Raymond and Saxon and Maynard and …

Penelope Lively

  • Memories by Frances Partridge
    Gollancz, 238 pp, £9.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 575 02912 9
  • Notes from Sick Rooms by Leslie Stephen
    Puckerbrush, 52 pp, £1.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 913006 16 5

The interest of memories – or memoirs – depends on what someone has to remember and the terms in which they do so. Frances Partridge was born in 1901: she spans the century – a rich enough field, one would think. And her previous book, A Pacifist’s War, is eminently, even compulsively readable: personal recollection is tethered to public events; the immediacy of her wartime diary allows the reader to share the depression, the sinking in the stomach, the fragmented moments of ordinary living. The present book covers her life up till then – childhood, Bedales, Newnham, work at Birrell and Garnett’s bookshop in Taviton Street and, principally, her meeting with Ralph Partridge and involvement with the Lytton Strachey-Partridge-Carrington ménage at Ham Spray. And that is the trouble: we are offered a kind of Bloomsbury ‘Jennifer’s Diary’, with Raymond and Saxon and Maynard and James and Alix and Clive and Roger and the rest flitting through the pages, lunching and staying and talking, while outside, offstage, not often mentioned, quite other things are going on. The century is barely there. And this is a pity, because right at the end of the book we see what Frances Partridge can do when she allows herself to forget about the social merry-go-round. To get away for a while after the trauma of Strachey’s death and Carrington’s suicide, she and Ralph Partridge visit the battlefields of the First World War, the scene of his harrowing experiences in the Army; she quotes from her diary, and breathes life into the book. She is a very good diarist: vivid, perceptive, unself-conscious. This is the strength of A Pacifist’s War – though even there the procession of names and weekend house-parties and lunches at the Ivy grows tedious to the reader who is less than persuaded of the fascination of it all.

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