Wednesday 16 March 2011

Bloomsbury Baby

On Sunday I went to a talk at Oxford's wonderful Albion Beatnik bookshop (sells new and secondhand; the new is delightfully arranged by decade of publication, and they do a good line in reprint publishers) - for they had Henrietta Garnett coming as a guest. Henrietta Garnett is related to more or less everyone in Bloomsbury. It took me a bit of time to disentangle the family tree, but she is the daughter of David Garnett (author of wonderful Lady Into Fox) and Angelica Garnett (author of wonderful Deceived with Kindness). Both her parents on my 50 Books You Must Read list - what an accolade! Of course, she also thus has Vanessa Bell as grandmother; Virginia Woolf as great-aunt; Leonard Woolf as great-uncle. I got a bit confused, but the Stracheys (Lytton; Julia; Dorothy) all figured in there somewhere. And, as if that weren't enough, Henrietta married one of the Partridge clan, throwing Frances Partridge into the mix (and thus my friend Will, who is great-nephew, or something like that.)

It's all a bit dizzy, isn't it? Possibly most wonderfully, it is she who appeared in one of my favourite paintings: The Artist's Daughter. (Thinking about it... she is the artist's granddaughter, so I'm not sure who got the wrong end of the stick here...)

I was sat waiting, having struck up a conversation with the person next to me (more on that later) when Henrietta entered... dancing to the 1920s flapper music playing in the background. This rather set the tone - Henrietta is nothing if not eccentric.

Her talk was mostly reminiscences - often amusing; always emphatic - of life growing up in Bloomsbury. There wasn't a huge amount of new material, but of course it was a wonderful delight to hear it from one who knows it first-hand. It was just as well that Henrietta didn't have *too* much to say, as she spoke incredibly slowly, and very dramatically - wrenching her glasses from her face for the many points of emphasis, and fixing the audience with a vivid, wild stare each time. This woman was born to perform. "It... was... perhaps... a... very... unusual... childhood..., but... ... ... I... appreciated... it," she said wisely, "However... if... I... had... had... a... different... childhood... ... .... I daresay I would have appreciated that too." (Sorry, I got tired of typing dots!)

Her manner of performance was exactly what I'd want from one of the last people who knew the Bloomsbury group intimately. But - there was perhaps a kernel, at the centre, of a girl who had always had to strive for attention? Or perhaps such things seep into one along with a love of creativity and (as she emphasised) words.

There was no need for her to strive for attention with this crowd - we all loved her. I must confess that a one-on-one conversation would petrify me, but sitting (as I ought) in the audience, it was an experience I am delighted to have had.

It also gave me the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the very lovely Beth, who blogs at From the Desk of Bee Drunken. I was chatting to Liz (from my book group, who was with me and had been at school with Henrietta) and mentioned Persephone - which grabbed Beth's attention. Kindred spirits were we immediately (do pop over and read her write-up of the event) and got chatting nineteen-to-the-dozen about many topics - chiefly Jane Austen, and books in general. It was so special to meet Beth like that - and she took the wonderful photo of Henrietta which is up above (I'd brought my camera, and handed it over to Beth who took a much better one than I did!)

All in all, a lovely time.


  1. Would loved to have been there! I've been reading the diaries of Frances Partridge and there are many arresting pictures and interesting tidbits about Henrietta, who married Frances' son, Burgo. Quite the fascinating family.

  2. What a lovely evening Simon! And how nice you happened to sit next to Beth. I so enjoyed Deceived with Kindness. I feel I should read more Bloomsbury background stuff. Do you have more recommendations?

  3. I am envious, listening to someone who knew Bloomsbury so well must've been fascinating. Lucky you.

  4. Simon, you have captured her perfectly!

    It was such fun getting to know you a bit, and I'm so looking forward to many more bookish exchanges.

    p.s. I think that the painting is of Angelica, actually. I came home and immediately ordered Deceived with Kindness and Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson.

  5. What a wonderful way to spend an evening. I do like the painting. I'm now off to check out Beth's blog. Thanks for sharing your "literary adventure" with us.

  6. Oh you have all the fun! Great description of what must have been a fascinating evening, Simon.

  7. Erik - this will make me get to Patridge's diaries more quickly... I have vols.1 and 3, I think.

    Donna - it was such fun! Deceived With Kindness is wonderful, isn't it? As for other Bloomsbury material - you can't do better than A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf. I also like A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy, and Throw to the Woolfs by John Lehmann (only the first half of that, really, then it gets a bit bitter...) But there are so many books to read on the topic!

    Joanne - it really was a privilege to see her!

    Beth - thank you! And yes, I think it must by Angelica Garnett in the painting - the advertisements for the event confused me somewhat.

    Susan - it's one of my very favourite paintings, I love Vanessa Bell. Would love to see one of her paintings in the flesh, as it were...

    Darlene - I was so lucky! I was also dead on my feet with tiredness, having barely slept the night before, but I wouldn't have missed it...


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