Love in Bloomsbury

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

It is to be hoped that readers do not come to this book with false expectations, but they might well be forgiven if they do, because the combination of the words love and Bloomsbury might easily be taken to promise a gallery of titillating revelations of kinky practices. Indeed, if one were to be told beforehand of the basic situation of these memoirs, one could certainly be forgiven for thinking of empurpled hedonism and dissipation; for this book is about a woman who lives with a man who is married to a bisexual who is passionately devoted to a male homosexual whose lovers have included the man with whom the first woman is living. It must be said at the outset, however, that such expectations will not be fulfilled. No closets are opened here, no confidences divulged, no secrets laid bare.

The book is, in fact, a modest, straightforward, often engaging memoir of a young woman’s Edwardian childhood and of her life in Bloomsbury in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Frances Partridge (née Marshall), now in her eighties, looks back over the first thirty-two years of her life: the liaisons of Bloomsbury are mentioned, the personal relationships named, but they are presented here as a part of the landscape, as facts with which one lived. One of the lessons of the book might well be how ordinary many rather strange and unconventional things looked to those on the inside. The book emphasizes friends and social relationships; and among other things it is not, is any sort of analysis or criticism of the intellectual or artistic accomplishments of the Bloomsbury group. Bloomsbury, like Watergate, continues to spawn an unending succession of books, of attack and defense, of justification and reminiscence. There is little that is new about Bloomsbury here, but this should not be taken as a criticism of the work, because it does not presume to tell new things. Its great virtue is that it gives the actual feel of what it was like to live and move on a daily basis among such people and in such an atmosphere.

Frances Marshall was born in 1900, the youngest of six children of William and Margaret Marshall. Her father was an architect whose roots were in the Lake District, while her mother came of Irish stock, was mildly musical and a staunch suffragette. In typical Edwardian fashion the father was a large and dominant man who supported a London house in Bedford Square and a country home at Hindhead. Frances grew up surrounded by the inevitable nanny and governesses, William Morris wallpaper, and advanced thinking. The Marshall family, as she explains, “stood for love of Nature . . . for Wordsworthian poetry and its pantheistic outlook; for eugenics, agnosticism, and the march of science; for class distinctions courteously observed.” Frances herself decided at the age of twelve that she did not believe in God. The young Frances was early attracted by picture books, often taken to museums, and acquired a facility in drawing and painting which was stimulated by her sister Ray, a professional artist.

In reading the pages which detail the Marshalls’ life before World War I, one cannot help but be reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919) and the portrait there of cultured, leisured Europe, full of advanced ideas. In similar fashion, as Frances is graduated from Newnham, one is inevitably reminded of Shaw’s Vivie Warren, a product of the same institution. Her father’s heroes were Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Leslie Stephen, all of whom he personally knew. The Marshalls were on visiting and dining terms with such as the Asquiths and Ricardos, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Beveridge, assorted Stracheys, and Logan Pearsall Smith. As a small child Frances even met Henry James. In spite of ordinary childhood problems such as fear of the dark and a persistent curiosity about sex, Frances probably had as good a preparation as possible for her later life in Bloomsbury.

Boarding school, Bedales, came when Frances was fifteen; she entered Cambridge at eighteen, as the war was drawing to a close; at twenty-one she completed her formal education, suffered the loss of her father, and moved to London to seek her way in the world. The scenes at Bedales and at Cambridge evoke a lost world and serve to remind one how really recent is the acceptance of formal higher education for women. Even against the background of the war and after the obligatory first few weeks of discomfort and discontent, partly occasioned by cold showers and pre-breakfast runs, Frances was very happy at Bedales. There a passion for dancing began which was carried over to her University years. When she entered Cambridge, her father invested two thousand pounds for her and required her to live off the proceeds from then on. Serious subjects mingled with the frivolous at Cambridge, where Frances took her degree in the rather unusual combination of English and Moral Sciences. The sketches of some of her new friends and her teachers are delightful, especially that of Pernel Strachey,...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 1, 1981, p. 19.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1544.

Listener. CV, January 29, 1981, p. 149.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, September 27, 1981, p. 14.

Newsweek. XCVIII, October 5, 1981, p. 81.

Observer. July 19, 1981, p. 29.

Spectator. CCXLVI, February 21, 1981, p. 18.

Times Literary Supplement. February 13, 1981, p. 156.