Monday, 14 March 2011

Meeting Henrietta Garnett at the Albion Beatnik

Interior with the Artist's Daughter c.1935-6
Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

When I was 21, I lived on the seedy edge of Bloomsbury – and it was probably not surprising that I became interested in the Bloomsbury Group.  I have always been susceptible to what Anne Fadiman calls You-Are-There-Reading:  “the practice of reading books in the places they describe.”  That year, I was studying Literature between the Wars – and it became, and remains, one of my favourite cultural and literary eras.  I read George Orwell and D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot and Yeats; but most importantly, I read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels for the first time. My best friend lived in a tiny room just down the hall from mine, and we spent almost all of our time reading, writing and discussing books.  Living, in other words, what we liked to think of as “the life of the mind.”  Michelle had the famous picture of Virginia Woolf, as a young girl, on her wall, and I spent many hours contemplating that pure profile.

Two decades later, I am a frequent visitor to Bloomsbury – sometimes to the British Museum, but mostly to the bookshops. Persephone, on Lamb’s Conduit Street, is a frequent destination; and several years ago, I found a card there which features Vanessa Bell’s Interior with the Artist’s Daughter. It is a hugely appealing image to me, perhaps because it captures my ideal landscape: to be reading a book, whilst surrounded by books and the other domestic comforts. The painting has a richness to it, and there is a wealth of detail in it, but there is also something balanced and quiet in the image that speaks to me. I’m not a particular aficionado of Vanessa Bell’s work, but I would very much like to own this painting . . . and maybe more so to dwell in it.

One of the particular pleasures of blogging is serendipity. The connective nature of the Internet is such that a writer can send out tentacles of interest, words and images, and then they can be picked up by like-minded people. Independent bookstores are a particular interest of mine, as anyone who regularly visits this blog will know, and a couple of years ago I wrote about Albion Beatnik in Oxford. From time to time, someone will Google that name and end up visiting my blog. A few weeks ago, a very kind woman wrote to me and asked if I would like to come to Albion Beatnik for a talk to be given by Henrietta Garnett – the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. Would I? Would I just!

As I was waiting for the talk to begin, I struck up a conversation with a young man called Simon. We spoke about books, of course, and it didn’t take long for me to realise that I had visited his blog, Stuck in a Book, several times. I found him by Googling Persephone/Oxford Book Club; like me, he is interested in women’s writing from the 20th century – particularly the period between and just after the wars. Like me, he began blogging in order to find the bookish companions that he lacked in his “real” life. This is “small world” stuff of the very best kind.

It was hardly a surprise, then, when Henrietta Garnett began her talk by praising the charms of that endangered thing: the independent bookstore. It is no secret that bookstores are finding it harder than ever to survive -- “in these barbaric days,” as Henrietta describes them -- but in some senses that has always been the case . . . just as the future has always looked bleak and frightening to every generation. Henrietta’s own father had a bookshop in the 1920s, and she admitted that his advice was to “never be a bookseller.” But there are people in the world with ink running in their veins, which is one way Henrietta described her own family, and I suppose those people just can’t help it. Running a bookstore might not be a financially sensible thing to do, but there will always be people compelled to do it. (And I, as much as possible, endeavour to help them stay in business.)

Unlike most literary talks, this one seemed to exist merely for the pleasure of bringing people together in this splendid little shop. Most atypically, there was no prominent display of the speaker’s latest book to sell . . . and then be signed. Dennis, the bookstore’s owner, did let me buy a few books, though – and I came away with a biography of Frances Partridge (Henrietta’s mother-in-law), a journal collection of Partridge’s from World War II, and a beautiful book called The London Scene, which contained six essays on “London Life” by Virginia Woolf. Henrietta Garnett generously signed all of these for me, and I particularly appreciate her inscription of the Woolf essays. On the flyleaf there is a quotation from Mrs. Dalloway which reads:

“I love walking in London,” said Mrs. Dalloway,
“Really it’s better than walking in the country.”

Henrietta then wrote: Well; I suspect so in Owlight Twilight & any other night and So might V.W. have thought about Kitty Lushington . . .

How wonderfully elliptical! What riches to decode there, although it didn’t take me long to discover that Kitty Lushington was the real-life inspiration for the Clarissa Dalloway character.

One of the old-fashioned touches of Albion Beatnik is that they still wrap their books in plain paper. My little stack was covered in a dark William Morris green paper, and then decorated by a label that featured the famous words of Jack Kerouac: The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved . . . and on and on. How appropriate, I thought. For Henrietta Garnett, and that huge tribe of interconnected and interrelated people who are her family, are surely those sorts of people: the ones who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing.”

When Henrietta came out to her stage, she did a little dance for us – and it seemed both theatrical and natural at the same time. She was very slender, with straight dark hair and the fine features that are always described as “carved” in certain writing.

She seemed a bit shy, but more than capable of putting impertinence in its place – much like her Aunt Virginia, I thought.

Henrietta Garnett
who would pose "for sixpence"
for Vanessa Bell, her grandmother

She spoke – rather elliptically here, too – of many of the members of her famous family. She described her “spindly Strachey relations” – with their “brittle bones,” and “high-pitched voices” -- as living in a “spindly house in Gordon Square.” Best of all, she referred to their propensity for asking “corkscrew questions” which showed that they were still interested in the “business of living.”

There was a great sense of being from another age, although Henrietta actually came of age during the 1960s. She mentioned that her father had been born in 1892, the late Victorian era, and that she had grown up in a huge cold house in Huntingdon, outside of Cambridge. It was described by someone as “nobly grammatical in a Puritan landscape.” In the winter, the windows froze from the inside. (I later asked her what she had slept in as a child in the that frigid bedroom, because I am always interested in that sort of detail. She just replied “naked,” with a raised and dismissive eyebrow. Do you suppose she was teasing?) Despite these discomforts, though, she described a childhood home filled beautiful furniture and paintings, and lots of books, and flowing wine and homemade cider. There was a wind-up gramophone, and the dance music of the 1920s was often played. Maybe it’s fanciful of me, but she had a look of the 1920s flapper to me. Henrietta claimed to have never been educated, much, except from the extensive library belonging to her father. I immediately thought of Jane Austen and the Mitford girls, who were also educated predominately from a home library – and being in constant company with good thinkers and talkers.

One of my favourite descriptions from Henrietta’s talk was of the intellectual atmosphere at Charleston – the home of Vanessa and Clive Bell and Duncan Grant, and of course her own mother Angelica. She spoke of “delicious dinners,” “the smell of toast and turpentine,” and the quality of conversation which swooped and soared from subject to subject, without any inhibition whatsoever.” She spoke of the great fun, always, and lots of “cackling” -- how absurdity was never far from the surface, no matter how serious the speaker or the subject.

At a small supper, with just the six of us, she invited us to “ask her something intimate” – but her tone seemed provocative more than sincere, and I suppose we were all too shy to take advantage of the offer. When so many of the secrets of one’s family life are a part of 20th century legend, I would guess that a person needs to develop a good front as protection. She said many interesting things in conversation, but they were always snippets . . . and never a line of thought or narrative. At one point we discussed the importance of friendship, and Henrietta threw out the question of whether or not former lovers could become friends. (Not in most cases, seemed to be the table’s consensus. She took the opposite view, but then gave a very unconvincing example to defend it.)

She reminded us of the Dorothy Parker quotation: Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles. Henrietta’s own life was deeply affected by two of the most famous triangles, but she barely alluded to them. If you are interested in learning more, the obituary of Frances Partridge touches on several of the salient points. But none of this was mentioned, by Henrietta – or by any of the audience. She did say, by way of introduction, that as a child she could only think of her unusual family life as completely normal. She didn’t mention when her consciousness of the extraordinariness of her family began to emerge, but she did allude to the “the intellectual soap opera” which belongs to anyone interested in literary history. One can only imagine how it feels to be part of such a storied family. At one point she mentioned how she hated being compared to people, as she had been subjected to that all of her life. She also told me that she had spent more of her life outside of England, than in it, and I wonder how much a part the heavy Bloomsbury legacy played in that decision.

Henrietta is a tactile person, and frequently clasped my hand as we were chatting. I couldn’t help but think: I am touching the hand that has touched so many of the great figures of the age. It felt, in a literal sense, like reaching back into the last century. It felt like touching the pages of a beloved novel that has suddenly come alive. “You have small hands,” she said to me. And one cannot help but feel rather small next to such an interesting, vivid person.

As Mrs. Dalloway so famously said: What a lark! What a plunge!

If you are interested in attending a talk at the Albion Beatnik bookstore:

Paul Edwards, leading authority on Wyndham Lewis, will be giving a talk at
The Albion Beatnik Walton Street Oxford
24th March 6.00pm


kristina said...

Oh I was so sorry I had to miss this talk. I actually am a great fan of Vanessa Bell's work. And Charleston has been on my to-visit list for a-g-e-s now...

K x

Teresa O said...

A lark indeed! What an experience. Yeats, is an all-time favorite, but the ladies join him at the top of my list that includes Virginia Woolf, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Anais Nin. I return over and over again to these women.

There is something about touching something that touched a heroine or hero that reverberates to the core.

Thank you for inspiring me to read and dream.

StuckInABook said...

What a wonderful write-up, Beth, so evocative!

By the by, the person who described the house as grammatical was Sylvia Townsend Warner - a wonderful writer. If you haven't done so, I recommend you get your hands on her strange and enveloping novel Lolly Willowes.


Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Bee

I truly enjoyed reading this post. Lucky you to live near Oxford and be able to attended these great lecture!! Charleston seens to be a place, I would like to visit--maybe one day.

I miss my independent bookstore(The Open Book)--Nicholas Sparks would always have a hugh book signing here and was a big supporter of this book store.

Take Care!

Tracy :)

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Spelling Corrections:
lectures and seems

Sorry Bee

Tracy :)

Dartford Warbler said...

Thank you for a fascinating post. What an experience! A connection, through Henrietta, to such a rich and vivid world.

I have been interested in Bloomsbury since London days. The art, the Omega Workshop, Charleston ( a wonderful and evocative house to visit) and the writings of Virginia Woolf. I have promised myself that I will read the novels again, now that I have finished teaching.

Merisi said...

Serendipity - lately it seems to slip more often than ever into our collective consciousness, doesn't it?

Bee, I simply loved reading your story about your various encounters at the fabulous Albion Beatnik (all the while sitting at my desk - procrastinating - sipping my Early Grey from a bone china cup from the Royal Horticultural Society). Thank you so much for sharing it!


(My copy of "The Hare with the Amber Eyes" has arrived from England, though the time to read it has not yet been delivered.)

Merisi said...

Regarding sleeping in unheated rooms, Ms Garnett's answer must have been tongue-in-cheek. I slept all my childhood in a room where, during particularly icy winters, not only the windows froze over, but also the walls acquired a thin coat of glistening ice. Sleeping under warm, flannel covered feather and down duvets made for comfort and warmth. Sleeping naked would still have been foolish. ;-)

herhimnbryn said...

Oh Bee! What an amazing post! Thankyou.
I have put your image request up on my blog. Funnily enough V. Woolf is mentioned often in the book. Her desire for 'a room of one's own' has a great deal to do with the subject!

elizabeth said...

Such a super post, Bee.
Quite my favorite one for ages.
Such fun for you to have been to such an interesting talk. I found Decieved with Kindness such a terribly sad book --but maybe that was H's mother's mood when she wrote it.
Will write more privately!

Tess Kincaid said...

What a lark, what a plunge, indeed! I devoured every little tidbit of this delicious post. Yummity-yum. Thank you, Bee. (slight little burp, hidden ever-so-discreetly in my raised napkin)

Tracy said...

Oh, yes, hat a LARK, Bee! Being a huge fan of all things Bloomsbury this post was a great romp of literary fun! Felt like we were there...*sigh*... Mrs. Dalloway has long been one of favorite reads and re-reads. I've not been to Charleston yet... Our last trip to the UK we ran out of time. But it's on the list... ;o) Happy Days ((HUGS))

Nimble said...

My goodness Bee. The mention of her clasping your hand reminded me of Alice with the Duchess. Although more enjoyable. What a literary adventure.

spudballoo said...

Oh how utterly utterly wonderful! What a super post, and such a treat. Beautifully written dearest Bee, i felt like I was with you (and wished I was!) x

CashmereLibrarian said...

Bee, your posts always leave me amazed. Wish I could have joined you, and wish I was able to extract and reveal so much in my writing!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting and fascinating experience! I love VB's Interior as well and like you first saw it on a card at Persephone Books. I've been to Oxford a few times but never to that book shop - you've made it a must see.

Bloomsbury Bell said...

I so wish I could have been there! I did intend to go but I got distracted by my one year old niece who wanted to play for longer - so, thank you for the wonderful write up!

Have you ever been down to Charleston Farmhouse or to the literary festival there? It's wonderful!

Dave King said...

What a fascinating post. Thank you so much for all the links. Of course, I haven't followed them all up yet, but hope to do so anon. It's good to know that all those book shops, Persephone's et al are still there. I had thought they might not be, as so many have had to close.

I understand your feelings. I had a great aunt, by adoption, who was related to Augustus John. I used to feel that way talking to her about the family.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I saw this post of yours a couple of days ago, but was too busy to sit down and devour it in the way I wished. So I waited until now, when I had the perfect cup of coffee at my elbow and the sun was shining in my window just so. I knew I would love it! And I did!
Dear Virginia.

Sarah Laurence said...

I love that painting, as you know, and think of you when I see it. It is pinned to my bulletin board. How cool to have your blog lead you to the painter’s granddaughter! I visited this bookstore on your recommendation and found it delightful. Your portrait of Henrietta is as finally rendered as her grandmother’s painting.

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

What a fantastic post! You draw me in unlike anyone else. My only complaint is that I wish it had been long...because I wanted to forget about my day ahead and curl up with a book of your writing.
I had an interesting experience while reading Woolf's 'The Waves' -or trying to. I literally was getting motion sickness from the rhythm. Isn't that amazing? Twice I tried to read it. It's now one of my favorite books for that very reason. A fascinating book. Strange to have one of your favorite books be one you've never read.
I keep thinking about your comment in relation to the haiku.
Also - I woke up this morning and was looking up things about serendipity. Need I say more?

Cottage Garden said...

Bee, I loved every word of this wonderful post. I did pop by a couple of days ago but I wanted to give myself time to really savour all that it contains and I must say this post really delivered. Loved it! What a fantastic lecture and bookshop and to continue the conversation over supper! oh my goodness.

When I worked in London I used to spend my lunch hours wandering around the British Museum and in the book shops of Bloomsbury. I'm a relatively late devotee to Persephone but haven't looked back since.

Note to self: must get hold of a copy of Frances Partridge's bio - thanks for all the fab links.

Did I mention I loved this post!!


Stephanie said...

Fascinating! What an experience, you have transported me.

I have read all of Virginia Woolf's writing as well as biographies and some of her family.

What a legacy...what a wonderful experience. I've never been to London...but one more place on my list when I make it there.

Andrew McGuirk said...

A wonderful article and a wonderful lady.

Jayne said...

Oh Bee, I'm so glad I stumble in here! This post gave me goosebumps. I feel the same way about books, and Woolf, and well, just everything you've set down in words here. Lovely. I'm going to keep perusing. ;)

Dick said...

What a fascinating post, Bee. Thank you for this. I've always had an interest in the Bloomsbury community and there were so many items here to please.

I finished the Anne Chisholm Frances Partridge biography a month or so back and put it back on the shelf along with a sheaf of newspaper and magazine cuttings about FP, in whom interest increased as she became older and older and yet apparently no less on the ball.

There's a monograph to be written about the links between Bloomsbury and the progressive schools. Bedales pops up constantly in accounts of the education of the many offspring. Boarding school, yes, but preferably as raffish as could be found!

Kristen In London said...

You know, I enjoyed this description more than anything I have read in a very long time. So satisfying intimate - the handclasp! - and it put me in mind of my apprenticeship for a week, several years ago, with Tamasin Day-Lewis, granddaughter of Cecil Day-Lewis. A person who had touch greatness many times, lived with only extraordinary people. Amazing!

Jeanne said...

Bee, this post is just brilliant! You are a wonderful writer...I hope you do this for a living. I am hooked and excited as you have given me so many ideas of areas to explore...what I have had in mind to date has only touched the took it one step further.

I love following Persephone although I keep missing a visit to the store. I was at the British Museum recently and kicked myself when I realised later in the day that I had my chance. You have given me another reason to go back and I will most certainly plan a visit.

I am off to print this is going right into my London Days journal. Thank you!!

Jeanne xx

Gigi said...

Oh, Bee, there are about a hundred things I want to say, and about two hundred things I want to ask you about this post. We will just have to sit down together for a long chat the next time I'm in England. Maybe the fall? I certainly hope so!

In the meantime, I love this post. I love that you met Henrietta Garnett, and I love hearing all about your connections with Bloomsbury. I will give the link to this post to Todd, and he will gobble it up, too. Several years ago he curated an exhibition of Bloomsbury letters, papers, and first editions at the Lilly Library at Indiana University for which he wrote a monograph on Desmond and Molly McCarthy. At that time he corresponded a lot with several Bloomsbury folks and descendants (including Frances Partridge!), and I believe Henrietta was one of them. Todd published a small book this past year with Cecil Woolf, who has become a wonderful friend. This year, Todd's critical edition of the last unpublished works of Lytton Strachey is coming out from Pickering and Chatto! I'll let you know when it does. I even made a small contribution to one of the chapters. :)

I love what you wrote about Charleston. When I finally got to visit the farmhouse last summer, it was one of the most magical days of my life. It exceeded my expectations--and those were pretty high!

Can't wait to really talk Bloomsbury and a thousand other delicious things with you.

xoxo Gigi

Amanda Craig said...

What a lovely post - wish I could have been there. All the Bloomsbury descendents seem so much nicer and saner than their famous parents/grandparents.