Coming of age in Wiltshire

Nell Dunn

  • Everything to lose: Diaries 1945-1960 by Frances Partridge
    Gollancz, 383 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 575 03549 8

When I was about eleven in 1947, my mother and stepfather, Mary and Robin Campbell, went to live in Wiltshire and were neighbours of Frances Partridge and her husband Ralph. They became great friends. I was somewhere included in that friendship, and Frances made an enormous impression on me as I grew up. These are the years covered in Everything to lose. Towards the end of the diaries my mother and Robin Campbell separated, and not long ago, to my great sadness, Robin died. Reading the diaries, and Robin’s death, have made me think hard about that period of my growing-up. What were the influences that I felt so keenly from Frances? What was it that was so peculiarly attractive about being at Ham Spray, the house left to the Partridges by Lytton Strachey? The answers lie in these diaries.

First, there was her way of looking at nature, turning it into the nourishing visual feast which (for me) living in the country is all about:

I went to meet the Kees on the morning train. The station was quite deserted, and I was walking up and down the platform to keep warm in the frosty air when I was brought to a sudden standstill by the unexpected sight of a chaffinch hopping on the railway lines. Seeing its beautiful little shape and soft colours so close forced its appearance vividly through the layer of practical thoughts which all too often lies, like butter on a pâté, on the surface of the mind.

And again:

Then cooking and bottling our home-grown tomatoes. Skinning them I felt like a surgeon, with sleeves rolled up dipping the hot fruit into cold water, seeing the thin skin come off like red rubber gloves. A bird was singing piercingly in the garden and a cloud of gnats danced outside the kitchen window. And all day the telephone went on ringing like a motif in an opera.

And again, at a difficult time in her life:

I feel rather like a bat hanging upside down in the dark, and even when devoured by fleas putting out small hook-like claws and clutching surrounding objects – such things as a wonderful little group of yellow dwarf irises spotted with black that has sprung up outside the dining-room window in a miraculous fashion. True I planted them there, but I never expect what I plant to grow, nor does it generally.

And so it was from Frances that I learnt that swimming naked was far nicer than in a bathing-suit – particularly in water made green by overhanging trees and wild flowers growing up to the edge of the pool, and if you were lucky a dragonfly might swoop for a drink, get too wet and need ferrying in cupped hands to the bank, as you did your very best on-your-back, legs-only stroke. She experienced ordinary human happiness to the full, and encouraged those around her to do the same.

I remember being aware of the great love between Frances and Ralph, and feeling a certain fascination, young as I was, because this didn’t seem exactly like what I’d heard in the current pop songs. It was a force which is unsentimentally documented here:

I sit writing with my back to the log fire which crackles softly and flicks tongues of light into the outer fringes of my field of vision. The frost has made Minnie very skittish, but she has tired herself out and lies glossy and extended on the sofa, while Ralph is taking notes for a review about Nelson. Happiness.

And again:

perhaps I do not look after him well enough. I resolved this morning to exert all the energy I possess (and at the moment I have quite a bit) in trying to support and sustain him and making him happier. Looking after someone so dearly and devotedly loved is after all the greatest possible pleasure.

Frances has much to say about this.

We are like two mutually supporting creepers, each propping the other up and at the same time drawing sustenance and stimulation from the other’s sap. But if I were to start writing down all the inestimable advantages I gain from living with Ralph I should never stop. One is being able to say immediately everything that comes into my mind to someone who likes to hear it. Another is the pleasure of leading two lives instead of one, and one of them male. I can’t think, I can’t bear to, how people manage to live without a mate.

Frances was a keen botanist and collected specimens for some eminent scientists, but her own book on wild flowers was for various complex reasons never published. No hard-and-fast rules come through here about work. Life is to be enjoyed and work makes it richer, on the whole, and gets the energy going. ‘Occupational therapy is at the moment my panacea for all ills; I have started working on the Index to Freud, and found it such a boon and blessing that I am resolved never to be without work again while I can totter about or wield a pen.’

It was almost as if the golden rule was that life and people came first. ‘I live for pleasure these days, and find no difficulty in filling my days and nights with it – reading, writing, eating, sleeping, gardening (mildly), looking for flowers and butterflies, listening to the wireless, talking, thinking, playing my violin, being with Ralph – there is no end to the delights. And what do I do for suffering humanity in return?’ The answer to that question is: an enormous amount. She never went looking for friends who might need her, but in and out of trouble they flocked to Ham Spray. So the diaries contain stories of many interesting people – writers, painters, philosophers, seen at their best in a domestic setting, and at their worst, as when the chimney catches fire and neither Burgo, the Partridges’ son, nor Robert Kee, a much loved friend, stir from their armchairs to help put it out. Her approach to people is rather like her botanist’s approach – that these human creatures had been thrown up willy-nilly on the earth’s crust and must be treated with tender (and sharp) fascination as unique specimens. Nothing escapes her eye. And it is her observations about her friends, and her conversations with them, that really grip her. Frances and Ralph Partridge never pretended to have a front seat on the momentous decisions of the country. ‘You must marry a man with a front seat on the world,’ my father used to tell me. ‘What, like old so-and-so?’ – mentioning some drunken member of White’s Club. ‘Why can’t I have a front seat myself, Daddy?’ I would parry, reducing him from indignation to giggles.

I knew then that this was the sort of life I’d like – looking at wild flowers, reading by the fire, and talking, talking, talking about everything. It was in this company that I made my first good joke. Julia and Lawrence Gowing were staying, and Lawrence plonked himself down at the supper table on a frail kitchen chair next to me. I saw the back legs begin to splay out. ‘Gowing! Going! Gone!’ I shouted as Lawrence sank in total disarray to the floor. This caused merriment, and my own soon had me on the floor beside him. I learnt the incomparable delight of making people laugh.

The Partridges often went to stay with friends and also went to London for the opera and exhibitions. In 1949 – at a time when Ralph was writing his book on Broadmoor – she visited a Francis Bacon exhibition:

his pictures were impressive, completely original and absolutely terrifying. They reminded me of the thoughts and images aroused by the books Ralph and I read all the time now about the Criminally Mad ... They represented nebulous grey curtains fastened here and there by a carefully painted safety-pin through which figures could be dimly glimpsed – faces whose wide-open mouths expressed the ultimate degree of horror and fear. I was very much fascinated by these – less so by some of pink penises tipped by little grinning mouths full of crooked teeth. All seemed to personify the Id, and I took the safety-pins and veils to stand for the inadequate forces of suppression. The artist is said to live alone with his Nanny. I couldn’t help wondering what she thought of them.

I do have some bones to pick with Frances. She is apt to be a little prim about the rich. When all is said and done, I don’t think they are inferior to the rest of us, and there is a hint now and then that Frances does think so. And I once had a quarrel with her about husbands. I felt she was treating them like an endangered species, and I took the view that they were fair game to be ensnared by any wily woman who fancied them. Frances did not agree. ‘But Nell,’ she said, ‘surely you wouldn’t walk into someone’s house, lift a picture off their wall and walk out with it under your arm?’ ‘Indeed I wouldn’t, Frances, but then I consider people’s pictures are their possessions and that husbands belong only to themselves.’ She dislikes people drinking too much, and dislikes doing it herself, on the few occasions when it has occurred. ‘I resent being made drunk against my will,’ she laments here: ‘it’s as if someone deliberately passed on to me their infectious disease.’ ‘Frances, do you mean to say “they” held you pinioned and poured it down your throat?’

One of the most moving themes of the diaries is the pain of trying to come to grips with and accept Ralph’s worsening health. ‘I have had an uneasy conviction that he’s less well than before. It’s dreadfully depressing for him but so it is for me, and he can’t expect me to go on as if he were quite well when he’s not. In that sense there are no frontiers where he ends and I begin.’ It occurs to me now, at 49 – looking at these diaries of a woman who moves from 45 to 60 – that one of the enormous difficulties of middle age is that by this stage you have gathered in your life a lot of people, and it is hard to be carefree when people you love are ill. I seem to remember when young that it was only one’s own problems that loomed. There is a sadness about the last four years which end with Ralph’s death, but a richness and fullness of feeling too. In spite of the intimacy between this married pair, they didn’t discuss the possibility of Ralph’s death, and at some moment Frances wonders if it would have been right to do this. It is at this level that these diaries engross us. We are sharing the qualities of an unusual and yet an oddly tangible and ‘everyday’ life: a life where natural beauty, books, friends, music (Frances was a violinist with the local orchestra), thoughts and walks all flourished.

I have just bought a cottage on the bank of the Kennet and Avon Canal fairly near Ham Spray, which makes it hard to resist this last quotation:

We have taken the excuse of having to go into Hungerford to enjoy two wonderful walks along the Kennet canal. There’s a strange fascination in gazing into the clear but rotten-smelling water, with its chalky pebbles at the bottom and green mermaid’s hair floating up to the surface. A margin of luscious pre-Raphaelite water-plants – fresh forget-me-nots, mint, loose-strife and bur-marigold; and in the reeds a serious, busy squadron of coots and dabchicks chugging about, while a white V on the water had as its apex a tiny moorhen hurrying to swim away from us. Water rats, a dazzling kingfisher, and once two fledglings tumbled hysterically chirping out of their nest right on to the towpath at our feet. Nothing could be more satisfying than this Turkish bath in natural beauty and solitude.