BOOK REVIEW / The thing he started

ELDERS AND BETTERS by Quentin Bell, John Murray pounds 19.99

QUENTIN BELL's lucid two-volume life of his aunt Virginia Woolf begot the Bloomsbury mania has lasted for nearly a generation. He must often feel that his crop of wheat is now a field of tares, badly in need of expert cultivation. This gracefully titled memoir ruminates from the vantage point of old age on the extraordinary adults in whose company he grew up. Bell writes with a seductive coolness whose teasing note brings to mind his aunt and demonstrates the light touch so vital to Bloomsbury which has been buried under the witless weight of so much Bloomsburiana. Here he is on Duncan Grant, his mother's lover and sister's (unacknowledged) father: "It was not for many years, when I was 14 or 15, that we began to wonder whether he might not be Angelica's father. I personally rather regretted that he was not mine."

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific