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Bloomsbury Set: Love triangles, suicide and Communism

Newly released archives from the Bloomsbury Set provide two insiders' views of the literary subversives, writes Andy McSmith

They were, according to taste, a fascinating circle of hard-working, free-thinking and gifted intellectuals, or a bunch of dissolute subversives "who lived in squares but loved in triangles".

The Bloomsbury Set continues to fascinate decades after they used to gather in smart houses for sex and sparkling conversation. Scarcely a year passes without another book being published which tries to capture part of their unusual story. Now comes the newest contribution to Bloomsburyana: thousands of pages of correspondence and 30 albums of photographs belonging to two female members of the set, which have been released for public use.

The women are Rosamond Lehmann, a famous figure on the British literary scene between the wars, and the diarist Frances Partridge, who outlived all the others, and was still keeping a diary almost to the day she died, six years ago, at the age of 103.

Although the members of the Bloomsbury Set were brilliant and liberated, they were not all happy. The central figure was Virginia Woolf, who, after her home was bombed in 1941, wrote a note to her husband, Leonard, saying "we can't go through another of those terrible times", filled the pockets of her coat with stones, and walked into a river to drown herself.

One of the items in the newly released archive is a letter to Frances Partridge dated 3 April 1941, five days after Woolf had disappeared, but before her body was found. The writer was the art critic, Clive Bell, who married Woolf's sister Vanessa.

"I'm afraid there is not the slightest doubt that she drowned herself about noon last Friday," he wrote. "She had left letters for Leonard and Vanessa. Her stick and footprints were found by the edge of the river. It became evident some weeks ago that she was in for another of those long and agonising breakdowns of which she had had several already. The prospect of two years insanity, then to wake up to the sort of world which another two years of war will have made, was such that I can't feel sure she was unwise."

Frances Marshall (the future Mrs Partridge) featured in a complex sexual line-up that was not so much a love triangle as a love quadrilateral. The daughter of an architect, William Marshall, she started work in a bookshop after she left Newnham College, Cambridge. Customers included Lytton Strachey, famous for his iconoclastic portraits of famous Victorians, the painter Dora Carrington, and her husband, Ralph Partridge.

The three lived together, in a Wiltshire farmhouse called Ham Spray. Whilst having an occasional affair with one of Ralph's friends, Carrington was desperately in love with Strachey, but Strachey, who was gay, loved Ralph Partridge. Partridge added to the cast by falling in love with the young Frances Marshall. He and she moved into a London house together, unfazed by the detail that he was already married. Strachey died of stomach cancer in 1932, and Carrington, unable to cope with his death, shot herself. Her aim was poor, and she was still alive when Ralph and Frances arrived at Ham Spray a few hours later. She died soon afterwards.

Another of Clive Bell's letters in the newly released archive read: "For me, the final touch of horror seems to be given by the fact that she was still alive and conscious when you arrived. What can it have been like – I'm glad I can't clearly imagine it. This world of tragedy in which my dearest friends are engulfed is only half-real to me because I left England a day or two after Lytton died. Hadn't you and Ralph better get out of it for a bit?"

In fact, Ralph and Frances married the following year and settled at Ham Spray until his death in 1960, after which she returned to London.

Rosamond Lehmann was a year younger than Frances Partridge, and shot to fame in 1927 at the age of 26 with her first novel, Dusty Answer. Not everyone liked her work. The New Yorker critic Brendan Gill said one of her later novels "was flawed because it attempted to blame women's troubles on men, when the real problem (apparently) was something called 'destiny'. [But] women ... have no use for destiny; they wouldn't compose a Hamlet if they could."

She married twice, the second time to Wogan Philipps, the communist son of a wealthy ship owner, later celebrated as the second Baron Milford, the only communist in the House of Lords. The new archive also includes a letter from Lehmann to Frances Partridge, describing a furious argument that Philipps had had with his father in 1932.

"It started with an argument about capital punishment and developed at lightning speed into communism, filthy painting, being in a filthy set, rotten intellectuals, intention of making Wogan squirm and beg for every penny, etc etc. Before we knew where we were, Wogan was presented with a document to sign, agreeing to go into Morris' motorworks as an ordinary mechanic and then go to Russia for six months and find any work he could. Meanwhile another letter was composed to Morris asking him if he would take in Wogan and cure him of communist nonsense."

Uncured, Philipps went to Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver during the civil war. The marriage broke up after he returned, and Lehmann began a long, unhappy relationship with Cecil Day-Lewis. But at least he came back alive, unlike Clive and Vanessa Bell's son Julian, who was killed while driving an ambulance in the summer of 1937. Another letter in the collection is to Lehmann from Woolf, on the subject of her nephew's death.

"I saw Portia Holman, from the hospital, a few days after Julian's death. She gave me a rather different, perhaps less painful account – I mean less detailed – and I repeated this to Vanessa. She was greatly upset by it, though I think after the first shock it was a relief to her to know how it happened," she wrote.

Like Partridge, Lehmann lived a long life, dying in 1990, aged 89. "In a way, these two women belonged to a generation that could only have existed between the wars," said Patricia McGuire, an archivist at King's College, Cambridge, which has acquired the two collections. "They had education, training and rights but they also had lots of free time and didn't necessarily have to keep a house. They had well-developed points of view and were articulate about their emotions."

Intellectual elite: The Bloomsbury Set

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

One of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. Her reputation took a downturn after her suicide in 1941, but was revived with the rise of the women's movement in the 1970s.

Clive Bell (1881-1964)

Art critic, and an early champion of modern art, he married Virginia Woolf's older sister, Vanessa.

Julian Bell (1908-1937)

Woolf's nephew. As a Cambridge student, he was reputed to be the lover of the spy Anthony Blunt. He went to China, and then Spain, where he drove an ambulance for the Republicans, and was killed at the Battle of Brunete.

Dora Carrington (1893-1932)

A painter and artist whose hopeless love for Lytton Strachey was dramatised in the 1995 film Carrington. She is taken more seriously as an artist now than in her lifetime.

Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990)

Novelist, several of whose works are explicitly autobiographical, and deal with issues such as adultery, lesbian love, marriage break-up and back street abortion.

Frances Partridge (1990-2004)

The longest living of all the Bloomsbury Set, whose fame now rests on diaries she began keeping around the time that she married Carrington's former husband, Ralph Partridge, in 1933.

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932)

The writer whose 1918 book, Eminent Victorians, four short biographies of Victorian heroes, changed a generation's perception of the previous century. The economist John Maynard Keynes was one of his lovers.

Wogan Philipps (1902-1993)

Lehmann's husband. His father, Lord Milford, disowned him when he joined the Communist Party. But in 1963, he became the only communist ever to sit in the House of Lords.