Tag Archives: Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf (8?): Her Nephew Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled

It’s taken me more than a decade since buying it to get around to reading Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled (first published in 1995; Bell lived from 1910 until 1996). Though he set out to write an autobiography, after three failures he instead produced a set of memoirs of Bloomsbury figures of his parents’ generation (including both, or all three of them). All that I read (some are about figures in whom I have no interest) are not only perspicacious, but generous. He liked John Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballet dancer wife Lydia a lot, Leonard Woolf almost as much and is more than charitable toward Anthony Blunt (though appalled at Guy Burgess). As much as he revered Matisse’s paintings, he found the man an egomaniacal bore (Picasso was also egomaniacal, but perhaps Bell did not spend enough time in his company to find him boorish).

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He had already published an esteemed, award-winning two-volume biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf (1972). Technically, there is not a chapter on her in BR, but there is an appendix discussing A Room of Ones Own and Three Guineas, both of which he considered novels (and the latter an argument with his dead older brother, Julian). She also figures extensively in the chapter on her husband, Leonard Woolf, and her sister, Vanessa Bell. In particular, in the latter instance, he takes on the question of whether the girls were raped by their half-brother, George Duckworth. Though what Duckworth did would count as abuse, Quentin Bell is certain that vaginal penetration was not involved, both sisters being virgins when they married. He regrets never asking his mother about the matter, though it is very easy to understand why any son would be reluctant to go there.

I didn’t learn anything about the Stracheys (except that Dorothy Strachey Bussy, Gide’s translator into English, revered Trotsky). I guess I didn’t learn anything about Morgan Forster, either, but I know a lot about his biography and found what Bell wrote not only very kind, but also quite wise, especially about A Passage to India (which was not Bell’s favorite Forster novel; he does not specify which one was).

He is as nonjudgmental about the homosexual and heterosexual liaisons of his elders as they were about each other’s (though he disliked one of Keynes’s, Gabriel Atkins, Bell quite liked another, Sebastian Sprott).

 

I want to append what I wrote in 1999 about Leon Edel’s Bloomsbury: A House of Lions:

Edel comes across as a prissy, pompous, reductionist Freudian homophobe, smug and racist (about the “race” of Jews and about “primitives”). In short, his psychologizing and attempts to provide racial and sexual anthropology appalled me. E.g. Woolf “could appeal to a homosexual like Lytton [Strachey], since her aloofness offered no womanly threat” (194) or repeating Leonard Woolf’s view of Keynes as a “mental hermaphrodite” (39), whatever that might mean!

Though Edel both biographical detail and some sense of connections of the famous circle, I much prefer Bell’s insider account and can heartily recommend Bell’s book

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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