Dora Carrington
Dora Carrington; drawing by David Levine

The group of writers and painters known as Bloomsbury is unique in English literary history because its members formed a closely knit circle which met regularly over many years and held to certain general principles. Its origins go back to undergraduate days at Cambridge when seven of its members had belonged to a secret discussion society known, because they numbered twelve, as the Apostles. The rules of this society, to which Tennyson had belonged, required absolute frankness and candor in discussion: no subjects were barred and the most personal remarks and criticisms could be made without giving offense.

One of its members around 1900 was Thoby Stephen, the son of the literary critic and biographer, Sir Leslie Stephen, and he introduced some of his fellow Apostles along with other undergraduates to his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia. Thoby died soon after, but in due course the girls married two of the Apostles—Clive Bell, the art critic, and Leonard Woolf, who later became a Fabian Socialist—and settled in London. Here the idea occurred to them of setting up a discussion group along the lines of the Apostles, but presided over by the two Stephen sisters, one of whom represented painting and the other literature.

Of the twelve original members of Bloomsbury, as this group came to be called, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, and E.M. Forster are still widely known and read today, while most of the others left their mark on the literature and painting of their time. What was distinctive about them was that they were all close friends who met every week, and often twice a week, over a period of more than twenty years for discussion and conversation. This, almost as much as writing or painting, was a thing they prided themselves on and they cultivated it as carefully, though in a less formal way, as the habitués of the French eighteenth-century salons had done. Their meetings began in 1912 and after the First World War they came gradually to admit new recruits, most of whom were young men recently come down from Cambridge. In the end, as death and absence thinned their ranks, the group came to be practically synonymous with Virginia and Vanessa’s family.

Bloomsbury was thus a group of writers and painters with a Cambridge background who met regularly to discuss questions of every sort, social, moral, and aesthetic. In their general principles they had been strongly influenced by the philosophy of G.E. Moore, who had been one of their fellow Apostles, and like him they stood, above everything else, for truth and common sense. But their meetings, when I attended them in the early Twenties, were not at all solemn. Perhaps they had exhausted their original themes, for they just talked. The tone was usually ironic and there was a good deal of banter: each seemed to be playing his own role in a well practiced orchestra, Virginia Woolf excelling in her flights of fantasy.

All the same they took themselves very seriously as reformers, standing out strongly against Victorian prudery, hypocrisy, and conventionality, the cult of the old and eminent, and the special status of gilded inferiority which that age assigned to women. The young addressed their seniors in age and distinction by their Christian names and argued vigorously with them, while to demonstrate the equal terms on which the sexes should meet, four-letter words were freely used when the subject seemed to require them, though usually in a rather forced and self-conscious way. It was quite an experience to hear such a refined person as Virginia Woolf come out with one of them. This was of course a great novelty, for the tone of that age was excessively prudish and it was one of the claims of the suffragettes that the liberation of women would have a purifying effect upon both the language and the morals of men.

A less agreeable side of Bloomsbury is that it was very pleased with itself and inclined to look superciliously on outsiders. It might offer a pattern, as Clive Bell wrote a book to demonstrate, of the successful pursuit by gifted people of friendship, truth, and happiness, but it did not go out to meet the world. It was conscious of being an elite and it did not mix with other people. Roger Fry, it is true, tried to break through and convert the philistines to a love of modern art and E.M. Forster went his own way, but the fine core of Bloomsbury kept very much to itself.

It was encouraged to do this by the fact that it was socially privileged. Although only three of them had comfortable private incomes and the others had to earn most of what they spent, they all of them came from upper-middle-class families whose members had had distinguished careers through several generations and this, together with their consciousness of their own intelligence, made them regard themselves as belonging to the main stream of English tradition, with the duty imposed on them of maintaining its standards. Their education at the most austere of English universities confirmed them in this, so that they never doubted that they were the vanguard of an age which was steadily advancing in enlightenment. Thus the rise of the lower middle classes, as represented first by Joyce and Lawrence and then in Germany by Hitler—people who had not acquired their mental outlook in a university and who refused to recognize its canons—left them at first puzzled and disapproving and then aghast.


It was into this somewhat rarified and intellectual society that a young, uneducated, and scatterbrained girl called Dora Carrington was suddenly thrown. She came of an obscure family—her father had been a railway engineer in India who on his retirement married a governess—and was sent to a school at Bedford where she learned little except to read and write. But she showed such a marked gift for drawing that in 1910, when she was just seventeen, it was decided that she should go to the Slade School of Art. Here she spent three years as one of its star pupils, after which she settled in London, maintaining herself on a minute income and mixing in a society of young artists and writers which included Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Brett, D.H. Lawrence, John and Paul Nash, and Aldous Huxley.

She was also taken up by that extravagant figure, Lady Ottoline Morrell, the sister of the Duke of Portland, who at her beautiful house near Oxford entertained a mixed bag of intellectuals and artists which ranged from Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Mark Gertler. This last, an East End Jew who was one of the most talented painters of his generation, had been deeply in love with Carrington since he had first met her at the Slade and they passed as lovers, though in fact Carrington, who had mixed feelings about sexual relations (she hated being a woman), did not for several years give herself to him. I call her by her surname as she was only known by that: such had been the custom at the Slade and she disliked her first name Dora too much ever to use it.

In 1915 her life was changed dramatically by her falling in love with Lytton Strachey. He was a tall, cadaverous man with a red beard and a voice that went up into squeaks, thirteen years older than herself, and a homosexual. On their first meeting she had disliked him, then suddenly she was bowled over by him. He was at first taken aback, then flattered, then gradually won over by her persistence. An attempt at sexual relations failed, but in 1917 they settled down together in a mill house near Pangbourne, where she acted as his housekeeper. But she felt desperately insecure and afraid of losing him. As she knew, it made him ill at ease to live alone in the country with a young woman, and then he was a man who valued his independence and he did not wish to become responsible for her future. Thus when Ralph Partridge, a handsome, athletic young soldier just back from the war, fell in love with her and came to live with them, she reluctantly overcame her antimatrimonial principles and married him because Strachey liked his company so much that she felt if she did so he would not leave her.

This ménage à trois lasted with two upheavals till Strachey’s death in 1932. Carrington took a lover and Partridge a mistress while Strachey had his boy friend, so that the usual domestic molecule of two atoms became enlarged to six. This led at times to great strains and stresses, but the original three held together in their new house near Hungerford because their mutual needs and affections made it difficult for them to separate. Carrington might twice in succession set her eyes on a young man in spite of her deep attachment to her husband, but the chief person in her life was always by a long way her father figure, Lytton, and she used to say that if he had been exiled to Siberia she would have abandoned everything and gone with him. When he died she killed herself.

When I first met Carrington in 1919 she was an oddly dressed, gracefully awkward girl of twenty-six with a broad-shouldered, somewhat stocky figure. Her hair, which she wore bobbed, had been corn-colored but was now turning a pale brown, and her eyes were large and startlingly blue. Though soft rather than piercing when they looked at you, they were extemely long sighted and took in everything at a glance. Although she could hardly, in spite of her regular features, be described as beautiful, she was very striking and drew attention wherever she went. Yet she was not physically attractive to most men, perhaps because she did not radiate sex, though if anyone fell in love with her it took him many years to get her out of his system.


The reason for this lay in her character. She was immensely alive with a hidden life of her own, though this was partly masked by her quiet and subdued manner. Her eyes, moving restlessly about the room, were an index of her mind, which was continuously being caught by new objects. Her mood too changed all the time. Whatever she felt she felt with the greatest intensity. Each new impression erased the last one so that when she looked into herself, she was aware of a welter of conflicting feelings which she could not organize.

Thus she was continually being torn between her desire to be alone and paint, to work in the garden, to go to parties and see people, or to visit her lover, or perhaps not visit him but instead write him a letter. Suddenly the desire to do this or that would come over her and she had to follow it, and then she would change her mind and do something else. That is, she had the lack of coordination of a child, together with a child’s freshness and immediacy of vision.

Yet though so changeable in her moods she was constant in her affections. She never stopped caring for anyone she had once loved and when the relation began to go wrong as, owing to the strain set up by her complicated life and her erratic temperament, it was continually doing, she made the greatest efforts to renew it and keep it alive. She never willingly gave up anyone.

In company she was usually rather silent, for she was diffident about her conversational powers and preferred to keep in the background. She was at her best in tête à têtes and if she liked anyone she would make great efforts to draw him out and establish closer relations with him. These relationships were the things she most valued in life after her painting and she ended by acquiring a number of devoted friends of both sexes. With them she could indulge in her passion for jokes and teasing, for as her letters show she had a great sense of fun.

But she was not really at ease with the older members of Bloomsbury, who were inclined to patronize her because she was neither socially sophisticated nor intellectual. Although she met them continually both in London and when they came down to her house for weekends, her relations with them were hardly close. The circle of painters and eccentrics that surrounded Augustus John and his beautiful wife Dorelia was more to her taste, though she got on well with Strachey’s young Cambridge friends. During the last years of her life she gave up painting in despair at not being able to find enough time for it and became much more gregarious and party loving, though not happier.

One of her strongest traits was her secretiveness. Her mother’s attempts to control her when she was growing up had given her a sense of guilt about almost everything she did so that she kept her intimate feelings and her relations with other people to herself and did not confide in even her best friends. She liked to feel that no one knew anything about her. For this reason she could not bear to be questioned about what she had been doing and would tell any lie to protect herself. But Lytton Strachey, who was aloof and secretive himself, never asked her questions and so she ended by telling him much of what she felt and did. As the years passed she came to have a relation with him such as few couples have with one another, for it was kept alive by frequent absences and never clouded by jealousy or possessiveness. Her letters to him bring out the charm of this intimacy and show him in a more sympathetic light than anything else in his life does.

And now a volume of her letters has come out with selections from her diary. Who could ever have supposed that those rapidly scrawled, badly spelled sheets that she was continuously sending off to her friends could look so well in print? For they are superb letters, alive and spontaneous in every line and displaying all the facets of her gay, life-loving but also serious and melancholy character. They are surely the best letters to have been published in England in this century.

Most of the figures in the literary and painting world of the time, excepting only the poets, appear in them and they are enlivened by her delightful and amusing drawings. Her sharp observation of people and places and her power of expressing her own feelings are both evident, but what seems to me most remarkable about them is their complete unself-consciousness and their intimate conversational tone. They also tell a story, though with gaps which Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey fills in, and the end is indescribably sad. Few people can ever have drained life to the dregs as completely as she did.

The book has been admirably edited by David Garnett and a number of her paintings have been reproduced which show that she had a very real talent which the circumstances of her life prevented her from developing. It is a pity that there cannot be photographs of her to show what she looked like in her twenties. But she greatly disliked being photographed and as she grew older her face lost its attractiveness except when she was animated. She lived intensely and slept badly, often awakened by nightmares, and soon after she passed thirty it came in repose to wear a look of strain.

This Issue

July 1, 1971