Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell
On August 10, 1908, Virginia Stephen wrote to her older sister Vanessa Bell, “You have a touch in letter writing that is beyond me. Something unexpected, like coming round a corner in a rose garden and finding it still daylight.” More than 2,500 of Bell’s letters survive. Regina Marler has provided a generous and representative sampling that traces Bell’s life from about 1885, when the six-year-old Vanessa Stephen writes to her father from Brighton, to March 7, 1961, a month before Bell’s death.
Bell’s many-faceted life emerges clearly. Travel remained a lifelong passion: She writes to her daughter Angelica on May 15, 1954, of “getting to Lyons in the middle of the night with the river looking immense with millions of lights all along the banks as far as one could see.”
Bell demonstrates her dedication to art in letters to Margaret Snowden, a friend from the Royal Academy Schools, writing to her in 1904 from the Grand Hotel in Venice of her discovery of Tintoretto, who would remain one of her favorite painters. On August 13, 1905, Bell discusses her technique, which she likens to Whistler’s in the use of layers of paint.
Even more important to Bell than her art was her family. The letters record her often troubled relationship with Duncan Grant, her devastation at the death of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War, and her acceptance of her sister’s suicide in 1941. Here, too, is her anger and later calm over David Garnett’s marriage to her daughter; Garnett had had an affair with Angelica’s father.
Bell was the center of Bloomsbury’s social life, reflected here, as is country life at Charleston, Sussex, Bell’s primary home, and Cassis, France, where she vacationed for many years. Although she was removed from public affairs, these did impinge upon her life and find a place in her letters, making them a brief chronicle of the time.
Marler has provided a useful introduction, a foreword by Quentin Bell, a chronology, an afterword by Bell’s biographer Frances Spalding, helpful headnotes to each unit and footnotes, and photographs of Bell, her art, her friends, and her family. This collection is essential reading for anyone interested in Bloomsbury and pleasurable reading for all.