Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Sex, Lies & Virginia - Escaping Bloomsbury

The renowned group of artists, writers and intellectuals, who collectively became known as "The Bloomsbury Group", have been the subject of innumerable books and biographies in recent years. This may be due to the fact that Bloomsbury (whose members included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the painter Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive, the artists Duncan Grant and Roger Fry and the economist John Maynard Keynes) were highly influential in the fields of art, literature and economics during the first part of the 20th century. The Group (which incidentally derived its name from the fact that most members lived in close proximity to each other in the Bloomsbury Square area of London) advocated intellectual and sexual freedom. Indeed, the latter is probably the reason why Bloomsbury has held our fascination for so long – the complicated friendships, family ties and romantic entanglements prove irresistible to our curiosity, as we strive to discover what makes this group of extraordinary people tick, both individually and collectively.

Angelica Garnett’s "Deceived with Kindness - A Bloomsbury Childhood" is not simply another revisitation of a now-familiar subject. Her book gives us rare and fascinating insight into Bloomsbury, not as an outsider looking in, but as a witness to the intimate workings of this exceptional group. The illegitimate daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Virginia Woolf’s niece, Angelica Garnett was raised in the company of, and under the influence of, some of the most respected intellectuals and artists of their day. Hers is a fascinating story.

Born on Christmas Day, 1918, Angelica grew up at Charleston in Sussex (now a museum) with her mother, her much-older brothers Quentin and Julian, and her mother’s close friend and confidante, Duncan. She believed her father to be Clive Bell (Vanessa’s estranged husband), a lie perpetrated by Clive himself, in a bid to prevent his family from disinheriting the child. Despite being surrounded by artistic and intellectual heavyweights, hers was a closeted up-bringing. Spoilt and doted upon, Angelica was, by her own volition, a much –loved child. Her relationship with her mother, however, was strained – mainly due to Vanessa’s inwardness, secretiveness and possessiveness. It was not until Angelica was seventeen, when her mother disclosed the truth about her father, that she began to understand the reason for her mother’s cautious and reserved demeanour.

Angelica was the product of an ill-fated love affair between Duncan and Vanessa. Duncan was predominately homosexual and very promiscuous, whereas Vanessa, it seems, remained in love and devoted to him all her life. Vanessa’s liberal acceptance of Duncan’s lifestyle appears to be a desperate attempt to hang onto him, no matter what – a desperation disguised as intellectual detachment. The lie about Angelica’s paternity is a central theme in the book, as it becomes obvious that her life has been irrevocably shaped by the repercussions of this insidious untruth.

Being a child of Bloomsbury, Angelica also had the unenviable task of trying to forge a life for herself outside the tight-knit group. Marked out as different from an early age, she struggled to establish an identity for herself. She did not have the intellectual aptitude of her aunt Virginia Woolf, nor did she excel at painting like her parents. She even admits Virginia was “disappointed” with her, having not lived up to expectations. In a bid to assert her independence, to loosen herself from her mother’s possessive hold and her aunt’s disapproving eye, she married David “Bunny” Garnett at the age of 24. Bunny, an author and publisher, was 26 years her senior and a friend of her parents. He pursued her intently for 6 years, despite being married with children. (His wife subsequently died, leaving him free to marry Angelica). It was only after her marriage that she discovered that Bunny had been Duncan’s gay lover years earlier. Bunny was also present at her birth, when he declared he would eventually marry her. He wrote to a friend: “I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 -- will it be scandalous?” And so, it seems, in marrying Bunny, far from escaping her mother and Bloomsbury in general, she found herself entangled even more, trapped in an unhappy marriage with the shadow of her parents constantly looming over her. Bloomsbury defined her, and she could never escape its grasp.

This book feels like one long exercise in self-analysis – the incestuous and Freudian undertones are unmistakable. Although the author at times comes across as self-obsessed and ego-centric, one imagines that she is as surprised as the reader about what she discovers during this process of self-discovery. "Deceived with Kindness" is an intriguing book, which not only gives us unique insight into the legend that is Bloomsbury, but which charts one woman’s extraordinary journey trying to cast off the familial and social ties that bind her. A captivating read.

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