All This Love Business

Jean McNicol

Julian Bell returned briefly to England in the spring of 1937. He was 29; he had been teaching in China for 18 months and was now determined to fight in Spain. Everyone knew this was his plan, or rather everyone except his mother, Vanessa, whom Julian had told that he might not go, that ‘of course it would depend on my persuading you.’ Perhaps he’d stay and work for the Labour Party; Vanessa told him she’d found him a job herself, as a director of a Bell family business that imported feathers from China. Everyone waited to see if he’d give in to his mother’s wishes. Virginia Woolf, Julian’s aunt, wrote that he was ‘dog obstinate’, ‘his mouth and face much tenser, as if he had been thinking in solitude’. One evening, according to his younger brother, Quentin,

there was a meal at Charleston eaten by Vanessa, we three children and, I think, Duncan. Vanessa served a pudding; she gave half to Julian, the rest of us divided what remained. Vanessa herself realised that there was something more than a little absurd about this method of displaying affection and said something like: ‘You see I have to.’

Julian ate the pudding ‘with an unembarrassed grin’. As Quentin adds, he was ‘able to accept the maternal passion without confusion and irritation’; his brother and sister didn’t find it so easy. ‘I wish you would write a book about the maternal instinct,’ Vanessa Bell had written to her sister in 1927, ‘I could tell you a great deal! Of course it is one of the worst of the passions, animal and remorseless.’ Despite that pudding, Julian did go to Spain. He died there on 18 July 1937.

Vanessa, Quentin and Julian Bell at Charleston, probably in 1917.
Vanessa, Quentin and Julian Bell at Charleston, probably in 1917.

Vanessa had been used to her son telling her everything. ‘Somehow I find it very consoling to confide in her,’ he wrote to one of his girlfriends. ‘Perhaps because she never does anything to shatter my self-confidence or vanity.’ After his death she remembered ‘the joy of reading the letter’ containing what Julian called ‘great news’: he was sleeping with Anthony Blunt – his ‘first love affair’. She realised then that he ‘meant to tell me things. I had never expected it.’ After Blunt Julian’s affairs were heterosexual, but there were quite a few of them, they often ran concurrently and he provided a running commentary to his mother, and his friends. As Quentin wrote in his memoir, Elders and Betters,

Julian’s instinct was to tell the whole world when he found that he was in love. The fact that Jane to whom he was engaged would hear of his love for Mary even before Mary herself was quite aware of it didn’t seem to worry him at all, although Jane might take it rather hard; but then he was the kind of person with whom girls fall in love and, it seemed, the kind of person whom they forgive.

It wasn’t that he was particularly good-looking – according to his friend John Lehmann he was ‘a great, untidy, sprawling figure of a young man’. Virginia Woolf blamed his lack of looks on his father’s family: ‘He had a strong element of the Bell in him. What do I mean? I think I mean that he was practical & caustic & shrewd … He had much higher spirits. He was much more adapted to life. He was much less regularly beautiful.’ Clive Bell and his family were also seen to be responsible for Julian’s fondness for country squirely pursuits. There’s a good description by David Garnett of Julian beagling at Cambridge: he was ‘far bigger, noisier and more raggedly dressed than any of his companions … bursting with happy excitement … Late in the afternoon Julian turned up with his ragged clothes torn to tatters, which flapped about his white thighs. He put on some clothes of mine and lay panting and sighing after the luxurious enjoyment of so much exercise.’

His openness wasn’t typical of the rest of his family either. Julian’s younger sister, Angelica, wrote bitterly in her memoir Deceived with Kindness about the way her mother’s protectiveness shaded into evasion. She was kept in ignorance about Julian’s plans until just before he left. But that was the least of it. No one told her who her father was until the summer of Julian’s death. She was 18. Angelica had thought that Clive Bell was her father; in fact it was Duncan Grant, who lived with her mother, but generally slept with men and wasn’t keen on acting as an authority figure. Angelica retreated into an affair with the much older Garnett, who – and this is where it begins to sound like you’re making things up – had been Duncan’s lover when Angelica was born. ‘Its beauty is the remarkable thing about it,’ Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey soon after her birth. ‘I think of marrying it; when she is twenty I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?’ He did marry her and it does still seem scandalous, or like something in a fairy tale, the curse or promise delivered over the princess’s cradle. Of course other people (including Julian) could have told Angelica about Duncan, but it was her mother she blamed: Vanessa’s reserve, her increasingly unspoken but still eloquent ‘maternal passion’. Vanessa never said much, to Angelica or anyone else, about her relationship with Duncan, about what she saw as the insecurity of her situation, the endless worry that he would leave her for some young man, a fear that led her to try desperately and usually successfully to befriend his lovers, to get them on her side. There were limits to what she wanted to discuss.

Years later, in 1967, when Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey was about to appear, Grant, then in his eighties, was alarmed at what it was going to reveal, especially about his affairs with Strachey and Maynard Keynes more than half a century earlier. Homosexual acts had just been decriminalised (although Grant read the manuscript before that happened and asked: ‘Shall I be arrested?’), but it was still unnerving to have one’s private life put on display. A year earlier Peter Stansky and William Abrahams had published Journey to the Frontier, a joint Life of Julian Bell and John Cornford, who died in Spain a few months before Bell. It is the product of a more decorous school of biography: they didn’t seek out information that people weren’t willing to volunteer. They didn’t expose people: Bell’s girlfriends are disguised, referred to by letter, not name, stretching from A to K (the list is not exhaustive); Cornford’s girlfriends get at least their real first names (and someone has neatly inserted Ray Peters’s surname at the first mention in the London Library copy).

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[1] Elsie Phare, then a student at Newnham, became, as Elsie Duncan-Jones, a distinguished academic. Stansky tells us that Margaret Ellen Thomas, who was at Girton, became a writer, the author of a novel called, rather unpromisingly, A Perch in Paradise.

[2] In 1932 Lettice and a friend started a photographic business, Ramsey & Muspratt. She, as she said, had the contacts. Some of their photographs are on show at the National Portrait Gallery (until 21 April) and bear out what Helen Muspratt claimed for their work: ‘what we did was not posed portraits but pictures of people as natural as we could make them.’

[3] Frank Ramsey (1903-30): A Sister’s Memoir by Margaret Paul makes clear his dazzling talents (Smith-Gordon, 304 pp., £20, December 2012, 978 1 85463 248 7).