an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London
a film directed by Christopher Hampton
Rilke was in love with women who loved hopelessly but persistently. They included Héloise, and Mariana Alcoforado, who wrote the famous Lettres portugaises and turned out to be an enclosed nun but a French literary hack. It’s a pity Rilke didn’t know about Carrington. She fits perfectly into his cherished category. In 1915, at the age of twenty-two, she fell in love with the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey, and the rest of her life was devoted to making him happy. She went so far as to marry Ralph Partridge, a young man whom Strachey loved and who was crazy about her. She did it so that she should never be separated from Strachey, and she never was. She said she was his pen-wiper, and gave him one embroidered “Use me.”
Carrington, Strachey, and Partridge formed a ménage à trois that lasted until Strachey’s death eleven years later. By that time it had become a ménage à quatre to include Frances Marshall. Carrington liked Frances, Partridge loved her, and after Carrington’s death he married her. In 1931 Strachey developed stomach cancer. As he lay dying and disoriented, Carrington sponged his face and heard him whisper: “Carrington, why isn’t she here? I want her. Darling Carrington, I love her, I always wanted to marry Carrington, and I never did.” Michael Holroyd quotes these words in his good-humored and humane biography of Strachey which has just been republished in a revised, rearranged, cut, and augmented edition; and on which the film is based. He comments that what Strachey said “was not true; but he could not have said anything more deeply consoling.” It consoled me, too, as I watched the film, which began with wit and aplomb, dragged in the middle, and then became very moving with Strachey’s death and Carrington’s suicide a few weeks later. The writer-director Christopher Hampton handles death and sex with a mixture of intensity and pudeur, dwelling neither on the violence of Carrington’s death nor on intimate details of her sex life. Though it may sound corny to say so, Hampton reinstates the mystery of love and the desolation of death in the way he presents this weird triangle in their liberated, godless, and—to their contemporaries—shocking milieu.
Carrington (she dropped her Christian name because it was Dora) met Strachey at a Bloomsbury weekend in the country. In her catalog for the present exhibition of Carrington’s paintings and drawings at the Barbican Gallery in London Jane Hill insists that she was not part of Bloomsbury and that her paintings were of a different school. Strachey was born into the British intellectual aristocracy, the son of the distinguished Indian administrator, geographer, and meteorologist Sir Richard Strachey. He was first cousin to Duncan Grant, and brother to the psychiatrist James Strachey and to Pernel Strachey, the French scholar who became Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. His best known books, Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria, were an exciting break-through in biography …