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.

To be fair, Frances Partridge is concerned in this book to put the record straight on the central episode of Carrington’s suicide: to emphasise Ralph Partridge’s fear that this would happen, and his desperate attempts to avert it. Which is reasonable enough. The trouble is that the reader is left with a sense of reluctant voyeurism. Is it unduly squeamish to feel that it is time the poor woman was left to rest in peace? The intense analysis of the manner and chronology of Virginia Woolf’s suicide that has been going on in the pages of other journals can just about be justified in terms of literary history: Virginia Woolf was a great novelist. But Carrington was a minor painter – there’s a difference. Prurience then lies just around the corner. Lytton Strachey does not seem, now, a central literary figure; Ralph Partridge worked for a time at the Hogarth Press, trained himself as a book binder, helped Strachey on the Greville Diaries, reviewed. The mulling over of fraught personal lives is bound to give the reader – some readers – an uneasy feeling: these are privacies, do we have any business there?

The reverent comments of Gollancz’s blurb-writer don’t help: ‘Bloomsbury was Frances Partridge’s destiny ... She was there.’ Incidentally, it seems to me that there is one possibly final Bloomsbury book that would be of value, not only to those besotted with the scene, but also to those who get inextricably mixed up about the members of the cast and what they do and why they are with whoever else: a ‘Who’s Who’. I envisage it providing not only brief biographical details but visual aids: charts that would indicate the state of various relationships at any given point in time – some typographical device could be used to indicate the centrality or otherwise of different people – and for identification purposes a gallery of portraits extracted from the apparently inexhaustible supply of fuzzy photographs of Raymond and Saxon and Maynard and everyone having picnics or sitting in the garden in deckchairs.

The early part of Memories – childhood and schooldays and Cambridge – has some of the attraction of the diary extracts which are included at the end, though it is not presented in diary form, which is where Frances Partridge’s writing is always at its best. In the first chapter, the flavour of the times does come through: the war, the atmosphere of an Edwardian upbringing. At Cambridge she read English (taught by I.A. Richards) and switched to Moral Sciences for Part Two of the Tripos, and she conveys to the reader a sense of that curious mixture of boarding-school mores and intellectual adventurousness which characterised the women’s colleges in their early days. I wanted much more of this, less of the subsequent chronicle of lunches and dinners and conversations. A Pacifist’s War – diary untempered by recollection – allowed Frances Partridge to comment on what was going on both from within and without, and her comments are brisk, vivid and often moving: you realise what it must have been like to wake on the grim days of 1940 with a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, seriously to contemplate suicide when invasion comes. Memories suffers in comparison by being selective: a social circle has been allowed to dominate the book at the expense of its author’s by no means inconsiderable talents for observation and reflection. She insists that these were remarkable people – and yes, several were – but cannot evoke the brilliance that is being insisted on. The reader is left, often, with an uncomfortable impression of triviality, and it is hard to tell whether this is the fault of the subjects or of the structure of the book. It is the problem, perhaps, of the incommunicably private nature of memory: to translate personal experience into language that is universal is one of the most exacting of literary skills. It is no good just saying that people were fascinating: the reader must be convinced by the manner of the telling.

And now to something very different: Bloomsbury by association but with quite another flavour. Mrs Leslie Stephen’s ‘Notes from Sick Rooms’ is a reissue of a pamphlet privately printed in 1883, a year after the birth of its author’s eminent daughter. It is as though Mrs Ramsay had stepped out of the pages of To the Lighthouse – cool, kind, sensible and meticulous – and set out to tell us, with the minimum of fuss, how to wash an invalid, make the bed, comb the hair, give an enema, arrange the bedside lighting. The tone has that combination of humanity and practicality that ought to pervade the medical profession and so frequently does not. It makes one yearn to collapse at once between linen sheets smoothed by Mrs Stephen and give one-self up in gratitude to the calm, unhurried, reassuring presence, the therapeutic rubbings and the beef tea. The section on the removal of crumbs from the bed is a masterpiece. This is the voice of a woman for whom the unsentimental alleviation of distress in others is a way of life; hearing it, you know this is someone whose advice would always have been equally precise, rational and wise – the sort of person you would want to meet in a hospital consulting-room, or at the scene of a disaster. And you think also of the frequently-reproduced photograph of Julia Stephen – a face of unforgettable beauty. And of Mrs Ramsay: ‘Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?’