Living Doll and Lilac Fairy

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington 1893-1932 by Gretchen Gerzina
    Murray, 342 pp, £18.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7195 4688 5
  • Lydia and Maynard: Letters between Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes edited by Polly Hill and Richard Keynes
    Deutsch, 367 pp, £17.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 233 98283 3
  • Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life by Joan Givner
    Oxford, 273 pp, £18.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 19 540705 9
  • Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership by Jean Kennard
    University Press of New England, 224 pp, £24.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 87451 474 6
  • Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists by Susan Leonardi
    Rutgers, 254 pp, $33.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 8135 1366 9
  • The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross edited by Gifford Lewis
    Faber, 308 pp, £14.99, July 1989, ISBN 0 571 15348 8

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:

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