The Madonna of Bloomsbury

Vanessa Bell

by Frances Spalding
Ticknor and Fields, 399 pp., $22.95

Vanessa Bell
Vanessa Bell; drawing by David Levine

As the still center of Bloomsbury, Vanessa Bell has remained something of a mystery. The volumes of Bloomsburiana have multiplied, the major and minor characters have been anatomized, but still her figure has stayed obscure. We have seen her chiefly through her sister’s jealous, devoted gaze; but others tried their hands at describing her. “Monumental, monolithic, granitic,” wrote Leonard Woolf; “It was the strange combination of great beauty and feminine charm with a kind of lapidification of character and her caustic humour which made her such a fascinating person.” “She was not at all dogmatic,” said Kenneth Clark, “but she never relaxed her standards, and in a quiet, hesitant voice would expose false values and mixed motives. I was devoted to her, and when asked to do something questionable, I would think to myself ‘What would Vanessa say?”‘ In a poem about her, her son Julian wrote of her “calm of mind,/…Patient and sensitive, cynic and kind.” Roger Fry, deeply in love with her, wrote of the atmosphere of peace with which she surrounded people:

I imagine all your gestures and how you’ll be saying things and how all around you people will dare to be themselves and talk of anything and everything and no idea of shame or fear will come to them because you’re there and they know you’ll understand. And then I think of how beautifully you’ll be walking about the rooms and how you’ll take Quentin on to your knee and how patient you are and yet how you are just being yourself all the time and not making any huge effort just living very intensely and naturally…

A madonna-like serenity is the theme of the descriptions of Vanessa. Her sister spoke of her “rich, soft nature.” When she was a child, her nickname was “The Saint.” But this surface overlaid powerfully deep feeling, as Leonard Woolf also saw: “The tranquillity was to some extent superficial; it did not extend deep down in her mind, for there in the depths there was also an extreme sensitivity, a nervous tension which had some resemblance to the mental instability of Virginia.” Her mysteriousness was that automatically attributed to someone graceful and rather silent; in actual fact she was no woman of mystery, being straightforward, literalminded, and hard working. But she was profoundly reserved; and became more so as the odd shape of her life developed.

The two sisters Vanessa and Virginia divided out the world between them, each annexing a talent and a style. To the events of their early life Virginia reacted with terror and violence, Vanessa with withdrawal into her marmoreal calm; she was, after all, the eldest child, the protector of the tribe. Those events in all their tragedy are now well known to most people because of the great interest in Virginia Woolf’s life. The Stephen parents had both been widowed before their…

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