In 1970 Michael Holroyd, seeing Auguste Rodin’s 1905 bust of Eve Fairfax in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was profoundly moved by her beauty. But Holroyd had already embarked on his brilliant career as the historian of the biographer Lytton Strachey, the painter Augustus John and the playwright Bernard Shaw, and had no leisure for looking into the mystery of Eve Fairfax.

Thirty years on, however, her visage still haunting him, he got round to discovering who she was. Some years prior to sitting for Rodin, she had been engaged to Baron Grimthorpe, who, having jilted her, went on to father a child with Alice Keppel, later mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. The child, Violet, achieved notoriety first, during and after World War I, as the same-sex lover of the writer Vita Sackville-West — their scandalous affaire was mirrored in Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando” (1928) — and then, starting in the 1930s, as a novelist and memoirist in her own right.

There are many turns and twists in Holroyd’s intriguing “Book of Secrets,” which touches on many “lesser lives,” past and present, but primarily those of Eve and Violet. Eve Fairfax was born in 1872 to a Yorkshire family that was well-connected but had little money. Which is why, after the debacle with Grimthorpe, she was compelled to sell her marble Rodin to a gallery in Johannesburg. (There are three other busts of her by Rodin, including the bronze at the Victoria and Albert.) For a while, simply by dint of her beauty, she was eminently marriageable, but on very stringent terms: “When the Duke of Grafton proposed to her hoping she would accept him, not for his title or money, but simply for himself, she replied ‘Rather a tall order’ and brusquely turned him down.”

If she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have love, she would have popularity, traveling from castle to hall carrying an album of autographs and scribblings of the rich and famous — “a book of secrets” that Holroyd pores over, communing with the spirit of its owner, who didn’t die till 1978, aged 106. However dolorous her last decades, she could defiantly say, “I shall be immortal in art galleries all over the world after my friends are dead.”

The life that dominates the second half of Holroyd’s book belonged to Violet Keppel Trefusis. Her affair with Vita — told from the latter’s perspective in her son Nigel Nicolson’s “Portrait of a Marriage” (1973) — took place from 1918 to 1921. Friends from girlhood, Violet and Vita became sexually intimate as they approached the crises of conventional courtship and marriage. Both were attracted to other women, but while Violet was strictly lesbian and exclusive, Vita was bisexual and promiscuous.

‘A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers’ by Michael Holroyd (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Mainly to make her lover jealous, and to please her own mother, Violet married a decorated war hero, Denys Trefusis. Her plan was to have a mere house-sharing companionship, while she carried on with Vita. Poor Trefusis, who had never heard of lesbianism, was taken aback. Vita’s husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, was less naive but not firm enough to check his wife — and anyway was busy amusing himself, as he said, with “a funny new friend” of his own sex, “a dressmaker with a large shop in the Rue Royale.” All this, if you please, while busy arguing (vainly) for rational policies at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I.

We know that public people have private lives, but we may well wonder, in these pages, why Holroyd is asking us to peep at these erotic shenanigans. A remark by a character in one of Violet’s later novels seems apt: “They know how to write” — Vita, Violet and of course Virginia Woolf — “but no one has taught them how to live.”

Holroyd takes the long view at the close. The fact of “illegitimacy,” which he stresses in his subtitle, is “mercifully” losing its importance, as is, he adds, the word “unacceptable” — presumably including the paternal absenteeism the subtitle also refers to. From the vantage of eternity, all values are leveled, and the spirits of the dead gather for explanations, a moment of silence, and finally mirth. “So everything will be understood and what had been grief, and the avenging of grief, will at last be transmuted into the comedy of life.”

That’s a benign farewell, but appropriate only to comedy, where conflicts have to do with sex and social climbing. Tragedy is something else, and requires more morally or politically significant action than Holroyd’s people commonly engaged in. For tragic figures there’s little laughter, and usually no forgiveness.

Thomas L. Jeffers is the author of “Norman Podhoretz: A Biography,” published last year.


Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

By Michael Holroyd

Farrar Straus Giroux. 258 pp. $26