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What Maisie Didn’t Know

Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood

by Angelica Garnett
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 181 pp., $14.95

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.1

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.”2

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; when she is twenty I shall be 46—will it be scandalous?”’

It is common for children to think of their parents’ lives as divided into two discrete parts, the dividing line being their own birth. In the photographs they see of their parents as young people and in the stories they hear about their parents’ youth, children simply do not recognize the heavy, monolithic, often oppressive presences that—such being the condition of helpless dependency into which we are born—parents become in the imaginations of their offspring, and never entirely leave off being, however lovingly and intelligently, and even gaily, family life is conducted. Angelica Garnett expresses this universal fantasy when she writes that after reading her mother’s letters to Virginia Woolf and to Clive Bell “I was astonished by a vitality that I had not known was there,” and that the person who emerged from the letters “was a woman that I could see through the much darker personality of the later Vanessa, which lay far more heavily on my consciousness.” But in her case, as in that of other children of famous parents writing their almost inevitably aggrieved memoirs, there is an added pathos to both the feeling of having arrived on the scene too late to know her parents at their most wonderful, and of disbelief in the wonderfulness itself.

These books by the children of the celebrated are poised on a painful paradox. Their authors say they want to be free of their parents, and yet they can think of no better way of achieving an identity than to retail to a callous and indifferent world the intimate secrets of their families. Acting as posterity’s spies, rather than as characters in their own dramas, these oppressed and obsessed offspring write with the self-effacement of the biographer rather than with the egotism of the autobiographer. Imagine a book written after the deaths of Anna and Vronsky by their illegitimate daughter, Annie, in which she expresses her resentment at being treated as a cipher (how many readers of Anna Karenina even remember the child’s name?) but simply cannot reinvent herself. Angelica Garnett, similarly, cannot get out from under the weight of the monumental novelistic work that the writings of the Bloomsbury diarists, letter writers, memorists, autobiographers, and biographers have collectively become (and of which her own memoir now becomes a part), and she remains a figure with practically no distinguishing characteristics—something she notices herself: in an epilogue she writes, “To me no one appears more shadowy than myself, or more questionably portrayed in my book.”

Vanessa, in contrast, is vividly (if savagely) portrayed. Frances Spalding’s affectionate and admiring biography gave us the portrait of a beautiful and talented woman who lived her life bravely, gamely, and unconventionally; who achieved a balance between her considerable artistic achievement and her even more extraordinary personal relations; and who, without having any of today’s feminist consciousness, created an existence for herself that any feminist might envy for its freedom from social constraint and its serene dedication to the daily, unremitting, making of art. Spalding’s evaluation of Vanessa may be summed up in the following passage she quotes from an unpublished letter that Vanessa’s discarded lover, Roger Fry, wrote to her:

Oh why do I admire you—my dear it would take ages to tell you all I do admire you for but you see I think you go straight for the things that are worthwhile—you have done such an extraordinarily difficult thing without any fuss, but thro’ all the conventions kept friends with a pernickety creature like Clive, got quit of me and yet kept me your devoted friend, got all the things you need for your own development and yet managed to be a splendid mother…. You give one a sense of security of something solid and real in a shifting world. Then to [sic] your marvellous practical power wh. has of course really a quality of great imagination in it, because your efficiency comes without effort or worry or fuss. No 1 don’t think you need ever doubt yourself. You have genius in your life as well as in your art and both are rare things.

In Deceived with Kindness, Angelica offers us the unpleasant underside of this idealization. She does not consider Vanessa a splendid mother. She writes sinisterly of Vanessa’s intrusiveness—“long straight fingers [which were] too apt to find their way into every crevice of my body.” On the other hand, she felt frustrated in her child’s desire for discipline:

My earliest sensations were of her propitiatory attitude, as though I held a weapon in my small, fat hands. Anxious not to provoke, she continually soothed and lulled me into acceptance. Cries, screams or the sight of tears upset her; if she could buy peace she was satisfied. I longed for her to want me to be strong and independent, whereas apparently all she desired was to suffocate me with caresses.

As a girl and an adolescent, she continued to feel oppressed and somehow cheated. She reproaches Vanessa for denying her proper schooling—“Convinced that I was going to be an artist, she decided that I needed no more education than she had had herself. Seeing also that I had showed promise of being good-looking, she thought that I would ‘get along all right’ without training of the mind: such indeed was her attitude of laissez-faire that one sometimes had the impression that she despised the intellect—or perhaps she only denied my right to develop mine, since she certainly admired the erudition of many of her friends, including her sister”—and she writes bitterly of her experience at a sort of progressive girls’ school named Langford Grove, whose headmistress, known as Curty, was so enamored of Vanessa and Bloomsbury that she permitted Vanessa to dictate the terms of her daughter’s education:

She persuaded Mrs. Curtis to let me drop any subject I found difficult. Latin, arithmetic and allied subjects, games and some other disciplines were successively crossed off my timetable until, in addition to music and the arts, I learnt only history, French and English. True, I would never have shone at any of the discarded subjects, except perhaps for Latin—but it was the demoralisation of not being put to the test like everyone else that was insidious and harmful. I did not realise what it was at the time, but this misplaced permissiveness ate into my morale like a beetle into a honeycomb.

The glorious artistic and intellectual household of Charleston—“Each year the house and garden grew lovelier, more adorned, more imbued with associations,” Spalding rhapsodizes. “It exerted a potent spell on all who visited it, spinning an invisible net of contentment over its occupants”—was perceived a little differently by its youngest member. Recalling the obscure shame about her sloppy appearance she was made to feel during a visit to the utterly conventional middleclass household of a schoolmate, the grown Angelica reflects:

At home what did it matter if my legs were bare or my clothes in holes, so long as I was busy and happy? No one ever noticed whether I brushed my hair or cleaned my fingernails—if Mrs. Carr had used the word “slut” she would have been nearer the truth. Vanessa frowned on convention, and we imitated her, mentally elbowing out those who valued cleanliness and tidiness, as though there was no room in the world for both points of view. In our world indeed there hardly was—Mrs. Carr would not have survived for five minutes—but no one seemed to think this might be our loss rather than hers. The walls round us were high and the conditions inside the castle odd. Though we were unbrushed, unwashed and ragged, our carpets and curtains faded and our furniture stained and groggy, appearances of a purely aesthetic kind were considered of supreme importance. Hours were spent hanging an old picture in a new place, or in choosing a new colour for the walls.

Of Vanessa’s relationship with Duncan, which Spalding characterizes as a “lasting creative union” and sees as a triumph of womanly forbearance over homosexual inconstancy (“By avoiding confrontation, mitigating disturbance and by silently absorbing her suffering into herself, she had emerged from these difficult early years at Charleston with the elusive Duncan still at her side. Where Lytton, Maynard, Adrian, and Bunny had failed, Vanessa had created a loving relationship that, however delicately balanced, had survived”), Angelica writes with a kind of pitying contempt:

According to Paul Roche, in 1918, the year of my birth, Duncan had told Vanessa that he felt incapable of having further sexual relations with her. Thus her victory, if it was one, in keeping Duncan for herself was at best pyrrhic, gained at a cost she failed to assess. She seems to have accepted it as a necessary sacrifice for the privilege of living with this immensely attractive yet incomplete human being, to whom she was so passionately attached, and there must have been a strong element of masochism in her love for him, which induced her to accept a situation which did permanent harm to her self-respect.

A similar severity informs Angelica’s view of her parents’ obviously wellintentioned, though probably ill-judged, decision to shield her from the problems of being illegitimate by pretending that she was not. She sees the decision as an irresponsible and unloving act. Of Duncan, she writes in a prologue, “It has taken me all these years to realise how much I resent his neglect of me, divesting himself of all responsibility, as though I were an object rather than a human being,” and later in the memoir Vanessa is charged with the same affront: “She never realised that, by denying me my real father, she was treating me even before my birth as an object, and not as a human being.” Angelica was told the truth by Vanessa when she was seventeen, but she had already obscurely known it for a long time (a schoolmate had once actually accused her of being Duncan’s daughter, and while denying it “a flash of clairvoyance told me it was true”), and it changed nothing. Good old Clive was not even informed of Angelica’s enlightenment—which only compounded the genial falseness of their relationship—and the charmingly flaky Duncan3 could scarcely have been expected to acquire the characteristics of a paterfamilias on the spot. In fact, “being told the truth made the world seem less and not more real,” she writes.

No one seemed capable of talking openly and naturally on the subject: Vanessa was in a state of apprehension and exhaltation, and Duncan made no effort to introduce a more frank relationship. They gave the impression of children who, having done something irresponsible, hope to escape censure by becoming invisible.

But Angelica’s greatest bitterness is reserved (as well it might be) for her marriage to David Garnett. The cradleside prophecy came true. When she was eighteen and a timid student of acting in London, the forty-four-year-old Bunny began to court her. Angelica’s account of Bunny’s relentless pursuit of her has something of the atmosphere of doom and horror, tinged with a sense of nameless sexual awfulness, that surrounded marriages between innocent girls and corrupt older men in nineteenth-century novels—Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond, for instance, or Gwendolen Harleth and Grandcourt. “I was as putty in his hands,” Angelica writes, still hating the man’s guts. “I was…in the grip of a personality a hundred times more powerful than my own.”

Of the characters who make up the cast of the Bloomsbury Dynasty, Bunny Garnett emerges as one of the least prepossessing. The son of Edward and Constance Garnett, he trained as a botanist and then became the author of some very successful, now outdated but not discreditable, novels. He was said to be very good-looking, was a chronic womanizer, and was the friend of many gifted men and women; evidently he had qualities that made people love him in spite of his faults, but they have not survived. He cuts a very poor figure now, and, perhaps more than any other testimony, it is his own preposterously pompous three-volume autobiography (The Golden Echo, The Flowers of the Forest, and Familiar Faces)4 that diminishes him in the eyes of posterity, though Virginia Woolf’s diaries don’t help his image much, either. “Poor lugubrious Bunny,” she calls him, or “lumpish Bunny.”

On learning of the affair that Bunny and Angelica started in the spring of 1940, a concerned Virginia wrote: “Pray God she may tire of that rusty surly slow old dog with his amorous ways & his primitive mind…. What can she be feeling, in the train to Yorkshire this sullen May night? All the nightingales singing from that rusty canine jaw?” Later that year, after Virginia and Leonard had lunched with Angelica and Bunny, Virginia lamented, “A.’s position, with B. as her mentor, struck us both as almost grotesque—a distortion: a dream; for how can she endure Bottom. And when will she wake?”

By the time Bunny and Angelica married, in the spring of 1942, Angelica was already fully awake to the dank gloom of her predicament in marrying a man she didn’t love (and who, she now believes, married her for the sickest of unconscious reasons: to revenge himself on Vanessa for once refusing to sleep with him by carrying off the chief prize of her union with his ex-lover), but it wasn’t until she had borne him four daughters and was well into middle age that she was able—emboldened by a chance encounter with the writings of Karen Horney—to leave her creepy Mr. Knightely. We get a glimpse of Angelica as a young married woman, running a large, cold country household, with little help and perpetually ill small children, driving herself also to paint and sing and play the violin and piano, and going to bed every night “almost giddy with exhaustion.” Visitors would come, and, “seeing my life through their eyes, I built up an image of myself as the perfect young mother-housewife-hostess, and spent much of my energy living up to it.”

Angelica says she was “unable to imagine anything more original than actually becoming a second Vanessa,” and consequently never became anybody at all, until a mental breakdown in 1975 propelled her into the rueful self-awareness that permeates her memoir, and without which it doubtless would never have been written. But, unlike other women of her generation who have lately been fretfully reexamining their lives, it never occurs to Angelica to look outside her family, and to wonder whether at least some of her unhappiness might not have had to do with the particularly difficult moment in social history with which her coming of age coincided. Roger Fry characterized the Bloomsbury group as “the last of the Victorians.” Vanessa’s bohemianism and artiness and bawdiness were played out against a reassuring background of middle-class philistinism; and her painting, with its postimpressionist palette and sometimes somewhat spurious modernist air, remained securely anchored in the English academy. Vanessa and Virginia and the other unconventional young women of Bloomsbury were like Rosalinds dressed in men’s clothes, slipping back and forth between the men’s world and the women’s world, delighting equally in the masquerade and the unmasking. By the time of Angelica’s marriage, the borders between the two worlds, disconcertingly, were at once dissolving and being more heavily patrolled. The postwar period tried and confused the souls of young married women in a way that no other period had (or has since); the desperate domesticity that Angelica describes was hardly unique to her: when she writes of herself as “a domestic slave, giving up, in practice if not in theory, any claim to [a] brilliant future,” she could be writing about a whole generation of educated, or—as they actually found it amusing to call themselves—overeducated women. At the same time, of course, few women came out of a family situation as rum as Angelica’s—or were surrounded from birth by such crushingly remarkable people.

Angelica grew up feeling that she did not come up to scratch. She believed that her aunt Virginia was disappointed in her. Of all the Bloomsbury people, it was the upright Leonard—who unapologetically called her on misbehavior—with whom she felt most easy. As she presents herself, we get the picture of a child of ordinary abilities and somewhat weak will who didn’t quite belong among the extraordinary and willful people of Bloomsbury. While Deceived with Kindness acknowledges the privilege of a childhood spent among artists and writers of the caliber of Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and Roger Fry—and gives us some wonderful vignettes of them at Charleston—it seems to suggest that Angelica would have been better off in a more regular, if less interesting, family. Her people may have been brilliant, but they didn’t know the first thing about raising a child—this is the book’s repeated refrain, and its pathos is finally wearisome. Angelica’s psychological insights seem half-baked (significantly, they are almost always insights into the motives of others), and the discussion of her complicated relationship with her mother—though it forms the matrix of the book—remains on a vague, platitudinous level. As it must remain. It is only behind the doors of analysts’ consultation rooms or between the covers of great novels that these mysteries of family love and hatred receive their deeper elucidation. Angelica Garnett modestly says of herself that she is no professional writer (in her innocence, she believes that this fact and the fact that her book took seven years to write are connected), and her memoir, though many cuts above the usual amateurish mess produced by relatives of the famous under the cynical proddings of publishers, is the work of a talented but untrained writer. How much of the gaping hole of self at the book’s center is due to the writer’s insufficient grasp of the autobiographical form, and how much to her incomplete self-knowledge, can only be surmised.

  1. 1

    Quoted by Frances Spalding in Vanessa Bell (Ticknor & Fields, 1983).

  2. 2

    Frances Spalding again.

  3. 3

    In his biography of Lytton Strachey, Michael Holroyd characterizes Grant thus: “As a youth he often wore a dirty collar, usually upset his afternoon tea, and never knew what time it was. When he spoke he blinked his eyes, and generally carried on in such an irresponsible fashion as to convince his uncle, Trevor Grant, that he was a hopeless and possibly certifiable imbecile.”

  4. 4

    Ye olde Cocke and Balls,” Lytton Strachey once said of Garnett’s style.

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