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.

For unlike her sister, Vanessa could only be a family woman. Her perceptive editor remarks that she presented herself in self-defence as ‘unintellectual and uninformed’, and that she made a ‘carefully constructed comic façade’ out of her lack of interest in serious matters. She enjoyed describing an occasion when she had made a fool of herself at a dinner party by asking Mr Asquith if he was interested in politics. But the lack of interest in such things, which her sister Virginia compounded in her own case and made a fancy aspect of high style, was in Vanessa’s life perfectly honest and genuine. It went, no doubt, with her sexual directness, and the simplicity with which she made her desires clear. If men attracted her, like Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, she went to bed with them; and it does not seem boastful when she remarks that she has been having orgasms since the age of five.

The letters are honest in interesting ways. In April 1911 she began a love affair with Roger Fry, who had become her nurse and attendant after a trip to Turkey and a miscarriage. Three months later she wrote him a love letter which engagingly mingles desire with the pictorial instinct.

When I think about you I begin to try to draw you, but luckily only in the air. I know the shape of all of you pretty well now, even your hands I think I know almost as well as you know mine. I don’t talk about them as much but perhaps I have felt them even more intimately.

Tactility was more important to her than talking: the letter indicates the sense in which the erotic is highly important in her own art. Unlike Virginia she took quite naturally to the new style of frankness, the verbal and frequently physical promiscuity which had become a Bloomsbury moral principle. In Those Barren Leaves Aldous Huxley portrays one of the girls of the period, who absurdly combines innocence with knowingness, observing that ‘contraception has outmoded chastity’ in tones which indicate all the simple fervour of a conventional nature. But for Vanessa there was no question of principle: it was just the normal way she liked to behave.

She also disliked and distrusted Bloomsbury gossip. Fry had been having a lightning affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, about which he had dropped hints to Virginia. Vanessa didn’t mind the affair – she seems to have been naturally lacking in feelings of envy and jealousy – but she cautioned her lover against telling her sister anything.

I found she had told Adrian [their younger brother], which means Duncan, all about the Ottoline affair. She hadn’t only given him a general sketch but had told him every detail. It doesn’t matter, I think, as Adrian tells me that Duncan is really safe and doesn’t repeat things to the Stracheys, but of course we don’t know who else V may not have told. I thought she was to be trusted over this after the special warnings I gave her, but evidently one can’t run any risks with her ... I’m thankful I’ve never told her anything about you.

This, in a way, sounds very unBloomsbury; but Vanessa was one of the few in the group who guarded her privacy with great care. Possibly his discretion was one of the factors that attracted her to Duncan Grant, with whom she began a long and stable relationship in 1915, and by whom she had her daughter Angelica. Grant was bisexual and her brother Adrian had been in love with him, but that was no sort of bother to Vanessa. Her own husband Clive Bell, whom after refusing twice she had married in 1907 as a way of leaving home, was a jolly partridge-shooting country gent with intellectual tastes (‘a fathead and voluptuary’ Bernard Shaw called him in 1920 after he had blundered into some literary debate) with whom she remained on excellent terms after they had ceased to live together. Clive had plenty of affairs of his own, but was in his way a family man and a source of stability, financial as well as social. One of the chief interests of this correspondence is the close linkage it reveals between Bloomsbury and a wholly non-Bloomsbury world, on whose tolerance and tacit support the emancipated ones continued to depend.

Like Susan in The Waves, Vanessa excelled at domestic and managerial tasks, running houses, a business and a quantity of eccentric and apparently incompatible guests and friends with equal calm. Maynard Keynes, who was deeply attached to her, used to call Vanessa ‘Ludendorff Bell’, in reference to the superefficient German generalissimo of the Great War. Her son Quentin, born in 1910, contributes a charming brief memoir which recalls a frequent device employed by his mother when answering the London telephone.

  ‘Museum 5596.’
  ‘Can I speak to Mrs Bell?’
  ‘I am afraid Mrs Bell is out.’
  ‘But you are Mrs Bell. I am your brother George.’
  ‘I am afraid Mrs Bell is out.’
  ‘But Vanessa, I know your voice; this is George Duckworth.’
  ‘I am afraid Mrs Bell is out.’
  ‘But, confound it, you are Mrs Bell.’
  ‘I am afraid Mrs Bell is out.’
Sir George slammed down the receiver.

Her half-brothers were not welcome callers, although the tale of their sexual abuse of the Stephen sisters as children is probably a good deal exaggerated. Interesting that in the days of parlourmaids it was not necessary to take the receiver off the hook, but merely to appear resolutely to be the parlourmaid, in the face of unwelcome callers. Bloomsbury depended on its servants as much as did the bourgeoisie – possibly more, because of the normal indifference of its denizens to household matters – but Vanessa herself preferred to do without cooks and maids as much as possible. Unlike her literary sister she took as little interest in the culture and conversation of the servant class as in that of the new intelligentsia.

Indeed one has the impression that apart from lovers and her own family Vanessa tolerated other people more than she enjoyed them. When Keynes’s wife, the charming and scatty Russian ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, took to wandering in at all hours and disturbing her painting, she had to make what she called ‘a Statement’, which as her son remarks sounded more like an ultimatum, and soon earned her ‘the reputation of a dragon ... who guarded her life-room with fire and flames’. This naturally makes her correspondence just as interesting but less lively than that of less discreet and more committed correspondents, who were also, like her sister, trying out and practising a literary gift. Her letters to Virginia are affectionate, and mildly parental, but she was clearly relieved when that very considerable responsibility was taken off her hands by Leonard Woolf in 1912. Virginia’s own fondness for and dependence on her sister was tempered by her usual malice and love of a barbed jest and a put-down. She used to quote Vanessa’s mixed metaphors (‘It’s the last feather in the camel’s cap’) and took pleasure in her sister’s gawky epistolary exclamations, like that after the birth of her first baby – ‘he has lovely blue eyes which the nurses think will stay there.’ In return Vanessa resented Virginia’s stance of almost authorial proprietorship. ‘Since early youth she had made it her business to create a character for me according to her own wishes.’

This feeling of owning her elder sister perhaps induced Virginia to arrange a violent flirtation with Clive Bell at about the time Vanessa was having her first baby. The easy-going Clive was all for it, and wanted it to end in bed, though sex itself was probably for Virginia not in question. But Vanessa was deeply wounded, and there is some evidence – and the opinion of Angelica Garnett, Vanessa’s daughter – that she never forgave her sister.

Like a child, Virginia could not bear to be excluded, least of all from the sister who had always looked after her, and making love to her husband was a way both of seeking revenge and of conveying physical affection through him to his wife – she besought him to kiss her ‘in all my special places’. The touching but also rather odious pathos of this was quite alien to Vanessa’s instincts, as was Virginia’s solipsism and gossipy malice.

The most moving letters in the book are those Vanessa wrote to her son Julian when he was teaching in China in 1935-6. The following year he was killed by shrapnel when driving an ambulance at the front in Spain, and Vanessa never got over it. Her letters of the time have a tragic dignity, and she told her sister with truth that she would be cheerful again but never happy. But Virginia came to the rescue now, and her loving care seems to have redeemed their relationship. Vanessa’s last letter to her in March 1941 has been taken by some commentators – surely quite wrongly – to indicate an insensitivity and brusqueness which could have increased her sister’s feeling of isolation, and helped lead her to suicide. In fact the letter is full of love and commonsense, acknowledged in the note left by Virginia – ‘You can’t think how I loved your letter. But I feel that I have gone too far this time to come back again.’ In telling her sister ‘not to go and get ill just now’ Vanessa was not referring to the war and the crisis but to her own gratitude and need of her – ‘what should I have done these last 3 years if you hadn’t been able to keep me alive and cheerful, You don’t know how much I depend on you.’

The papers, as usual, misunderstood and misreported the note as saying that Virginia couldn’t face the war, when what she couldn’t face was herself and her madness. The Bishop of Lincoln’s wife wrote a chiding letter to the Sunday Times, alleging that stoical and public-spirited persons were ‘taking their part nobly in this fight for God against the Devil’. Vanessa’s letters of the time are rightly full of indignation, and gratitude for those who saw the point. To Vita Sackville-West she wrote as ‘the person Virginia loved most I think outside her own family’. The drowning and its unexpectedness (‘that possibility never occurred to me’) may later seem to have symbolically brought the life and times of Bloomsbury to an end; but, oddly enough, Vanessa had said in a letter years earlier that its real ending had been in August 1914.

Indeed the sense of a vanished epoch comes through more poignantly in these letters than in those of Virginia Woolf and other writers of the time, if only because the actualities of existence seem closer when presented in an unliterary way, just as gossip itself looks more authentic when it is not explicable to the outsider, but appears as shapes and hieroglyphs of a vanished world. Bloomsburian lack of seriousness is what is most vivid in the end. The letters show us time running out and history catching up with conversation. But the survival of Bloomsbury, when there were no ‘serious’ novels and to be modern was to be frivolous, reveals something of the incongruous ways in which the present invests its own survival in the past. These letters take their part in showing how that survival works, and is still working.