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.
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