Pretending to be the parlourmaid

John Bayley

  • Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell edited by Regina Marler, introduction by Quentin Bell
    Bloomsbury, 593 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1550 6

‘Serious’ has become a cant word in a literary context, in rather the same way that ‘fine’ (‘she’s a fine person’) is the accepted fallback among clerics and do-gooders. As a general-purpose convenience word ‘serious’ is fairly recent: anything consciously Post-Modernist qualifies on grounds of technique; anything feminist or angry or otherwise committed, on moral grounds. Dr Johnson and his contemporaries would not have recognised our use of the word, nor would most 19th-century writers (Dickens or Tolstoy wanted to be ‘true’, not serious). Like ‘discourse’ it seems to have acquired its own seriousness from France, where ‘une somme sérieuse’ means a lot of money. In general, obviously, good writing is always serious; but a merely ‘serious’ poet or novelist, without any further recommendation, is seldom very good.

Bloomsbury was certainly not serious in our sense: indeed it would have specifically disowned our use of the word. So would E.M. Forster, whom F.R. Leavis accused of ‘not knowing how serious he was’. And our trouble today may be that because we take seriousness seriously we take Bloomsbury too seriously. Virginia Woolf has become an icon, academically hagiographic. Lytton Strachey, on the other hand, is out because he is not in our sense a serious writer – deliberately not, one would have supposed. Things have come to the point where we are in danger of not understanding what Bloomsbury was all about: especially not its humour, and its way of looking at people and the world.

But if the Bloomsbury authors are now revered and despised with equal incomprehension, or ‘celebrated and maligned with equal ferocity’, as Regina Marler puts it in her excellent biographical introduction, a rather different fate has befallen its visual artists. They are understood only too well, and patronised with faint praise. Clive Bell’s ‘Significant Form’ is an aesthetic curiosity, Roger Fry’s influence as a theorist long ago terminated. The pictures and decorative work of the Bloomsbury English Modernists – Bell, Fry, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington (who can be one of the best) – are rightly and properly admired in art circles, but they know their place, and are seen as doing so. They do not compete with the later French masters of Post-Impressionism. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, has no rivals on the Continent in her own line, and her reputation has profited from that fact.

Yet her sister, Vanessa Bell, is possibly the better letter-writer, with more unforced and unselfconscious life in the scenes and words she puts on paper. Her lack of seriousness, in the depressing sense it has acquired today, is almost as profound as that of D.H. Lawrence; and many of her letters have the same absoluteness of being that his do. As with Larkin or Lawrence, the test is how quickly and completely the reader becomes absorbed, not so much in the gossip or the people discussed as in the texture and flavour of the life and personality revealed. Painters who write well sometimes have this gift, and Vanessa Bell certainly had it. Her letters are still very much alive in the way that her choses préservées, like the decorations she and Duncan Grant did at Charleston Farmhouse, alas are not. But it is not her fault that the place has become a museum. No doubt the decorations come alive again when the house is a family place, with its proper welter of children, chatter and untidiness.

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