Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf: A Biography

by Quentin Bell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 314 pp., $12.50

Lytton Strachey: The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers

edited by Paul Levy
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 176 pp., £3.70

Bloomsbury is, just now, like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season. It is not a natural place for fish, but rather a water stocked for the fisherman so that he may not cast his line in vain. It is a sort of catered pastoral, and lively, thoroughbred trout rise to the fly with a special leaping grace and style. But it wearies as an idea, a design, a gathering, and one would like to have each speckled specimen alone, singular. The period, the letters, the houses, the love affairs, the blood lines: these are private anecdotes one is happy enough to meet once or twice but not again and again.

Certain peripheral names vex the spirits. To see the word “Ottoline” on a page, in a letter, gives me the sense of continual defeat, as if I had gone to a party and found an enemy attending the bar. We, foreigners, will never take her in, although it seems we must. She is everywhere, but what is to be made of her? She engages them, Englishmen, endlessly and the rest of us not at all. Her invitations, her gifts, her houses, her costumes—the best minds of a generation (or two) rocked back and forth, pro and con, up and down over the quality and meaning of these. For years I thought Garsington, Lady Ottoline’s house, was a town name, a resort clever people were always going to or making a point of not going to. Hedonism is only a habit and the brightness of its practices fades with the dawn.

“What a fool Clive Bell is!” Lawrence says in one of his letters. Is that true, just? The one certain thing is that he is Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, husband of Vanessa, father of Quentin—and we are off again, engrossed in the study of Derby winners that came out of Man O’War.

The worst thing before the present exhaustion of Virginia Woolf was the draining of Lytton Strachey. This is a very overblown affair, right down to his friend Carrington, who committed suicide forty years ago—an unreclaimable figure, fluid, arrested, charming, very much a girl of the period, with the typical Bloomsbury orderly profligacy and passionate coldness. Her marriage and her love affairs are held in the mind for a day or so after hard study, but they soon drift away to the Carrington haunt. Ralph Partridge, yes: he turns up again at the Hogarth Press.

In a recent New Statesman, there was a moving and to me instructive portrait by V. S. Pritchett of the painter Mark Gertler, another Bloomsbury figure and another Bloomsbury current biography. Gertler grips your feelings immediately because of the sufferings he has passed and because of their roots in the fatalities and miseries of social history, for his link with the universal, for a drama in which the world plays a part. In him are absent all the proprieties…

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