BOOK REVIEW / The thing he started
ELDERS AND BETTERS by Quentin Bell, John Murray pounds 19.99
Sunday 24 September 1995
This book may elude those who like memoirs that knit their subjects into a coherent tidied-up whole such as very few human characters present, or who are exhausted by implausible tangles of proper names, but it should delight others with its parade of spiritedly disabused yet celebratory portraits. Although Bell was born in 1910, there is nothing falsely mellow about this book. He has a steely persistence about setting things straight, but it derives from principles, not family piety. He can also be as rapier- like as his aunt about the dead characters whom he nonetheless clearly loves to this day. One of many late-Victorian taboos happily broken by Bloomsbury stems from a delight in the kind of frankness that scorns - at least in private - to protect its own, preferring to toughen them up with satirical verbal tawsings. Of course the cost of such liberation is a certain amount of unwarranted pain: Bell is good on the intermittent chafing of the mock mock-rivalry between his mother and his aunt and their neighbouring establishments at Charleston and Rodmell.
Bell summons the physical being of each person about whom he writes with a tender malice and painterly eye. His description of a visit, accompanied by a prim potential girlfriend, to Mary Butts, the opium smoker and lover of Gabriel Atkins "who had been Maynard Keynes's catamite and indeed the toast of the British Sodom" is a captivating mixture of Firbank and Anthony Powell:
"There was always a certain bohemian sans-gene about Mary and her environment to which I was not unsympathetic, but on this occasion she had surpassed herself. The room was brilliantly lit and uncomfortably warmed by a multitude of candles planted in bottles, on shelves, on bookcases and on the floor which was littered with the underclothes of both sexes. The big square bed was rather like the divan of Sardanapalus as Delacroix painted it. On it sat Mary swathed in a bedspread which was, rather obviously, her only garment; beside her a great scroll reached the floor, on it were the achievements of a multitude of armigerous families. I recognised it as the Butts pedigree."
Bell's recall of unexplored nooks and hidden lives is particularly evident in his treatment of servants and their world - known in Bloomsbury as "The Click". His grasp of practical detail is reinforced by a critical attention both innate and highly trained, underscored by stern agnosticism (and it is stern - he remarks that believers "must surely love Judas, for without him, Christianity, as we know it, would hardly have been possible"). He has a meliorist socialist temperament that unites the realist and the optimistic in a way that seems to have become less available to those born since the last War, when realism has come to mean gloomy verisimilitude, rather than, say, the classical logic which informs the art of Cezanne.
Sunlit days and family love a lifetime ago are believable when described by someone so sceptical of larger motives, and so vigilant about detail. Bell has occasion convincingly to correct both Robert Skidelsky, the authoritative biographer of Keynes, and Miranda Seymour, whose tolerant and imaginative biography of Ottoline Morrell never achieves the instinctive elegance Quentin Bell himself wears like an old coat. Bell's most heartfelt objection is to the periodic hostility - invariably journalistic - towards a Bloomsbury that is an effete parody of the one he knew. He also has well-thought- out objections to the shriller feminist critiques of Virginia Woolf, who was not a separatist, but an apologist for attempted sympathy with the other sex. He makes a good case for the superiority of A Room of One's Own to Three Guineas.
One of the many distinctions of Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf, displayed again here, was its delicate, unconsoling approach to despair. He succeeds in being personal without egotism, and conveys much in gentle asides. A comment on Duncan Grant's feelings about art may, at a guess, contain an element of self portraiture:
"Mozart was indeed his favourite composer and one whom he found more sympathetic than Beethoven, whom he admired but could never love. Although he might hardly have said so in my terms I think it is fair to say that he was shy of terribilita and distrusted the use of thunder and lightning in art. He admired humility, distrusted arrogance, violence and cruelty in any of the arts, or at least could accept them only from the hands of genius. In this he was very Bloomsbury, or at least very close to Roger and Vanessa; where he differed from them was in a deep, almost personal, affection for Delacroix."
The last, careful, reservation is typical of Professor Bell's conscientious attention to fact. The easy pace of these reflections repay attention. He belongs recognisably to our world, but the sense of a world that has fast receded is here momentarily suspended.
Glimpses of this kind include Lady Keynes crouching inside a refrigerator on a hot day; Clive Bell's meatily philistine family being won over by Duncan Grant in their heavily-antlered country house; "patriarch of the herd" Bunny Garnett being "hornswoggled" by the Bell family; "tremendously tailored" Ethel Smyth deciding "she would rather have a ballet than a last illness". Max Beerbohm makes a virtuoso appearance, inventing a ravishing view from a hotel window in Brighton where there was actually only a wall of bricks. Anthony Blunt leaves an impression of ingrown intelligence and wrongly-directed but considerable courage. The most striking figures are Leonard Woolf, whose nobility has been much misunderstood, and Professor Bell himself, always in a minor role as "pig in the middle", inept lover, insufficient idealist, or surviving son, but whose work shows him to be perpetually watching, unreservedly understanding, never ceasing to think.
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