These books are all witness to a hope as old as the Garden of Eden, the hope of a perfect partnership. The full-length biography of Carrington and the edited correspondence of Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova (from 1918 to their marriage in 1925, more volumes to follow) also suggest that there is still a good deal of reading to be done about Bloomsbury. Both these two books show the fate of newcomers, arrivals in Bloomsbury from the outside.
‘Most people were at that time ordinary,’ said Frank Swinnerton, looking back with nostalgia to the beginning of the century, and Dora Carrington might have had the good luck to stay ordinary. David Garnett, introducing his selection of letters, felt that the reader might ask: ‘Who was this woman Carrington?’ She derived her importance from the fact that she lived with Lytton Strachey. Hostesses, he went on, like the Asquiths and Lady Colefax, who welcomed Strachey, ‘would no more have invited Carrington than the cook’. Knowing her very well, he thought she was a complex and original character in a strange situation, but did not say what effect on her the strange situation had.
Dora Carrington was born in 1893, the daughter of an engineer in the East Indian railways. She lived at a house called Ivy Lodge, went to Bedford High School, was good at drawing, bad at spelling, and loved her father more than her mother. She studied at the Slade under the all-powerful trinity of Frederick Brown, Wilson Steer and Tonks. It was 1910, and the students were advised not to attend Roger Fry’s Post-Expressionist exhibition. By 1914 Carrington, a mild bohemian, had cut her hair short, Mark Gertler and C.W. Nevinson were in love with her, and the world outside the Slade lay open.
Reading a good biography means thinking of unfulfilled conditionals. If chance or affection had given Carrington a push in another direction, she might have painted, cooked, travelled and made love in something like contentment. She was at the Slade with Paul Nash (who gave her his braces, taking them off on top of a bus), and through him or through Nevinson she might have become an illustrator, as they were, for the Poetry Bookshop. She could have learned etching from Sickert, always generous to beginners, or have worked with James Guthrie at the Peartree Press. She might have lived in Hampstead and gone to Robert Bevan’s Sundays, or tramped with Eleanor Farjeon to Edward Thomas’s cottage. As it was, she found herself in Bloomsbury. Even if they were, as Quentin Bell called them, ‘as amorphous as friends can be’, they were nearly all highly literate, and judged accordingly. They treated her as a kind of peg-top doll, a sailor doll with blue eyes, ‘a thought unnaturally wide open,’ or, at best, as a child. Neither Duncan Grant nor Vanessa Bell were seriously interested in her pictures. When, after Lytton’s death, she shot herself, Gerald Brenan said that her suicide was not a great tragic act ‘but had something childish and thoughtless and pitiful about it’. Perhaps, if pathos is the tragedy of the bewildered, Carrington might be called tragic. After her death, no one could remember whether she had been cremated or not, or, if so, where the ashes had been put.
Her letters are beguiling, but quite often apologetic and self-accusing. Her strange spelling (perhaps dyslexia) grew no better. On the honey labels which she designed for David Garnett at Charleston, even ‘Charleston’ is spelled wrong. This was in spite of her great capacity for enjoyment and her strong physical appeal which made her, to a number of men and women, irresistible. Here, too, Carrington was anxious to please, but not to tell the truth, and for a long time (she would have preferred to have been born a boy) she was not anxious for sex. Affectionate words were easier, and gave so much pleasure. Gerzina’s chapter headings – ‘The First Triangle’, ‘The Second Triangle’, ‘Separations and Unions’, ‘Picking up the pieces’, ‘Compromise’ – suggest how much pain and havoc were caused. One of Mark Gertler’s letters to her in 1917 stands out in its naked misery:
... for years I wanted you – you only tortured me, then suddenly you gave yourself to such a creature, and you yourself said if he wanted your body you would without hesitation have given it to [that] emaciated withered being. I young and full of life you refused it, tell me Carrington what am I to think of life now ... he will deaden you in time & that is what hurts me so. You are absolutely at his feet. You follow him about like a puppy ...
This book is beautiful to look at, decorated with Carrington’s little pen-and-ink drawings which are often more light-hearted than the text. Gerzina starts from the suicide, and the rest of her book calmly and scrupulously explains it. She is not an art historian. Her concern is with Carrington’s 39 years of life. Her best work was probably done in the early years at Tidmarsh, but Gerzina is careful to point out that Lytton was encouraging and (except when his own comfort was at risk) generous. ‘His homosexuality allowed them full rein in all other aspects of their relationship, and both were productive in their life together.’ The hardest question, then and now, is: how could she care so much? Gerzina, quite rightly, does not attempt to answer this. ‘Love is love and hard enough to find.’
For Carrington Bloomsbury felt at least some pity. Lydia Lopokova aroused terror. When, in 1922, Maynard Keynes began his serious courtship of Lopokova, one of Diaghilev’s most popular stars, they could hardly believe, at first, that he was caught. ‘She has him by the snout,’ wrote Virginia Woolf: ‘... a sublime but heartrending spectacle.’ ‘Don’t marry her,’ Vanessa Bell advised. ‘However charming she is, she’d be a very expensive wife and would give up dancing and is altogether to be preferred as a mistress.’ Lopokova was delightful in a way in which they didn’t want to be delighted. Her pranks put them all on edge. The Lilac Fairy was impossible, they felt, at close quarters, and Maynard would be lost to them. ‘How we all used to underrate her,’ said Morgan Forster.
Their correspondence between 1918 and 1925, when they married, has been edited by a niece and a nephew, Polly Hill and Richard Keynes, who rightly believe that it will be ‘of value and interest and will not offend their ghosts’. In an excellent introduction they admit that Lydia, in the early stages, must have worn herself out in flattering Maynard. She had abandoned her husband and Diaghilev, and although she was still dancing with Massine, and was only 30, her great days were over. In spite of innumerable friends, she was adrift. Maynard was working very hard, travelling between London and Geneva; he had installed her at 50 Gordon Square, where Vanessa Bell was also living, terribly disturbed by Lydia’s entrechats upstairs. For Lydia the necessary thing was to hold on to Maynard, who was prepared to take responsibility for her financial affairs. ‘Maynard’ she writes, ‘you are so brilliant I think sometimes I say things not as bright as you expect. Anyhow I try to develop my mind.’ She doggedly reads everything he recommends, and takes more interest in his ailments even than his mother. Maynard writes as a busy man, affectionate and expecting to be amused. But Lydia never loses her sense of her own value as a woman and a professional artist. Before long they are writing each other true lovers’ letters.
When they are apart they write almost every day. Maynard is at conferences, Treasury meetings, college feasts and at one point, rather absurdly, a stag hunt. Lydia can tell him what Picasso said or what Nijinsky did, but she also has, as the editors put it, ‘a creative taste for ordinary day-to-day living’, so that even a bus-ride or a stomach-ache becomes an absorbing skandal. At the end of the letters there are endearments invented for her Maynarochka. ‘I have no chemise, I touch your bosom without a shirt,’ ‘Your pale chaffinch’, ‘If it is cold where you are, as it is here, I warm you with my foxy licks,’ ‘Recurent dismals of sympathy’, ‘The jolts from my heart for you’. Lydia’s cunning misuse of the English language enchants Maynard and sometimes, out of tenderness, he tries to imitate it, but cannot. It is an artistic version of English, just as her Highland divertissement was an artistic version of a fling. In May 1925 she writes to him
I took your key, read ¾ of Mrs Dalloway, it is very rapid, interesting, and yet I feel in that book all human beings only puppets. Virginia’s brain is so quick that sometimes her pen cannot catch it, or it is I who is slow. However I shall pursue the book to the end in a short time, and be established in the critisism ...
I thank you for the papers [banknotes], I shall buy ‘Eau d’Atkinson’ and sprinkle myself everywhere except the hairy spots.
Be comfortable and I am so very fond of you.
P.S. I have been on the bicycle since, but my skirts make my pantelettes flick before the passers-by. I could not do for long.
These letters have been judiciously edited and cut, on principles which the editors explain, and carefully annotated (though I think ‘Rupert Dome’ on page 191 must be Rupert Doone, and they don’t give the meaning of the Russian word pupsik which the lovers use so frequently). The notes and indexes don’t take away from the immediacy of the letters. They have the kind of warmth which, in To The Lighthouse, frightens Lily, the detached artist. ‘They turned on her cheek the heat of love ... It scorched her and she flinched.’
Both Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes had found what at heart were traditional relationships. They earned the money, and were tended and praised. So, too, did the Canadian authoress Mazo de la Roche, whose Jalna series, written over 34 years, introduced into literature the Gothic domestic saga, with heroines called Pheasant and Alayne, and heroes called Finch, Eden and Renny. She was said to be descended from an old French Royalist family, and live quietly with her sister. But in fact Mazo de la Roche was Maisie Roche, with an Irish father, not a good provider, while the sister, Caroline, was an adopted cousin. Caroline, ‘tiny, fragile, receptive as a crystal goblet held beneath a tap’, joined the family very young, so that the love between the two women began in childhood. (When Mazo became a best-seller, Caroline shared the unexpected wealth and triumphant receptions. Macmillans transformed their London office into a Canadian log cabin, with bearskins nailed to the wall and imitation snow.) After the early Twenties the two women were never apart for more than a day or two. Caroline was the secretary and willing partner.
Joan Givner has subtitled her biography The Hidden Life. Mazo, however, at the age of 78, published an autobiography of sorts which gave away something she had hidden so far, and which was her strangest bond with Caroline. This was the Play. Not only when they were children but well into their fifties, perhaps for the whole of their lives, they lost themselves together in a fantastic serial adventure story which divided them from the world around them and seemed scarcely under their own control.
During our Play one of these characters met a violent end. We had not been prepared for the devastating effect this would have on us. All the night through we mourned and cried our eyes out. It was only at dawn that we fell into an uneasy sleep.
Distinct from the Play are the bizarre incidents of the novels themselves. Incest, sadism, wife-stealing, demonic possession are all very well, but what is the reader to make of Renny Whiteoak, who comes back to Jalna with his bride and insists that his little brother must share their bedroom? Givner believes that Mazo was quite unable to envisage a heterosexual relationship at all. Her disturbed childhood had peopled her imagination, but had left great gaps in it which could never be repaired.
Leaving aside the vexatious question of whether the Whiteoak novels are worth reading, Givner makes a serious analysis of a woman who felt ‘almost an outcast from the normal world’. As a writer, she thinks that ‘Mazo’s experiences and gender confusion were so unconventional that a very innovative form was necessary to express them.’ She should, like Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, have experimented with form and language. I am not sure that this is so. The wild excesses of the novels flourish while, in the background, day-to-day realism plods on. That is their strength. As for her life with Caroline, Mazo considered that ‘those whose work lies in the field of the imagination have no need to explain either their actions or their failures, except to themselves.’ She saw no need whatever to tell the truth, and Joan Givner (although she is not the first biographer) must have needed all her skill and patience to write this book.
In Dangerous by Degrees Susan Leonardi considers six novelists who were students at Somerville College, Oxford between 1912 and 1922. She begins with a picture of the proud, scholarly, cheese-paring college itself, and the confusing but decisive effect of the First World War. After this she reads, or questions, the texts to decide how successful they were in introducing the educated woman as a character and finding for her a new plot, outside the accepted romantic tradition. Her authors are Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Kennedy, Muriel Jaeger, Doreen Wallace, Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby. In Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership, Jean Kennard looks at their experiment in friendship as an idea of ‘the second self, someone close enough to be experienced as inseparable from oneself and yet different enough to be felt as other’. Whether this meant a physical relationship there is now no means of telling, although I would agree with Susan Leonardi when she says ‘what is disturbing about Brittain’s attitude is that it seems totally oblivious of Holtby’s feelings towards her, feelings that seem to me unequivocally Lesbian.’ Certainly they not only loved each other but tried (unsuccessfully) to argue each other into agreement, and Kennard’s study is about the interaction between Brittain’s books and Holtby’s. It ends with Holtby’s death from Bright’s disease at the age of 37. Kennard comments that they ‘spent their careers turning their experiences into literature and at the end life seemed to do it for them, providing a final curtain to their play’.
‘I think the two Shockers have a very strange belief in each other, joined to a critical faculty – added to which writing together is – to me at least – one of the greatest pleasures I have.’ This is Violet Martin writing to Edith Somerville in 1889. It was Martin who rather timidly courted Edith at the beginning of what became a matchless collaboration of equals, and produced the best novel that ever came out of the Ascendancy, The Real Charlotte. The letters between the cousins passed between two country houses many miles apart – bustling, outspoken Castletownshend in County Cork and the ruinous great House of Ross in Galway. They should be read together with Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M. by Gifford Lewis, who is also the helpful editor of these Selected Letters. The earlier book is very well illustrated, and takes the story up to Martin’s death and Edith’s gallant 34 years of survival. Meanwhile, here is what they wrote to each other, running along over many pages, as naturally as talking – and indeed they called their letters ‘talking’ – punctuated with dashes, full of phrases in Irish and words in their own family language, Buddh. (This was quite a usual Edwardian country-house practice: the Gladstones’ language was printed as a book.) There are a number of things we shan’t find here; no politics, although both felt keenly about them, no romantic attachments, no endearments. Martin once goes so far to say: ‘My dear – if it were not so awfully foolish I could put xx’s in that place, like the children – You will understand that I have not done so because I don’t want you to laugh at me.’
What we do get, speakingly true to life, is the world of the moneyless and indomitable Anglo-Irishry. Edith and Martin treat it in terms of comedy – hunting, sailing, amateur theatricals, hospitality to the vast family – but never far away is the hard edge of violence. Carts turn over or smash into walls, riders take cruel falls – ‘all my hair was dragged down and I was nearly mad,’ ‘H. finally tumbled flat over a small fuschia tree, driving it into the earth like a tin-tack.’ The original of the Real Charlotte, Emily Herbert, who had cheated Edith out of an inheritance by stealing a will, ‘finally drank and cat-poisoned herself to death, and they found her dead body in the bed with 14 cats sitting round it’. Edith and Martin had resolved to grind up the neighbourhood to make their bread. They were thoroughly professional writers. Martin, we are told, had the elegance and the sense of structure; Edith could manage the strong emotion; both of them were wits and inspired eavesdroppers.