Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood
In the spring of 1914, Vanessa Bell playfully wrote to Maynard Keynes, who was then subletting Asheham House, in Sussex, from her:
Did you have a pleasant afternoon buggering one or more of the young men we left for you? It must have been delicious out on the downs in the afternoon sun—a thing I have often wanted to do but one never gets the opportunity and the desire at the right moment. I imagine you, however, with your bare limbs entwined with his and all the ecstatic preliminaries of sucking sodomy—it sounds like the name of a station…. How divine it must have been.
Vanessa at this time was no longer living regularly with her husband of eight years, Clive Bell; was getting tired of her lover of two years, Roger Fry; and was falling desperately in love with the homosexual Duncan Grant, who had been a lover of Keynes and Lytton Strachey, and was now involved with, among others, her brother Adrian Stephen. At the end of 1914, Duncan began an affair with David Garnett, known as Bunny, “whose tastes were only temporarily homosexual” (as Angelica Garnett, his second wife, has written), but were to last the duration of the First World War, which Duncan and Bunny spent working as conscientious objector/farm laborers and sleeping together in one or another spare bedroom provided by Vanessa. She had humbly accepted the presence of Bunny in order to be near Duncan, and her forbearance was occasionally rewarded: “I copulated on Saturday with her with great satisfaction to myself physically,” Duncan wrote in his diary in February 1918, during an absence of Bunny’s, and added, somewhat incoherently, “It is a comfortable way the females of letting off one’s spunk and comfortable. Also the pleasure it gives is reassuring. You don’t get this dumb misunderstanding body of a person who isn’t a bugger.”
It is to one such coitus of convenience that the author of the memoir under review owes her life, which began on Christmas Day, 1918, at Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse that Vanessa had rented in 1916 for her and Duncan and Bunny, and where she and Duncan were to intermittently live (with and without his various boyfriends) for the next forty years. The child was given the name Angelica Bell—the ever genial (and almost ever absent) Clive had agreed to be the putative father—and was not told the truth about her parentage until she was seventeen. On the night of Angelica’s birth, Frances Spalding reports, Vanessa’s other children, Julian and Quentin Bell, aged ten and eight, “scuttled about like mice, until distracted by stockings and presents; Duncan and Bunny sat up all night talking with the doctor. Bunny was surprised that the perfectly formed baby already exhibited signs of intelligence and independent will…. ‘Its beauty is the remarkable thing about it,’ he wrote to Lytton on Christmas Day, adding the afterthought ‘I think of marrying it …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.