Frances Partridge: the biography, By Anne Chisholm

Art, sex, sophistication – and the servant class
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The Independent Culture

An architect's daughter from Bedford Square, sent first to mixed-sex Bedales and then to Newnham, Cambridge, Frances Partridge (born 1900) was an early recruit to that post-Victorian generation of liberated women who cut such a swathe through the social and intellectual life of the inter-war era. By her early twenties she was working as "accountant, delivery girl and dogsbody" for the free-thinking bookshop run by her brother-in-law David Garnett and his friend Francis Birrell.

Come 1925, she was 25 per cent of the celebrated ménage à quatre completed by her future husband Ralph Partridge, his first wife Dora Carrington and their mentor Lytton Strachey, and blown apart by Strachey's death and Carrington's suicide. No one, perhaps, among second-generation Bloomsbury-ites, saw so much of the movement from the inside or, in her voluminous diaries, was better qualified to write about it.

It was Martin Amis who once declared that, if forced to choose between FR Leavis and Woolf, Strachey and co, he'd be straightaway cosying up to the sage of Downing College. Plenty of other critics have said the same, and yet the old Bloomsbury mystique – that odd, intoxicating compound of high thinking, six-monthly dividends and "do what you will" – endures. Sympathetic, psychologically acute and notably well-written, Anne Chisholm's biography is a case for the defence, but the materials it assembles could equally well be used by a prosecuting counsel.

As well as offering a chronological account of Partridge's long life – she died in 2004 at the ripe age of 103 – it is also an examination of an attitude, a value system and a legend: what Bloomsbury meant to the acolytes who sheltered on its capacious lawns, and what it means three-quarters of a century later when high thinking and dividends are not quite so highly prized.

Anthony Powell – an interested observer of all things Bloomsbury – maintained that Frances was "bullied" by her senior partners. There is little evidence of that here. Even as a very young woman, caught up in a world of intellectual dazzle, she seems well up to her opponents' fighting weight. She believed in the pursuit of pleasure, in "reason", in the paramount importance of personal relationships, in "not interfering" when those relationships took an unusual or threatening turn, and, notoriously during the Second World War, in an exacting brand of pacifism whose full implications she sometimes shied away from pursuing.

The knots that she and Ralph tied themselves into in the early 1940s, snug in their Wiltshire fastness, are exhaustively set out. What ought they to think about America's arrival in the conflict? What about the soldiers manoeuvring nearby? Ralph, who had fought gallantly in the Great War, sympathises; Frances at first resents their "bestial muffled shouts". Press agitation over the Mosleys' release from prison produces the comment: "As neither Ralph not I accept the principle that people should be shut up for their principles... the question doesn't arise for us."

There were similar blind spots over Bloomsbury's reluctance to accept that the ability of well-bred intellectual types to engage in high-minded conversation on sun-dappled terraces usually depends on servants to carry out the tea and do the washing up. Though transparent enough on the surface, Frances' life is, ultimately, full of mystery. The most obvious puzzle is what she saw in idle, bonhomous, womanising Ralph. The other is what led her to suppress so many of her natural instincts. Whenever anyone close to her died – Ralph in 1960, her beloved son Burgo of an aneurysm in 1963 – their bodies were simply taken away for instant, unmemorialised disposal. Ralph's infidelities with a succession of London-bound mistresses were sedulously unravelled in tea-table conversation.

Admirable as all this self-possession may be on paper, there is a terrible chilliness at the heart of it. A Partridge who hurled dinner plates at her husband's fancy woman or sneered at her choice of lipstick might have less dignity, but one would have liked her more.

Frances Partridge: the biography is, necessarily, a study in social life: a kind of endless pageant of picnics on summer greensward, Olympian conversation, and knowing chatter about who has run off with whom. However resistant to some of the attitudes on display, one puts it down with a genuine admiration for its subject's courage, integrity and indomitable spirit, while wondering – a sensation that always strikes me in the presence of Diana Athill's work – whether the gap between right-thinking, no-nonsense rationalism and faint complacency isn't sometimes a bit too occluded for comfort. No doubt about it, though: Martin Amis was right.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'Ask Alice' (Chatto & Windus)