Julian Bell returned briefly to England in the spring of 1937. He was 29; he had been teaching in China for 18 months and was now determined to fight in Spain. Everyone knew this was his plan, or rather everyone except his mother, Vanessa, whom Julian had told that he might not go, that ‘of course it would depend on my persuading you.’ Perhaps he’d stay and work for the Labour Party; Vanessa told him she’d found him a job herself, as a director of a Bell family business that imported feathers from China. Everyone waited to see if he’d give in to his mother’s wishes. Virginia Woolf, Julian’s aunt, wrote that he was ‘dog obstinate’, ‘his mouth and face much tenser, as if he had been thinking in solitude’. One evening, according to his younger brother, Quentin,
there was a meal at Charleston eaten by Vanessa, we three children and, I think, Duncan. Vanessa served a pudding; she gave half to Julian, the rest of us divided what remained. Vanessa herself realised that there was something more than a little absurd about this method of displaying affection and said something like: ‘You see I have to.’
Julian ate the pudding ‘with an unembarrassed grin’. As Quentin adds, he was ‘able to accept the maternal passion without confusion and irritation’; his brother and sister didn’t find it so easy. ‘I wish you would write a book about the maternal instinct,’ Vanessa Bell had written to her sister in 1927, ‘I could tell you a great deal! Of course it is one of the worst of the passions, animal and remorseless.’ Despite that pudding, Julian did go to Spain. He died there on 18 July 1937.
Vanessa had been used to her son telling her everything. ‘Somehow I find it very consoling to confide in her,’ he wrote to one of his girlfriends. ‘Perhaps because she never does anything to shatter my self-confidence or vanity.’ After his death she remembered ‘the joy of reading the letter’ containing what Julian called ‘great news’: he was sleeping with Anthony Blunt – his ‘first love affair’. She realised then that he ‘meant to tell me things. I had never expected it.’ After Blunt Julian’s affairs were heterosexual, but there were quite a few of them, they often ran concurrently and he provided a running commentary to his mother, and his friends. As Quentin wrote in his memoir, Elders and Betters,
Julian’s instinct was to tell the whole world when he found that he was in love. The fact that Jane to whom he was engaged would hear of his love for Mary even before Mary herself was quite aware of it didn’t seem to worry him at all, although Jane might take it rather hard; but then he was the kind of person with whom girls fall in love and, it seemed, the kind of person whom they forgive.
It wasn’t that he was particularly good-looking – according to his friend John Lehmann he was ‘a great, untidy, sprawling figure of a young man’. Virginia Woolf blamed his lack of looks on his father’s family: ‘He had a strong element of the Bell in him. What do I mean? I think I mean that he was practical & caustic & shrewd … He had much higher spirits. He was much more adapted to life. He was much less regularly beautiful.’ Clive Bell and his family were also seen to be responsible for Julian’s fondness for country squirely pursuits. There’s a good description by David Garnett of Julian beagling at Cambridge: he was ‘far bigger, noisier and more raggedly dressed than any of his companions … bursting with happy excitement … Late in the afternoon Julian turned up with his ragged clothes torn to tatters, which flapped about his white thighs. He put on some clothes of mine and lay panting and sighing after the luxurious enjoyment of so much exercise.’
His openness wasn’t typical of the rest of his family either. Julian’s younger sister, Angelica, wrote bitterly in her memoir Deceived with Kindness about the way her mother’s protectiveness shaded into evasion. She was kept in ignorance about Julian’s plans until just before he left. But that was the least of it. No one told her who her father was until the summer of Julian’s death. She was 18. Angelica had thought that Clive Bell was her father; in fact it was Duncan Grant, who lived with her mother, but generally slept with men and wasn’t keen on acting as an authority figure. Angelica retreated into an affair with the much older Garnett, who – and this is where it begins to sound like you’re making things up – had been Duncan’s lover when Angelica was born. ‘Its beauty is the remarkable thing about it,’ Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey soon after her birth. ‘I think of marrying it; when she is twenty I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?’ He did marry her and it does still seem scandalous, or like something in a fairy tale, the curse or promise delivered over the princess’s cradle. Of course other people (including Julian) could have told Angelica about Duncan, but it was her mother she blamed: Vanessa’s reserve, her increasingly unspoken but still eloquent ‘maternal passion’. Vanessa never said much, to Angelica or anyone else, about her relationship with Duncan, about what she saw as the insecurity of her situation, the endless worry that he would leave her for some young man, a fear that led her to try desperately and usually successfully to befriend his lovers, to get them on her side. There were limits to what she wanted to discuss.
Years later, in 1967, when Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey was about to appear, Grant, then in his eighties, was alarmed at what it was going to reveal, especially about his affairs with Strachey and Maynard Keynes more than half a century earlier. Homosexual acts had just been decriminalised (although Grant read the manuscript before that happened and asked: ‘Shall I be arrested?’), but it was still unnerving to have one’s private life put on display. A year earlier Peter Stansky and William Abrahams had published Journey to the Frontier, a joint Life of Julian Bell and John Cornford, who died in Spain a few months before Bell. It is the product of a more decorous school of biography: they didn’t seek out information that people weren’t willing to volunteer. They didn’t expose people: Bell’s girlfriends are disguised, referred to by letter, not name, stretching from A to K (the list is not exhaustive); Cornford’s girlfriends get at least their real first names (and someone has neatly inserted Ray Peters’s surname at the first mention in the London Library copy).
In 2004 Olivier Bell, Quentin Bell’s widow, asked Stansky how he felt about there being a new Life of Julian: Patricia Laurence, author of Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes, had expressed an interest. Stansky, no doubt influenced by a ‘ravishing summer evening, England at its best’, as experienced on the lawn at King’s, told her that he’d like to revisit the subject himself (Abrahams had died in 1998). He doesn’t say what Laurence thought about this. He decided that he would add to the original text in Journey to the Frontier (he also retained Abrahams’s name on the title page). It soon became obvious how much they had not been told first time round. He’s remarkably generous about this: ‘Quentin and Olivier Bell couldn’t have been more helpful to us many years ago … but they didn’t feel it appropriate to tell us all the ramifications of Julian’s love life.’ Or: ‘In our very cordial meetings with Eddie Playfair, he, not surprisingly, told us nothing about it, nor did Quentin.’ This refers to Bell’s affair with Blunt, whom Stansky and Abrahams didn’t even interview: ‘We knew that Anthony Blunt was a good friend of Julian’s and we should have been in contact with him.’
Julian Bell’s first girlfriend (apart perhaps from a ‘woman called Julia, but I haven’t been able to discover anything about her’) was a Girton student called Helen Soutar, who was later the wife of Stansky’s Cambridge tutor. She read his Yale thesis on Englishmen who went to Spain and told him that she’d known ‘some of the people involved’: ‘No more was said.’ Stansky and Abrahams thought about approaching her when they began research for Journey to the Frontier, having found out by this point about her relationship with Bell: ‘Perhaps we should have tried to talk to her about it, but we had a sense that she didn’t wish to.’ Stansky saw her after the book came out, but the subject was never mentioned. He says parenthetically, ‘I so wish now I had talked to her about them,’ but it’s deeply peculiar that he didn’t. You’d think he’d have been curious. ‘Them’ in that sentence refers to ‘the Bloomsbury people’ and it’s quite possible that Soutar wouldn’t have wanted to discuss them. Vanessa and Virginia, both conscious of their own good looks, supposedly inherited from the much painted Pattle sisters (‘Elgin marbles with dark eyes’, according to Ruskin), didn’t admire poor Helen: ‘that heavy beaver like woman’ (Virginia); ‘very nice but oh dear’ (Vanessa). When she was giving the lectures in Cambridge that would become A Room of One’s Own, Woolf asked herself: ‘Why should all the splendour, all the luxury of life, be lavished on the Julians and the Francises, & none on the Phares and the Thomases?’But her sympathy with the girls of Newnham and Girton only stretched so far: they were, like Helen, plain and dowdy and destined to become ‘schoolmistresses in shoals’. The sisters were relieved when Julian and Helen, who’d been discussing marriage (‘at one point, we agreed to be secretly married tomorrow, but now that’s off, I think, tho’ I’m not sure’), instead split up.
When Woolf saw Bell in Cambridge she felt he was ‘not much relishing it, perhaps’. He’d thought his first year ‘a failure on the whole’; his aunt’s lectures took place at the beginning of his second, in October 1928. He was an undergraduate at King’s, which was, as Stansky says, a ‘Bloomsbury outpost’. Bell hadn’t had a particularly happy or academically distinguished time at school. Woolf wrote in Three Guineas of all the things girls were refused because of the overwhelming importance of what she calls, borrowing from Thackeray, Arthur’s Education Fund, but her nephew’s education was quite patchy. This didn’t stop boys like him from going to Cambridge, but it did mean they were less likely to get Firsts. And Bell didn’t. This can’t have been made easier by having his prospects and performance much discussed by his mother, Keynes, who was a fellow of King’s, and any other Bloomsbury types who happened to turn up in Cambridge. They usually tried to be reassuring. Keynes wrote to Vanessa in May 1929 that ‘Lytton thinks that the young lack blood and it would be better if they cared more about politics and less about aesthetics; however we all agree that Julian is miles the best of the younger generation.’
Strachey might well have come to this conclusion after attending a meeting of the Apostles, to which Bell had quite recently been elected. ‘I really felt I had reached the pinnacle of Cambridge intellectualism,’ he wrote a few years later. ‘I am still not quite sure how.’ One might feel that his connections didn’t harm his chances. At any rate, he claimed it was the ‘most important event of my Cambridge life’. In the late 1920s, Blunt wrote, ‘states of mind were the only thing that mattered’ to the Apostles, ‘and direct action was of quite secondary importance.’ G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, published in 1903, which held that ‘by far the most valuable things, that we can know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects,’ had seemed to Keynes and Strachey a revolutionary riposte to Victorian morality, but twenty-five years on one might, as it seems Strachey did, have expected the Apostles to have found something else to talk about. Wittgenstein, who returned to Cambridge in 1929, wasn’t impressed by the society and ‘these Julian Bells’. They didn’t much like him either. Bell published an ‘Epistle’ on Wittgenstein written in rhyming couplets and complaining that ‘In every company he shouts us down,/And stops our sentence stuttering his own.’ The tone of the meetings altered abruptly when the Apostles finally discovered an interest in politics in the early 1930s; unable to discuss their political differences calmly, they would eventually suspend operations: ‘the bitterest thing about the communist hysteria at Cambridge,’ Bell wrote in 1937, ‘has been the virtual death of the society.’
‘Everyone except Anthony B. and myself is a communist here,’ he had written rather glumly in August 1933. Bell didn’t like the idea of having to follow a party line and complained about the failure of communism to allow any ‘real debate on principles’ or any ‘effective discussion’: he missed the Apostolic hearth rug. But, although it was a ‘dismal religion’, he thought Marxism was clear and rational. Even if he wouldn’t join the party, he was politically active. On an anti-war demo on Armistice Day 1933 he put mattresses round his car, turning it into a not terribly threatening battering ram and, with Guy Burgess (Blunt’s eventual recruiter and a fellow Apostle) navigating, trundled along after the march, charging at the hearties and getting pelted with tomatoes.
He soon became less persuaded by the anti-war line: if war came, it was going to be against fascism, and such a war seemed to him worth fighting, unlike the First World War, which, as he saw it, was a war in support of imperialism. This was of course a common progression, although some, including his parents, didn’t alter their stance. Clive Bell, like much of Bloomsbury a conscientious objector during the First World War, wrote a year after his son’s death that ‘a Nazi Europe would be, to my mind, heaven on earth compared with Europe at war.’ Julian had always enjoyed what he called ‘militarist daydreams’, even during the years when he would have classed himself as a pacifist. As a child during the First World War he had played complicated war games with his brother (sticking to historical battles) and he’d kept an interest in military strategy, reviewing books on the subject and even thinking of writing a biography of the IRA leader Michael Collins, whose use of guerrilla warfare fascinated him. When the war in Spain began, he fancied himself a bit of an expert: ‘I can’t help believing that if I had been in England, and had gone out at the beginning, I might now be in a position to make some difference, and that if so I could have done a good deal.’ By now he had concluded that ‘to be anti-war means to submit to fascism, to be anti-fascist means to be prepared for war.’
He always saw himself as an upholder of rationality: ‘I believe in facts and logic and in nothing else,’ he would claim. Even his poetry he described as that of a ‘thoroughgoing classicist reactionary’. He disapproved of T.S. Eliot’s obscurity: ‘the practice of the masters showed,’ he claimed, ‘that the best poems had been written simply and comprehensibly about simple feelings and ideas.’ His first collection, Winter Movement, appeared in 1930 (like Auden’s Poems) and was made up largely of fairly traditional lyrics, mostly about nature. Stansky makes high claims for it, but it didn’t receive as much attention as Bell must have hoped, and he seems not to have wanted to commit himself to being a poet. Stansky regrets this. He also regrets Bell’s subsequent notion that the heroic couplet was the ideal verse form and that what poetry needed was ‘the most extreme 18th-century domination of the intellect over the emotions’.
You could see this anti-modernism, and Stansky does, as the nearest Bell felt able to come to criticising the work of his family and their circle, with Eliot as the ‘symbolic enemy’. There never seems to have been any question of Julian becoming a painter, and Stansky doesn’t record what he thought of Vanessa and Duncan’s work. He seems to have been ambivalent about Virginia Woolf’s writing (when he was annoyed with her he’d be patronising about fiction-writing: ‘I often think it would be great fun to sit down and invent stories’) and sometimes felt badly treated by her and Leonard Woolf. Believing, not incorrectly, that his work was sloppy, they turned down several essays he submitted to the Hogarth Press. ‘I do think Virginia is exceedingly tiresome,’ Julian complained to his mother after his aunt had criticised his essay on Roger Fry. ‘She wrote me a letter saying my Roger work needed rewriting etc. I really don’t believe it.’ Virginia worried about her attitude to his work, asking herself when Winter Movement came out why she felt ‘relieved … that for all his admirable good sense & observation & love of country life, he is no poet.’ After his death she admitted the ‘usual generational jealousy’, but decided that the real problem was her need ‘to be honest in the end’ about the faults of his writing. She was generally right about those, but Julian might well have wished, as Stansky says, that she’d been a little less honest, and he might well have felt that the Hogarth Press had published worse writers than him.
The Hogarth Press did publish some of his poems in the anthology New Signatures. Bell wasn’t at all sure he wanted his work included, fretting to Lehmann, then working for the press, about ‘the danger of condoning the heresies of Spender and Auden’. (Lehmann replied that his letter was written in the tone of ‘a French general arriving in the Ruhr’.) When the book came out no one paid much attention to Bell’s main contribution, ‘Arms and the Man’, written inevitably in heroic couplets, although it did deal with contemporary political problems. Auden, Spender and Empson’s poems got all the praise, and reading the extracts from ‘Arms and the Man’, it’s easy to see why:
By armaments alone we sleep secure,
Unless all nations are for war prepared,
Within an instant, war will be declared …
For as two mot’rists, insolently rich,
Race side by side, to die in the last ditch,
So, scarce one nation in the world will dare
To face the risk of anything but war:
Courage or common sense we vainly seek,
all to disarm too stupid or too weak …
When the anthology appeared in 1932 Julian was still in Cambridge trying for a fellowship. He’d already been turned down once (he’d written about Pope). This time, unmoved by his lack of philosophical training, he embarked on a theory of ethics, to be called, though he thought up a more formal title for the electors, ‘Good and All That’. ‘I am writing first and foremost for those amateurs of philosophy who like myself are more concerned with practice than with refinements of theory,’ he wrote confidently. ‘I hope what I have said is true: I am fairly sure it is useful.’ He took issue with Moore, arguing that ‘we should cultivate those valued states of mind that are produced by action … battlefields and revolutions are usually fairly good at curing romantic despairs … intellectuals often turn out to be good men of action,’ especially if they acquire ‘a hard enough outer shell of cynicism and practical common sense’. But what he had written was more like a political pamphlet than an academic dissertation, as one of the academic readers, C.D. Broad, made clear: the ethical analysis was ‘inadequate’, the terms undefined. The electors weren’t impressed, and in the spring of 1934 Bell reluctantly left Cambridge for London.
‘I must make up my mind what I’m going to do, failing a fellowship, or I shall be in the soup,’ Bell had written to Eddie Playfair before he submitted the dissertation on Pope. More than two years later he still didn’t know. He wrote reviews, a few poems, did some more work on Pope and carried on various affairs, principally with Antoinette Pirie, and carried out an epistolary post mortem on his relationship with Lettice Ramsey.She had been married to the brilliant mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsey, who died in 1930 at the age of 26. (He had been made a fellow of King’s at 21, having translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in his second year as an undergraduate.) Now she had various entanglements, about which she was very candid; Bell found this hard to deal with. She thought he had double standards: ‘You in the meantime are in love with Tony [Antoinette Pirie] … You don’t seem to find it incompatible to be fond of us both. Nor is it incompatible for me to be exceedingly fond of you & want your company very much & at the same time wish to go to bed with Harry occasionally.’ Tony Pirie seems not to have shared Lettice’s sangfroid: she was married, and ‘got into panics’ about her husband. Julian had some notion of enticing her away and marrying her himself (‘she’s the best of my young women so far, but I don’t know that she’s your daughter-in-law,’ he wrote to his mother), but she stayed with her husband. (A biochemist, and like Ramsey a friend of J.D. Bernal’s, Pirie didn’t die until 1991, but you get very little notion of what she was like from this book, partly because their letters haven’t survived, and because, as usual, Stansky and Abrahams didn’t speak to her.)
Dissatisfied with his lot, Bell decided, as Empson had, to try for a job teaching in the Far East; he described it to Ramsey as ‘a genteel form of suicide’. In July 1935 a post he’d applied for a year earlier at the National University of Wuhan was suddenly offered to him and he immediately accepted, only then telling his mother, who on this occasion didn’t object. Bell found Wuhan ‘extraordinarily like Cambridge, very friendly, informal and social’. Even the weather he found ‘very soft and damp as an English October’. He had a boat built and went out with a gun looking for duck or snipe. Soon he began to think about having an affair. The wife of the dean, Ling Shuhua, whom he called Sue, seemed a candidate. ‘Fortunately she’s only reasonably nice-looking, so I’m not yet in love with her,’ he wrote to his mother. But she was so suitable: she was a writer and painter and, he told Vanessa, ‘really in our world’. He describes her over and over again as ‘charming’. Soon the inevitable affair began. Again there was talk of marriage, and endless letters to his mother (‘I’m far more devoted to you than I’ve ever been to a mistress, and indeed so much so that I shall find it very difficult to marry because none of my friends and mistresses can begin to compare with you’) and all his friends. Sue was ‘head-over-ears in love with me … I’ve never seen such intensity of feeling in a human being’, while Julian claimed to be ‘rather bored with all this love business’. His mother seems to have thought he should make the effort: ‘I can’t believe it wouldn’t be an immense gain in one’s life to fall in love with you if you would return it enough to make some of the affair possible’ (Stansky doesn’t quote this letter; Frances Spalding does in her Life of Vanessa Bell). Vanessa read Pearl Buck, bought Chinese porcelain, ‘was observed poring over a map of China and teased for reading reports on the jute crop in the Times’.
In the summer of 1936, when Bell had been in Wuhan for a year, the war in Spain began and he began obsessing about it, about what he should do, and what he would have done if he’d been in Europe. ‘Well, you may be thankful I’m safe in China,’ he wrote to his mother in September, ‘for I know in England I should be feeling the only reasonable thing is to go and fight the fascists in Spain.’ She replied: ‘I think you & other young people … can do much more to help by not going out of your way to be shot … I think though, if it were necessary, I could find plenty of arguments against your doing so, but I wonder if they’d prevail.’ Soon afterwards, Sue’s husband found her and Julian in bed together, giving Vanessa the unwelcome opportunity to see whether she was right. Sue ‘rose to the occasion of a crisis, as she always does,’ Julian told his mother, ‘and was very superb – it’s a pity furious women attract me so much. And so completely charming.’ He resigned; she turned down his offer of marriage. Bell didn’t leave China until early February, spending the time seducing two ‘nice, chaste virgins’ and convincing himself that his desire to go to Spain wasn’t a matter of idealism, or whim, but of hard-headed realism. On the journey back he finished an essay, ‘War and Peace: A Letter to E.M. Forster’, which makes clear his admiration of what he saw as the military virtues: ‘this submission of the intelligence to facts and of facts to the resources of the intelligence’. Mainly, the essay just shows that he’d already decided to go, but that, as Forster wrote after his death, ‘he had a vigorous mind, and had been brought up in Cambridge and places where they argue, so it came natural to him to pop in a bunch of reasons.’ One reason Bell didn’t mention was that he still didn’t know what to do with himself. China hadn’t helped.
He compromised with Vanessa to the extent of agreeing not to join the International Brigade but to go instead as an ambulance driver for Spanish Medical Aid (Stansky’s on Vanessa’s side: ‘One feels like crying out to him, “Don’t go. Don’t go,”’ he writes). His letters say over and over again that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he stayed in England: ‘if I can’t go I shall feel suicidal. Things mean nothing to me except my mother’s unhappiness,’ he wrote to Sue. He learned to drive a lorry, had lessons in mechanics and first aid, and seems to have managed to find some time to entertain himself. Spalding quotes a letter from Vanessa to Quentin: ‘He has left Jill [Rendel] and Innes [Jackson] – neither of whom knows about the other – Jill does know about “X” [Sue] but Innes doesn’t. “Y” [I don’t know who this is] knows about everyone but no one knows about her – at least I think that is the situation.’
He left in early June. A Cambridge friend who saw him after he arrived in Spain told his mother that he was ‘absolutely happy … as if he had found just what he wanted’. Soon he was sent to Madrid, where the Republicans hoped to lift the siege: if they took the town of Brunete they would gain control of the road west of the city. According to Paul Preston, however, Brunete was a ‘strategic irrelevance’, and the battle merely gave Franco the opportunity to kill a large number of Republicans using the Messerschmitts he had just acquired. On 18 July a bomb from one of those planes hit the olive grove where Bell’s group was stationed. He had taken cover under a lorry, but was hit by a shell fragment, which embedded itself (and his wallet) in his lungs. He died later that day.
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