toiled to make herself capable of Lionel’s society but like a square peg in a round whole, was always brushed aside as an ‘unfit’ match for Lionel – a sweetheart good in cot but not in company. Apart from her profession and low-birth, her connection with Antonio Gabriel de la Oliva, the supposed husband of Pepita, too was the reason why Lionel’s finger always accused Pepita of infidelity.

As goes the old saying, “The sins of parents are to be laid upon the children”. The end of these illicit siblings was not a normal one. Apparently they had to pass through much trials and errors before meeting the death. Starting from their childhood, the only thing they got without claiming was negligence. Excluded from society, cut off from the company of other families and friends, and from the consolations of the church, Pepita and her children lives were seasoned most of the time with controversy and fuss. The demise of their mother, when the family was spending their days at Villa Pepa, would have made their survival more miserable had not the generosity of Lord Sackville (who tried to rescue Pepita by making her his mistress) saved them from falling into the sewer of anonymity.

Next in the row and quite fatal to their luck were the strokes of rivalry and jealousy, maiming the kindred half and destroying their relationship fully. It is hard not to sympathize with the siblings frightened internally by the idea of getting evaporated completely from the Sackville’s historical records. Stepping into the next phase and out from the ‘shelter’ designed by their Papa (after the demise of Pepita, the Beons were allotted with the task of raising them) Victoria played safe and carved out a permanent niche for herself by remaining loyal to Lord Sackville and slowly going against Henry, Flora, and Amalia.  Max’s on and off appearance and his threats were nothing in front of the struggle Henry passed through to inherit Knole. Touching was the way he shot himself death on realizing that he lost  even the last hope of inheriting it and wearing the title ‘Sackville West’ with his name.

The air of necessity removed the shimmering masks of Sackvilles. The greed of Lionel harvested misfortunes for his lineage. It engulfed both the legitimate and the illegitimate, though the illegitimates were to suffer more. Along with his own debts and extravagance, Lionel kept on providing Max and Henry allowances to improve their standard of living; to Flora and Amalia, the support of their father was everything. The life enjoyed at Knole was like a drug to them and manipulative Victoria’s desire for gold estranged her from her siblings, her husband, from her daughter to a little extent, and slowly from her Knole. Surprisingly, Henry’s claim over his father’s property, and eventually the plan to defame Lionel went in vain, leaving him in poverty and forcing to commit suicide.

The book’s gripping reality, unhappy thoughts, stains, and rivalry, intentionally ends on a melancholic note. “The Disinherited” surely makes readers understand that wealthy does not assure happiness.  In fact Robert Sackville- West’s love and deep understanding for the misbegotten, his hard work and concern to bring those ‘forgotten’ and ‘unfathered ones’ on the surface and washing away the old rumors and anonymity which surrounded them formerly, prove that the feudal way of judging life existed no more and however harsh the reality is, it cannot remain hidden for long. The novel inserts shattered hope and tough labor of the siblings buried at last with the title “Sackville”.


Ginnie Singh (Columnist, Reviews) is a scholar from Dhanbad, Jharkhand with her major in English Language and Literature.

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