Bloomsbury Set: Love triangles, suicide and Communism

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own