Frances Partridge was born in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury in 1900, one of six children of an architect.
She was educated at Bedales and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English and Moral Sciences.
In 1933 she married Ralph Partridge who died in 1960.
In addition to translating many books from French and Spanish and helping her husband to edit the Greville memoirs, she is author of five other published volumes of diaries: A Pacifist’s War, Everything to Lose, Hanging On, Other People and Good Company.
I interviewed her in the autumn of 1993. She was ninety-three then and as sharp and alert as she had always been.
I dread to contemplate what I would be like at her age and to think that she survived until the age of one hundred and four. Such women with their full mental capacity until the very end are remarkably rare.
Here is the full text of the interview.
You describe your father as ‘the obelisk directing our lives’ and your mother as ‘a friend in need, a support, someone to be greatly admired without qualification’. It sounds like the perfect combination for a child growing up. Were you aware of that at the time or did you come to appreciate it only late?
Of course I didn’t think of it in that detached way at the time; a child doesn’t. I was simply living it, but I was certainly aware of it. My father died when I was twenty-one so I have to think back quite a long way from my ninety-three years to recapture that picture. My mother lived on longer and I loved her very much. Sometimes one is irritated by one’s near relations, but I thought she was an admirable woman with a detached manner; I think that even more now.
You were the youngest of six children. Did this position in the family seem to carry with it a special significance … you weren’t just one of the children in the middle of a bunch, as it were…
My sister Eleanor and I were always called the little ones, and sometimes we were left out of some exciting expedition because we were the youngest. Eleanor was three years older and I quarrelled terribly with her. When we walked home from day school my nanny used to say, ‘I can tell you’ve been quarrelling. Your eyebrows show it – they cross together.’ And she was generally right. In some ways, of course, one did score by being the littlest one.
You say that your mother, although warm and loving, was singularly undemonstrative and disapproved of feelings being displayed. No doubt that was very much in keeping with the times. How long did it take you to break that particular mould?
My mother was an orphan from a very early age, and I think that may have affected her. She wasn’t a cold person at all; in fact she was deeply emotional, but her remark about cheapening your feelings by displaying them dented me for most of my life. Until I fell in love myself I was always affected by it and felt that emotions shouldn’t be shown. What she said seemed to me to be wrong, and I didn’t agree with her, but until I came into touch with Bloomsbury and the people who showed me that you’ve got to think for yourself, I probably accepted my mother’s values. I still recall that feeling of being snubbed: one moment one was sitting on her lap, and being fondled and caressed, and then suddenly one had to stalk off and be oneself; one was considered too big.
Your life was very much middle-class Edwardian with the usual domestic staff. Were you at any time struck by what might be called a social conscience? What I mean is, were you at all aware of the difference in comfort and status between your own life and those of the maids, for example?
Very much so. We had six maids, we were six children, and yet my father, who was an architect, built a house in the country which had no bathroom for the maids, and only one for all his children. This seemed quite extraordinary afterwards, and I can’t account for it. I also remember once walking by myself, and suddenly having the thought: why should people receive the money of their parents when they die? They have no right to it particularly, and should not everybody start equal? I was about fifteen at the time when a social conscience, as you call it, first appeared. My father was a fairly conservative man, but after his death my mother joined the Labour Party and adopted socialist leanings.
Your mother was a keen suffragist. How important was she for you as a role model in this respect?
I was very convinced by her arguments and also by some eminent suffragists. It was ‘gist’ not ‘gette’, she always said. The ‘gettes’ were the people who ran into race-horses and broke windows, but the people she believed in were the people who reasoned. It was she who sowed the seeds of my admiration for reason. Various eminent women such as Mrs Fawcett would come and stay in our house to make speeches. From an early age, I was very interested in listening to them. I even walked in a procession when I was about ten, holding a banner saying Votes for Women.
As a young girl you set aside any faith which you had acquired and wrote that you never had ‘the least temptation to believe in God again’. God is not usually so easily got rid of, especially when one lives as you did in a family of believers (apart from your father who was agnostic). Was it a rational thing with you, do you think, or was it a purely emotional reaction?
I don’t think there was anything to be emotional about really. My mother expected us to go to church but didn’t make a great fuss if we didn’t, and in the country church was rather a long way away. I never questioned it until I was eleven when I began to wonder where the belief came from, and indeed how one could possibly believe. I remember telling my sister that I didn’t believe, and she was appalled. All my brothers and sisters kept their faith longer than I did. I’m very interested in religion, and I’m fascinated, for instance, by how much comfort it gives to people when they’re bereaved. I became very fond of Lord David Cecil, and when his wife Rachel died slowly of cancer of the liver, I saw the enormous support religion gave to David who was not a very strong character. I myself never felt that. I can see that religion works for individuals, but appalling things have been done in its name – the Inquisition, the religious wars, the terrible problems in Ireland, and so on.
Did the fact that you spent so much time in the country encourage you to have a pantheistic view of the world – the kind of Wordsworthian ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused…’?
One of the poems that has chiefly moved me in my life is Wordsworth’s Immorality Ode, although immorality itself has never been an attraction. I love life, I might be said to worship it, and pantheism yes, that has remained with me until my nineties. I love nature and derive enormous pleasure from walking along hedgerows I’ve walked along dozens of times before.
Religion often becomes more important with advancing years. Have you never been tempted?
Not in the least … I must be truthful about this. My husband was not religious either but when we had our son the great question was whether we should have him christened. In the end we didn’t, and everybody said it was wrong and that he would be converted to some extreme form of religion himself, but he never was. As regards an afterlife, I can’t know for certain, but I see no reason to believe in one. I’m rather afraid of death – who isn’t – and obviously it must be close to me, but I prefer to think of it as sleep, which is something I love very much. Oblivion; that is what I long for when I cease, which doesn’t mean I don’t love the world.
You describe a very painful return journey to the Hindhead house of your childhood when you felt nothing but disappointment and disillusionment. The house and the garden and the surroundings were not all as you remembered them, but after a period of unease you decided to try to keep you childhood memories intact. Do you think this is something that happens only between childhood and adulthood, or is it a phenomenon which affects the different stages of our lives?
That’s a very difficult question. It certainly did happen the way you tell it. I remember being terribly disquieted by an old oak tree in which we used to sit and play games. The picture that I’d carried around in my mind simply didn’t fit. Perhaps it is because a child sees this differently in relation to other things; the dimensions are not the same as those of an adult. I did not make any deliberate decision to preserve the childhood memories; they were simply too strong, and they overcame me.
By the time you went to Bedales at the age of fifteen you were already someone of independent mind and self-knowledge. It is difficult to see how you managed to adapt so well to the cold baths, the stinking lavatories and the lack of privacy without sacrificing your independence to the herd mentality. How was this actually achieved?
All my elder brothers and sisters had gone off to school, so in a sense I became more lonely than I had been earlier. I went to Bedales partly because my great friend Julia Strachey was there and I wanted to join her. It was a co-educational school so we were always in love with somebody. Somehow, while criticizing it for its discomforts, you saw the world in miniature at that kind of school. Of course, I never came to like stinking lavatories – in fact, I was often in tears and had to retire to the staff lavatory or some private place to have a good sob. But I did find other pleasures, and those were mainly social.
The war was of course underway by this time, and you had already begun to form pacifist convictions. How was it possible to nurture such thoughts in such an atmosphere of patriotism and king-and-country idealism?
I don’t think my immediate family were strongly patriotic or in any sense jingoistic. Indeed I had a first cousin, so very much older than me she might have been a different generation, who was a leading pacifist. Her name was Catherine Marshall, and you will find her in all the books of that time. I don’t know that she influenced me much; I mention her simply to show that it wasn’t thought an outrageous thing to take that view. I became a total pacifist around the age of sixteen, though whether I spoke about it to anybody I can’t really remember.
Your brother Tom was interned in a German camp for the duration of the war. Did that have a profound effect on you?
It did, because he was one of the two siblings of whom I was very fond. Also my mother was very upset – we all were – and she desperately tried to get him home. He emerged from the camp a perfectly changed being. He’d been a very lively boy, talkative, quite pleased with himself in a way, rather good looking, but he came out as if somebody had put a mute on him, it was not that he had been badly treated; in fact, there were a lot of academics in the camp, they learned languages, they had orchestras, they acted in plays, and so on, and he might very well have been killed in the war if he hadn’t been interned. But he was severely affected. Indeed the whole trainload seemed subdued; it was as if they had come from a place where people spoke softly. That first war had an appalling effect on people.
Before you went to Cambridge, you describe an almost mystical experience when you understood with absolute conviction that your beliefs were yours alone and always would be, and that you were very much your own person. Where do you think this conviction came from?
I wish I knew. I was walking alone when I had that feeling. It perhaps makes me sound a very conceited young person, but it was an exciting thought certainly. It was a kind of realization that a person and his beliefs were in some way indissoluble.
And that stayed with you for the rest of your life?
Yes. I’m very dull; I go on in the same way.
Your days at Cambridge were exciting and intellectually stimulating. Did you have the feelings at the time that you were part of a very special group of people who were going to be influential even outside the university precincts?
No. It was a very interesting time, but I didn’t think in terms of power or influence as such. We lived a very simple life since the war wasn’t quite over. One went off to lectures which were often rather a waste of time – people gave the impression of simply reciting what they’d said a hundred times, almost falling asleep where they stood. I read philosophy for the second part of my tripos, and that really stimulated me, as did Shakespeare. I was very keen on Elizabethans altogether, and I liked some poetry very much but not as much as other people did. I’ve always been sorry about that.
You mentioned the disease of ‘incipient Bloomsbury’ which was rife at Cambridge. It is interesting that you describe it in terms of an affliction. Did you feel at the time that it was a mixed blessing in some ways?
I think perhaps that was rather ill-expressed. I suppose I meant the voice, the way they talked and so on, but there weren’t so very many.
Through your first job in Birrel & Garnett’s bookshop, you got to know the Bloomsbury set – the Bells, the Stracheys, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and many other remarkable people. Did you feel on the outside of this world and that you very much wanted to get inside?
I think the second. I was only twenty-one when I came down from Cambridge, and I thought these were fascinating people, people I wanted to know. I was thrilled but humble, and sometimes, as with Virginia, I was frightened by the sense of their being something I could never attain. They were very friendly; most of them liked the young. Even Virginia did, though she didn’t much care for my sort of young. There was so much I liked about their way of life that I had the feeling that I wanted to spend mine with them.
Was it chiefly their way of life, or their intellectual superiority?
Both. It was also the way that they seemed to be close to life, to be real. They were not at all conventional; they didn’t really care what other people were doing or what they might think of them.
You have said more than once that you think too much has been written about Bloomsbury, almost as if you disapprove of the interest that has been shown, and continues to be shown. Is that a correct impression?
I have always been in favour of truth, and I think that as the Bloomsbury idea has persisted there has been an over-excitement and people have sentimentalized it. Only yesterday I was signing copies of my latest book and there were people who were all very excited to meet a member of what they thought was Bloomsbury. This seemed to me a little false somehow.
But what was the true picture of Bloomsbury?
The true picture was that there was a very strange collection of remarkable people who happened to like each other. They valued friendship enormously, and I’ve taken that from them. Maynard Keynes was the most intelligent man I’ve ever met in my life and you felt it when you talked to him. I know people say other things about him, but I think he was extraordinarily generous and genial. Then there were Virginia and Vanessa, and Lytton Strachey whom I knew very well – a curious mentality but an interesting one – and other people like E. M. Forster and Arthur Waley, the Chinese expert. There was such variety. They just happened to coexist and to live in the same part of London.
Did you mourn the passing of that period?
Yes, in a sense, but I don’t waste many tears on it now. I’m sorry it’s gone, and I wish I had made more use of it.
The Bloomsbury Group did not seem to have a corporate identity, except perhaps in a common belief in the importance of the arts. Beyond that it was made up of individuals with very strong and often different ideas. Was the idea of being ‘a group’ very important?
No. I never heard them using the word group. It’s all happened since the death of most of them, not all of them, because some lingered on longer. Friends are very different from groups, and they were primarily friends, albeit fairly malicious ones; they were quite outspoken about each other, and made fun of each other. Sometimes the things they said in their letters to each other or about each other are slightly disagreeable to read. All the same, they were enormously vital.
Did you ever have a disagreement with any member of the Bloomsbury set?
We had lots of arguments, which I loved. Ralph, my husband, also adored argument and used to engage in it rather fiercely, becoming rather red in the face. Nobody understood how much he was enjoying himself.
In your book Memories you write that it was not so much that they were unconventional as that they were not interested in convention. It seems a delicate distinction: surely their tolerance in sexual matters, for example, did go far beyond the accepted social morality of the day, and in that sense they were indeed ‘unconventional’…?
It was more that they ignored conventions, they didn’t take them as their guide on morals or how to behave. There was a great deal more homosexuality everywhere at the time than was realized. It was against the law, and naturally it was kept very quiet; nobody wanted to go to prison for seven years. But since quite a few of the Bloomsburys became famous, so too did the fact of their homosexuality, that of Strachey and Keynes and all the rest of them. It became more obvious, and this made them seem unconventional.
Friendship was valued very highly within the group, and love – whether heterosexual or homosexual – seemed to take precedence over anything as standard as marriage vows, for example. Did you find this disregard for conventional morality exciting – intoxicating perhaps?
A little, yes. It was like making your own way instead of accepting something and obeying orders. I suppose I was rather rebellious, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Is it the case that this new moral freedom would have been very difficult to put into practice except within the structure and shelter of a group of intelligent and interesting individuals?
Yes. In every country I imagine this is true. The writers, the painters, the people interested in the arts and sciences are the ones who develop this kind of attitude. A scientist in pursing the truth can’t follow the rules of the state, or even of a religion. He has to go where his investigation takes him.
Why is it, do you think, that homosexuality seems to be more the domain of the intellectual or the artist…?
A very interesting point. I’ve always thought that a very strange thing, and I have various theories about it. I’ve never come across a whole lot of lesbians in my life, so it’s always been a question of male homosexuals, of whom I’ve known a very good many. In a way the public schools produce them by the sort of toughness that was required; if a boy was good looking but not tough he became rather a prey to homosexuals, and in that way he was drawn into it. The other thing was that they didn’t like the idea of war, and as they couldn’t display their success as men, so to speak, they tried to be successful as women. These were ideas that came to me but they didn’t bring me happiness. The prevalence of homosexuality is something about which I feel rather sad. I have a great many homosexual friends and I love them, but I do feel they miss some of the pleasures of life, those of family, of children.
Bloomsbury society also included a good deal of sexual ambivalence. Would you say that bisexual men were principally homosexual?
Not necessarily. I’ve know a number of people who started as homosexuals at school, partly because of the pressure on them, but then changed completely. For example, my brother-in-law, David Garnett, was the object of love of other homosexuals when he was young; then he became totally heterosexual and married twice. His first wife was my sister who died, and then he married Angelica Bell who was the daughter of Duncan Grant. David was a very great friend of mine as well as my brother-in-law and my boss in the bookshop, so I knew him very well. In the end he rather disliked homosexuals, saying that he found something about them disquieting; yet some homosexuals would have claimed him as their own. It’s rather difficult to get a completely accurate picture.
It can sometimes seem to the outside observer of Bloomsbury that homosexuality was very much the order of the day, and that it was unusual to be straightforwardly heterosexual. Were you accepting of all that, or perhaps indifferent to it, or what?
I was very interested in it. My son went to Oxford at a much later date, in the fifties. There was a tendency still to think of the universities as being hotbeds of homosexuality, but from what I gathered from my son, there was a wave of going back to heterosexuality in his time. These changes are due to goodness knows what, but it is an interesting subject.
Sometimes it almost seems that homosexuality was an affectation. Did you ever regard it as such? Was it fashionable to be homosexual?
Yes. People often behaved in an absurdly fancy way, and undoubtedly some assumed homosexuality in order to be a success. To get on with your fellows and to be liked is a terribly strong thing, especially among young people who haven’t made their way yet.
Did you ever at any point feel that the Bloomsbury Group was terribly elitist and therefore questionable on those grounds?
I’m always a little baffled by that word elitist. I have the strongest possible dislike of class – that’s one of my fundamental beliefs – but I think there should be high standards in everything, whether it’s making shoes, or pictures.
You first got to know Ralph Partridge in 1923 … was it love at first sight?
No. he was winning a race at Henley when I first saw him. He was a great rowing man and I thought him a very handsome and glowing figure, but I never thought of him as being anyone I should see again. Nor did I for some time. He worked for the Hogarth Press, selling Virginia and Leonard’s books so our paths crossed at the bookshop where I worked. I think I fell in love with him gradually, though perhaps he fell in love with me rather earlier.
Did you attract a lot of men?
Yes I think I was quite pretty, and without boasting I have to say I was a very good dancer. Men liked that. I had quite a lot of admirers, but our sexual morals were very different from those nowadays; one would not have hopped into bed in the easy way that the young do now, or anything like it. A kiss was quite serious business.
Even by Bloomsbury standards, Ralph’s marriage to Dora Carrington and the resulting living arrangements could be considered highly unusual. Did you have any hesitation in becoming involved in that complex ménage?
I think I was bewildered by it. I certainly heard all about the situation, and it was a very complicated one by the time I appeared on the scene. The story is well known: Ralph met Dora Carrington – always known as Carrington – through her brother with whom he was at Oxford. Carrington was sharing a house with Lytton Strachey who, although, homosexual, was the great love of Carrington’s life. It did not take long for Lytton to fall in love with Ralph, and for Ralph to fall in love with Carrington. Lytton soon realized that Ralph was hopelessly heterosexual, but they became lifelong friends. Carrington at first opposed marriage to Ralph, feeling it might threaten her relationship with Lytton, but in the end she believed it might actually consolidate her position. Although she married Ralph she was very much in love with Lytton who was her life passion. It was the more extraordinary because Lytton never responded in a sexual way; he was a hopeless case. Anyhow, Ralph and Carrington married, and this ménage was set up which worked very well. I was rather a spanner in the works in a way, except that part of the arrangement was that Ralph should have total freedom. After a time there was a terrible thing which was always called the Great Row, when Ralph’s best friend from the war, a writer called Gerald Brenan, made love to Carrington and she fell for him a good deal. Ralph was always a very truthful man, and their deception made things worse, and when he found out he made the most fearful row and it pretty well broke relations. Eventually Lytton patched things up; Lytton was very good in that way. It is difficult to describe, but in a sense he was rather a moral man; he didn’t like people to be on bad terms, and in any case he had also rather fallen for Gerald Brenan, so he understood the various points of view.
Did you like Carrington?
Yes. I did. I was fond of her, but we were in each other’s lights. She was afraid that if Ralph came to live with me – which was what we both wanted at one time – Lytton might leave her. Lytton was so very fond of Ralph and also felt that he was a strong person in the household. There was a time when I was asked to Lytton’s club and really hauled over the coals; he told me that if I were to go and live with Ralph he couldn’t promise that he would go on living with Carrington. This was a terrible blackmail really, because I didn’t want to take everything away from Carrington, and it seemed to me she and Lytton were very well suited.
The following year you became very attached to another man, and there followed a period of agony in which you felt torn between your two loves. Did this situation develop partly because the future with Ralph was very uncertain and complicated, and you longed for something simpler?
It’s quite genuinely hard to trace the history of this, because I met him in another world. He was a diplomat, who ended up as an ambassador. Philip, he was called, and I met him dancing. He fell very much in love with me, and he had no wife or other attachment. It was a desperate situation. I genuinely didn’t know which to choose. It is very cruel the way one always wants what seems to be less available. Ralph of course became very anxious, and Philip nearly had a nervous breakdown. He put a lot of pressure on me to marry him.
And you didn’t want to?
I don’t know how much I wanted marriage. I suppose in the end I was still brought up in the idea that one married and had children; and I certainly wanted to have children. It was a difficult time. Poor Ralph probably had the worst of it because he was being pressurized both by Lytton and Carrington who didn’t want him to go away altogether, and I couldn’t persuade them that I didn’t want to break his relations with them. They thought I would, but I never did. I was good in that respect. I didn’t want to attain my happiness at the cost of Carrington’s.
Even though you had worked out your own scheme of moral values, it must nevertheless have been difficult at times, socially at least, for someone of your background to live openly with Ralph, a married man. Was this never a problem?
It was indeed. It was a problem telling my mother, for example. She was frightfully good about it really. My father by that time left this earth, the rather left-wing broadminded side of her had had a chance to develop, and luckily she liked Ralph very much. But breaking the news was not easy, an d the whole family had to sit in judgement. Not that I was going to take their advice, but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. My mother, like all parents, would have wanted to say that her daughter was marrying a young man who was going to be an ambassador one day – as Philip would have been. As it was she couldn’t say that. She took it very well, I think.
In 1932 Lytton Strachey died, and thus set in motion a tragic sequence of events. You have said that looking back ‘there was a vein of hysteria in the agitation that surrounded Lytton’s deathbed’. Was this principally because you feared Carrington’s suicide, or was it more because everything in Bloomsbury circles was accorded a greater intensity, including death?
It was partly because the Strachey family, who consisted of intellectual maiden ladies on the whole, and some men too, but they all adored Lytton. They all kept coming down and staying at the local inn, and visiting him when he was virtually dying, poor man. It was also to do with Ralph who by nature was a little hysterical. It was very odd in a man who was markedly macho, but in certain ways he had feminine traits. Anyhow it was natural to mind; all Bloomsbury ranks rather closed at the thought that their chief friend was in grave danger, and there was a great upset about it. It is difficult to recapture that strength of feeling. I think I understood it at the time; I was perhaps party to it.
How did Ralph react to Lytton’s death?
He was very upset indeed. He loved Lytton, and he was terrified that Carrington would commit suicide. But Ralph was also a realist, and at one time he said to me, ‘I know that if she wants to kill herself she will; nothing in the world will stop her.’ I don’t think any of us knew what a long time it takes to get over the death of a very much loved person. We planned to fill our time and arrange for Carrington to go with Augustus John to France, but you can’t do it like that.
Suicide leaves such a terrible legacy for people to live with. How did you and your husband come to terms with Carrington’s suicide?
By facing it head on. Ralph took the whole thing very much as a blow; he felt he’d failed. He had been scheming and planning to prevent her doing it, and I was his lieutenant, shall we say afterwards we went out to the battlefields of the First World War. He wanted to do something totally different, and also very moving; that was the antidote to the sense of guilt and pain he felt.
Did you ever feel discomfort, guilt even, at the thought that but for Carrington’s death you would not have been granted so many years of happy marriage?
We were living together as if married before we were really married, so I didn’t think of it as so very different.
You had developed pacifist leanings during the First World War and these became stronger during the Second World War when your husband was a conscientious objector. Did the fact that he was in any case too old to fight not detract in some measure from his moral stance?
I don’t think it detracted; it meant that it wasn’t so telling perhaps because he wouldn’t have had to go to war, but he would have been called up for what were called non-combatant duties. He really believed in his pacifism and felt he should act in consonance with his beliefs. He knew very well the horror of war, having been all through the first war. He had been a very self-confident and was thought to be a very successful man, but he was changed by war and he really did very little with his life afterwards.
Your beliefs were obviously sincerely held, but how did you imagine the Nazi threat could be countered?
Yes, how indeed. I used to think of it in terms of what the Danes did: they catapulted but they led their own life, and continued to do so. I used to describe it to myself in terms of butter spread thinly over bread, and if they were going to spread over an enormous region of the world, their influence would be considerably less. I always had the feeling that violence and killing bred violence and killing, and I perhaps still think so. I don’t believe it’s ever going to stop, because evidently people are so violent and so like killing each other that nothing will dissuade them. But at that time I was more idealistic and I thought that in the end non-resistance might have its effect.
Your own attitude was not just one of wanting peace but an utter condemnation of the nation’s romantic attitude towards war and what you called ‘the semi-erotic excitement about the brave young airmen in danger’. Is this something quintessentially British do you think? Did you sense the same attitude during the Falklands War, for example?
Yes, I did, but it was much less widespread. I talked to a lot of young people about the Falklands War and a great many of them were dead against it, were horrified by it, and that was rather an eye opener. It was also a sign of hope, because I thought Mrs Thatcher went so far overboard with her exhortation to ‘rejoice’. The Falklands War was so idiotic that my beliefs rather seemed to be justified. There were people offering to take all the Falklanders and put them up in a Hebridean island, and New Zealand offered to take them. This seemed to me to make the idea of people killing each other even more senseless.
Your diaries of the war years moved one critic, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, to write: ‘The worst direct effect of war on the Partridge lives was that it became hard to find domestic help, and Frances had to spend her time scrubbing floors instead of doing the things she enjoyed, such as reading Voltaire and washing the leaves of her arum lilies.’ Does such criticism upset you?
Not really, no. I think it’s an ironical and quite good remark. It was true in a way … but I don’t think anyone grasped how deeply we felt the war. Ralph used to get up at night and walk about, head in his hands, knowing from his own experience what war entailed. Perhaps it seemed to people that I was just thinking about arum lilies. I certainly did think about arum lilies, but I also thought about the war. We were English people, we lived in England, and we had a right to do as we believed really.
You obviously believed that your husband was hard done by, as you put it, in many books on Bloomsbury, something which originated from Michael Holroyd’s portrait of him in his biography of Lytton Strachey. Which aspect of this portrait did you most object to?
The bit which came from his old friend Gerald Brenan, the seducer of Carrington. He was at pains to say that Ralph was an oaf, and sometimes in order to bring this home, he would go so far as to say, ‘as I myself was’. Brenan was not an oaf himself; he was in fact a very remarkable man, and Ralph certainly was extremely good academically. He whizzed through all his exams, he was head boy of Westminster and he had an extremely good mind.
Michael Holroyd, I gather, is in the process of updating his book in a way that suggests there are still skeletons to emerge from Bloomsbury cupboards. Do you think this is the case, and do you mind?
I don’t know of any new skeletons. At the time when he first brought out his book Duncan Grant and other homosexuals were in danger of going to prison for seven years. He became a little anxious and so did his friends, but there is nothing new that I know of. There may be one or two more homosexuals somewhere, but that’s all I can think of.
In your latest volume of diaries you write: ‘I have been monstrously deformed by affliction.’ Do you think that your experience of the extremes of shock and grief has sharpened the sensibilities in such a way as to heighten also the joys and pleasures in life?
I don’t think it has heightened them, but in some strange way it can’t remove them. They receive a shock which may temporarily put them out, so to speak, as a person is put out by an anaesthetic, but then I think you can get back. I certainly seem to have a strong adherence to life, though in some ways I really feel I’ve had enough. I sometimes feel awfully lonely, and I’d much rather have Ralph to live with than be by myself. I have very good friends, but friends die; it’s not a good thing to live till you’re ninety-three…
The self-portrait which emerges from your books is a rather harsh and unattractive one. You describe yourself as ‘disagreeably aggressive’. Have you found it difficult to love yourself?
No, I’m rather fond of myself, which doesn’t mean that I appreciate myself, but I’m all the company I’ve got. I sometimes am rather aggressive I think, but I’m not all the time. I said those things in a diary, and it was true at the moment of writing, but it is not always true.
When your husband died in 1960, your diary entry for that day reads: ‘Now I am absolutely alone, and for ever.’ Was that the rawness of bereavement, or has it proved to be so?
It has not proved to be so in regards to friends. My friends rallied round me in the most wonderful way and I’ve had support from people I love dearly. It has made me realize that there are lots of kinds of love.
The death of your son three years later must have made you feel that fate was dealing you an impossibly cruel hand. What prevented you from going mad with grief?
Nothing. I think I was a little mad. I was unable to write about it; my state of mind didn’t seem something one could put into words. That was what I felt.
Mothers and sons are usually particularly close. Was that true of you and your son?
No. in a way it was rather a fraught relationship. As he grew up there developed a sort of jealousy between the two men in my life, which was very difficult for me at times. Burgo wasn’t a boy who fitted into the scheme of things. Ralph had a dream that he would go to Oxford and row … well, he did go to Oxford, but he didn’t row like his father. He made a sort of life for himself and married a delightful girl, David Garnett’s daughter, who has been utterly shaken and shattered by his death, permanently scarred. There’s always this feeling of responsibility and anxiety for a child, but I did get enormous happiness from his childhood. I loved him very very dearly always but he was a source of worry at times. I so much wished that Ralph had lived to see him marry and become a father.
How did the death of his father affect Burgo?
He came hurrying down to the country and tried to support me as best he could, but I don’t know what he felt. From the things he told his friends I know that he had very mixed feelings for his father. Ralph was too powerful for him growing up. The good moments were very good, but it wasn’t at all a steady thing.
In your latest book you write: I feel the rough gravel of the bottom on which I crawl very distinctly, but it has not yet quite destroyed my senseless love of life.’ Has this ‘senseless love of life’ come mainly from your own inner resources, do you think, or has it been gifted to you by other people?
From my own resources, I suppose, from what I was given by my genes – a happy nature and also a happy childhood. My childhood contained no horrors.
I have the impression that even in old age you have remained very true to the Bloomsbury ideals and ethos. Have they served you well, do you think?
They have, but I see them with a slightly more cynical eye. My ideas have not evolved as much as I would have liked; they have stuck rather. It’s very hard to remember what one thought it was going to be like, but I don’t think I’ve had a great success except in so far as I’ve had a marvellous lot of friends. I see them as an army sometimes – of course many of them are dead, and that distresses me a good deal. But I have known the most interesting people of my generation, and that to me is a great thing, the success of my lifetime.