This is my review of Love in Bloomsbury by Frances Partridge.
Frances Partridge is probably best known for loving and in undue course marrying Ralph Partridge, already part of an infamous ménage à trois: the homosexual Lytton Strachey loved and relied on the practical, handsome Ralph, whom the talented if neurotic painter Dora Carrington had agreed to marry as a means of hanging on to Lytton, with whom she lived and was infatuated. This set- up symbolises some of the key aspects of the Bloomsbury group – their lack of concern about conventions, emphasis on “rationality” which could be used to justify egotism and also, a point which I have been slow to appreciate, the deep bonds of friendship which endured despite shifting love affairs and gossip.
Born in 1900, the author opens a window on Edwardian childhood in a prosperous middle-class family with a wide circle of well-connected friends and “advanced ideas”, despite employing maids to toil “up and down the great flights of stairs… with coal-scuttles and hot-water jugs”. She also provides fascinating, first-hand observation of a group of individuals who were often creative, original thinkers and vulnerable in their failings, leaving us to infer the degree to which they were over-privileged, self-absorbed and sometimes disappointingly trivial.
From an early age Frances questioned accepted views. Eavesdropping on two visitors’ “ribald breakfast-time conversation” which involved discussing God as if he were a human being, she realised that this meant not only that they did not believe in him but neither did she. A similar “moment of truth”, closest to the “mystical experience” described by friends, came towards the end of her schooldays, with the “blinding conviction” that whatever she might be forced to do, her “ideas and beliefs” were her own, and nothing could make her think against her “own grain”.
Clearly intelligent and physically active, choosing to attend the free-thinking Bedales school, at Cambridge she revelled in both philosophy and dancing to a jazz band. A private income gave the freedom to treat work as an interesting pastime rather than a necessity. Economising on the many trips abroad meant travelling third class rather than first. She turned down a job researching why Lyons’ waitresses dropped so much china for employment at the book shop set up by her brother-in-law Bunny Garnett with his friend Francis Birrell. This belonged to some past idyllic cloud-cuckoo land: since buyers objected to the fingerprints and tobacco ash left on pages by the staff, the clientèle was mostly confined to friends who were also members of the Bloomsbury group. Even after moving in with Ralph, she seems to have spent many evenings dining out at restaurants with admiring male friends, and although her days seemed to her very full combining work with “household preoccupations” she writes: “Who bought the bacon, the butter, the fish? I suspect it was our faithful Mabel. Certainly I have no recollection of doing it myself.”
Perceptive comments are often laced with a caustic humour: Lady Ottoline Morrel “in tawdry satin finery” chasing “avidly with claw-like hands over the floor” a bun she had dropped. A French waiter described in meticulous detail is then dismissed with “a face that might be a criminal or a philosopher’s, but most likely a half-wit’s”.
She deemed a “hermaphrodite” fancy-dress party “a sad come-down, a sign of decadence” compared with the elaborate performances which earlier parties had featured. To set against the boozy socialisting, is the moving account of the battlefields of northern France revisited as an antidote to Ralph’s grief over his failure to prevent Carrington’s suicide through her inability to live without the deceased Strachey. Fourteen years after the event, “the few trees still standing were gaunt skeletons riddled with bullets, and one had only to take hold of a branch and there was a rattle of shrapnel falling to the ground”.
Part 2 of the Book relies heavily on diary entries, using print too small to read comfortably in the paperback version, and sometimes tedious because of the large amount of name-dropping. The author may have painted Ralph in an unduly glowing light, and played down her own self-gratification. Yet overall, this very readable book is full of insight on the experience of being alive and fills one with the urge to do so as fully as did Frances Partridge.