BOOK REVIEW / Ham Spray and mumbo-jumbo: 'Other People' - Frances Partridge: HarperCollins, 18 pounds
Saturday 24 July 1993
Frances Partridge survives into a notably fruitful tenth decade. After a professional life spent largely in translating the work of others, she is publishing her own diaries. The most recent volume, Other People, runs from September 1963 to December 1966. This delayed publication, presumably from consideration for the living, adds a dimension to an absorbing account of the day-to-day existence of literary and artistic London in the mid-Sixties. In the background of Other People Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey is being written, subject of debate among the survivors, relatives and friends. The diarist re-reads her early letters to and from Ralph, and a mind always reflective and questioning moves toward a sharper, more critical estimate of 'Old Bloomsbury'. In the process, the Nineties, the Twenties and the Sixties meet and fuse. Frances Partridge is unpretentiously an artist: her lucid and downright journal contains its own genuinely Proustian sense of the mysteriousness of social time, the 'long perspectives', that in Larkin's terms 'open at each instant of our lives'.
The Sixties were a bad time for the writer of these diaries, beginning with her husband's death. Other People opens at a second, equally distressing and more sudden loss: that of their only child, Burgo, in his twenties and married to a young wife, with a baby a few weeks old. 'I must forget myself utterly for a while, and sink into the concerns of other people' - the last phrase, later chosen for her title, becomes a kind of packed and ironic code-word for the emotional isolation, condemned to the merely social, which descends on her. The volume is a story of its writer's gradual and principled struggle back into life after these two great blows. Central to it is an unpossessive care for her daughter-in-law, Henrietta (daughter of David Garnett); and most of all the bond formed with her small granddaughter, Sophie, to whom (50 years later) the book is dedicated.
The new life begins with an act of determined self-definition: the sale of Ham Spray, the house once shared with Strachey and Carrington, and a move to a flat in London. Gradually, and to her surprise, the diarist realises that she loves London. The sociable city instructs her how naturally life-loving, how observant and outgoing her own nature is, liking people and ideas and conversation. Forcing herself to visit and provide companionship, she becomes a modest authority on human troubles, called in 'as an expert on bereavement as they would call in a plumber'. She is in return deeply grateful to the loyal friends for whom European travel is the great panacea: Raymond Mortimer takes her to Apulia and to Turkey, Robert Kee to Ireland, Rosamond Lehmann to Sicily. There are incessant trips within England, often to country houses (this is a book which follows its details of often titled Dramatis Personae with a descriptive list of country houses).
This is the best of Frances Partridge's journals to date. Quiet desperation has toughened and concentrated her style; the sense of solitariness puts an edge on an eye always sharp, never malicious. Other People offers memorable, often drily funny detail of both people and places. She is especially good on human egoism, recording with interest how many of her kindest comforters in a sense barely notice, or acknowledge, her existence. From this new inner detachment comes scepticism: socialist in political persuasion, she meets in herself an impatience with the Old Bloomsbury's leanings towards 'the conventional or aristocratic enclave'.
But some Bloomsbury qualities, or at least values formed in the more or less upper-class artistic and English 1920s, she surely embodies. Beyond the absolute commitment of love, her world is (in both its darkness and light) the world of 'Other People'. The subjective and the romantic irritate her; the transcendental enrages her. 'Heroes leave me very cold'; war is 'a sordid beastliness'; religion, 'the spirit world', a Requiem Mass, extra-sensory perception, 'Hermeticism and Lullism and Giordano Bruno' are all in sequence briskly found 'mumbo-jumbo'.
Not all these opinions strike me as right, but the brave, independent and thinking woman who sets them down earns sympathy for them. Her directness may even help a reader solve a literary problem. Why did Bloomsbury never produce a poet? (Virginia Woolf is not one.) The answer seems to be: 'Other People' are not poets. This volume includes an occasion when the writer is ready to agree with a friend that The Waste Land is probably 'a great take-in', its success 'partly chance'. But then, against the friend's urging, she consults Cyril Connolly, who - munching a bag of lychees - delivers an impromptu tutorial on the poem: 'What's more, it was a good thing because he loves instructing and did it extremely well.' Most of the arts of Bloomsbury fade further every year; I suspect it will survive in essays, letters and diaries like this one.
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