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 and helped to establish the Bloomsbury creed of intellectual and moral freedom and to debunk the Victorian ethos.
Carrington came from a prim middle-middle-class family in the exceptionally unexciting town of Bedford. Far from being an intellectual, she was barely educated. One of the reasons she adored Strachey was that he introduced her to English and French literature. But her endearingly (Edward Learishly) illustrated, misspelled letters show that she was not only sensitive and witty, but highly perceptive too. Blow-ups of them figure a lot in the exhibition, which has a strong biographical emphasis—including home movies of Bloomsbury charades. High-spirited and surprisingly unsophisticated, the films provide a fascinating insight into the milieu, as well as a warning against exposing home movies to strangers.
When Carrington met Strachey she had just graduated from the Slade School of Art. Her work was admired there and won a lot of prizes. But this can happen to painters who don’t develop much further. Certainly the Barbican exhibition—quite small because not much of her work survives—is not very striking, except for one or two early landscapes, which are intense, airless, and saturated with color. She got a kick out of decorating her own and her friends’s houses. Photographs of some of this work are included in the exhibition, and one or two pastiches—rooms she might have done. The only one I have ever seen that she really painted is George Rylands’s sitting room at King’s College, Cambridge—a huge, magnificent salon in a building by the nineteenth-century architect William Wilkins. The decoration is sketchily cinquecento, and much quieter in color than the jolly, rustic pseudo-Carrington rooms in the exhibition—which also contains some forceful portraits. Seeing the portraits at a distance from the entrance, I thought they were by Mark Gertler, and had been included because they showed members of Carrington’s circle (and in fact there is one by him of her). But the rest are by Carrington all right: the men solid and brooding, the women bright, fullface—bucolic and decorative as Russian dolls.
She was good at suggesting physical likenesses, and so was Gertler, a fellow student at the Slade, a rising star, great friend, and fiercely in love with her. He wanted to marry her, but she turned him down. At this point in her life she couldn’t face sex, and her persistent virginity was a great worry to her friends who all believed in free and frequent love. Gertler was so jealous of Strachey that he knocked him down—“anything more cinematographic,” said Strachey, “can hardly be imagined.” Knocking people down was a very non-Bloomsbury thing to do since jealousy was proscribed. Strachey (who found Gertler very attractive) commented humanely that jealousy must be very painful if one is afflicted with it. In the film, Rufus Sewell plays Gertler with splendid fury.
Strachey is the hero of the film—a real hero of a new and unpredictable kind. Jonathan Pryce is beyond praise in the role. He puts across both the dignity of the man and his absurdity (he always carried a rug and an inflatable rubber cushion with him). He looks wise, sounds wise, has a cool charm, and manages to be homosexual without camping. English Bloomsbury buffs complained that the script did not give him enough witty lines to say, but he manages to convey ironic humor in his facial expression—not easy, since it has to worm its way out through thickets of beard and eyebrow. The film is about him as much as it is about Carrington, who is played by Emma Thompson.
Thompson is the English Meryl Streep, an actress so thoughtful, competent, and ubiquitous that one feels obliged to keep acknowledging how well she acts, how versatile she is. She was perfect as the sensible Margaret Schlegel in Howards End. But Carrington is outside her range. By all accounts—and we have many of them from members of Carrington’s gossipy, analytical, and articulate circle—she was a naive, fey, reckless, clumsy, irrational, and unconfident creature. Droves of men fell in love with her combination of milkmaid innocence and kooky mystery. Thompson’s performance alludes conscientiously to all her characteristics (including the pigeon-toes), but she is hopelessly unpeculiar, and Carrington was very peculiar indeed. Besides, she was twenty-two when she met Strachey—who was thirty-five and always groaning about being old. When she committed suicide after his death she was thirty-eight. Thompson is in her late thirties, so her age fits the later episodes. There’s a choice, of course, between casting a young actress and getting in the make-up department to age her, or else finding an experienced player who can act youth.
Thompson has an unexpected way of inflecting her lines, which is young and appealing, but she moves with the sedate confidence of maturity. Her lovers and husband are played by what seems like the entire new generation of young British actors: an unfortunate compounding of the initial casting error, since they make Thompson appear unduly motherly. And yet the general youth and ardor are an important part of the story: all those men either fought in the First World War or else conscientiously objected to it (Strachey’s appearance before the tribunal is a comic high spot). A sense of the war going on or recently concluded is important to the mood of the film. At the very beginning Carrington and Strachey walk along the Sussex cliffs and hear the guns booming from across the Channel, and one is kept aware throughout of the pathos of the generation they belonged to. No wonder they did whatever they did for pleasure—Carrington painted to please herself only.
Once she had stopped minding about her virginity, she had many affairs. So did Strachey, and their lovers rush in and out of the picture without leaving much of an impression beyond a sense of confusion. This is where the film drags. Christopher Hampton has written several effective plays and screenplays, the most effective, perhaps, being Dangerous Liaisons. The dialogue in Carrington is very cleverly constructed, often out of quotations from letters by and about her. She explains things she would probably never have explained out loud, such as what she feels about her art: she paints when she is happy, she says, and it makes her happier. It is for her a private business—especially her portrait of Strachey: she doesn’t like the idea of others seeing what she has loved. To make such statements sound spontaneous takes some skill, and Hampton does it. But this is his directorial debut. Mike Newell (who directed Four Weddings and a Funeral) was meant to be in charge, and Hampton took over from him at the last moment.
So it is not surprising that a lot has gone wrong. The film suffers from too much detail and too little change of pace. The camera dwells—and dwells and dwells—on the English countryside where Strachey and Carrington shared successive houses (Tidmarsh and Ham Spray), both perpetually bathed in Merchant/Ivory brown Windsor light. It seems always to be autumn, though the birds haven’t noticed that. They squawk as though it were spring—not just songbirds, but sea gulls and owls, too, while a Stakhanovite woodpecker hammers away. You might be watching a Tourist Board commercial.
Then there is the question of authenticity. When Strachey and Carrington move into their first house in 1917, the light bulbs they triumphantly put in have glass drips on the ends of their noses. Research has been done. But when it comes to the couple’s second house, we see a huge Lutyensesque spread instead of the little Regency house familiar from Bloomsbury snapshots of friends sprawling in deck chairs in front of its charming façade. The Ham Spray House you see in the film is an insult to Strachey’s and Carrington’s taste, and, unlike light bulbs, taste is an essential part of their story. The house has outraged Frances Partridge, Ralph’s ninety-four-year-old widow who lived on at Ham Spray until a short time ago. She is also outraged by the fact that in the film she wears a hat, which she never did, and most of all by the portrayal of her late husband.
Carrington invited him to Tidmarsh in 1918, and in Holroyd’s account the visit was a comic disaster. It is exaggerated in the film, with Steven Waddington as Partridge railing against buggers and declaring that pacifists should be lined up and shot. Holroyd says that “for all his individualism and disinclination to submit to authority, this robust man-of-the-world fell largely under Lytton’s sway. From a bluff and breezy extrovert he changed into a rather cultivated man of letters, who would work for the Hogarth Press, review for the New Statesman and finally become an author.” In the film the change seems a bit abrupt but not unimaginable.
Another objection comes from Lord Hutchinson, a prominent London barrister and former Chairman of the Tate Gallery who knew Mark Gertler because his parents—energetic patrons of modern art—befriended the painter. His mother, Mary Hutchinson, was a witty Bloomsbury hostess and for many years the mistress of Clive Bell. Gertler is portrayed as a wild man, says Hutchinson, whereas in fact he was charming and lovable. Well, charming and lovable was how he came across to me, and his helpless, hopeless, ridiculous rages make him more so and are also a comment on Carrington’s effect on him. Besides, Gertler did knock Strachey down, and some of his paintings are full of rage—pacifist rage against the war and everyone responsible for it. The Merry-Go-Round is the most famous of these, and probably his most famous painting altogether.
Perhaps historical films should stick to heroes like Robin Hood and George III about whom no one can have personal memories. It won’t protect them from complaints about authenticity, but at least no one will be upset. Films and plays based on fiction are not safe either: Madame Bovary and The Age of Innocence are criticized because Isabelle Huppert and Michelle Pfeiffer are not the critic’s idea of the women Flaubert and Wharton imagined. Nothing is to be done about such complaints; there is a store of stories—real and fictional, and especially love stories—that get recycled over and over again. It is because they are such good stories. Hampton did well to reconstruct Carrington’s, which has an unusual twist and seems to me to be tragic and affecting enough to go on being told.
January 11, 1996
Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995). ↩