Last of a charmed circle

Frances Partridge, last of the 'Bloomsberries', is 98
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The Independent Culture
Like the Queen Mother, as old as the century, Frances Partridge is amazingly vigorous. She lives in a first-floor flat off Belgrave Square, small but with beautifully proportioned rooms, painted in strong colours and hung with paintings by Carrington and a mosaic fire-screen by Boris Anrep. While she has no trouble negotiating the stairs, the front door weighs considerably more than she does, and it can be a job for her to open it with her key. Frances is tiny and a little frail, having recovered this year from bad bronchitis and from having been blown over by the wind quite near her flat.

But she has no memory problems; she can make a date without looking at her diary, and we joke that she can remember my telephone number, though I sometimes have to look up hers. She still reviews for The Spectator, and has had a distinguished career as a translator. She regularly visits friends abroad, especially in Spain, where she walks and botanises.

As you can see from the dust jacket photograph of the latest instalment of her diaries, she has kept much of her once-dark beauty. Indeed, only a few years ago, she modelled for Issey Miyake and was photographed by Snowdon. Her voice is reasonably strong, and she is a captivating conversationalist.

Mind you, she has a great many subjects to talk about. As the last surviving member of the inner circle of the Bloomsbury group, she knew everyone. Rereading Memories, her 1981 memoirs, I suddenly realised that she knew Wittgenstein, but that in our 30 years of friendship I had never asked her about him. Odd, because she helped me so much with my book on GE Moore, whom she glimpsed while reading moral sciences at Newnham just after the First World War.

On the other hand, in the Seventies we had a correspondence about Noam Chomsky's views on language acquisition. Frances has told me much over the years about Lytton, Carrington, Maynard, Clive, Virginia and the rest of the charmed circle. She arranged for me to meet Leonard Woolf, and, I think, Duncan Grant and David Garnett.

On the whole, though, my relationship with Frances is in the present. We talk about our common friends; and she takes a keen interest in the doings of my children. Once, she entertained us with the tale of my younger daughter, aged six or so, finally grasping the enormity of Frances' age: "But you ought to be dead," gasped the child.

She comes to stay with us in the country once or twice a year, and enjoys our Oxford-based social life; but mostly Frances and I go to the opera in London. We share a passion for all sorts of lyric theatre, including a lot of 20th-century works, and a liking for whisky and sandwiches during the interval. Frances eats and drinks little now, but hugely enjoys her food; she particularly relished a lunch of mezze at her posh local Lebanese restaurant, though she drew the line at tabbouleh, because she found the quantity of parsley "scratchy".

Despite a sunny Edwardian childhood (her parents were well connected to what Noel Annan called "the intellectual aristocracy" that included the Strachey and Stephen families), Bedales and Newnham, and passing her twenties as an independent bachelor girl in Bloomsbury (working at the bookshop owned by Frankie Birrell and Bunny Garnett), life has not been entirely pleasant for Frances.

In 1926, she began living with Ralph Partridge at 41 Gordon Square. An Oxford rowing blue and soldier-turned-pacifist, Ralph had married the painter Carrington and continued to live with her and Lytton Strachey at Ham Spray in Wiltshire. The story is well known, both from Michael Holroyd's life of Strachey and from the film Carrington. The homosexual Lytton loved Ralph, the heterosexual Ralph loved Carrington, and the bisexual Carrington loved Lytton. By the time Frances came along, the Partridge- Carrington marriage had loosened up, owing to Carrington's affair with Gerald Brenan. There were some happy years, but Lytton died in January 1932; and in March, Carrington, unable to endure life without him, shot herself.

The next year, Frances and Ralph married. They continued to live in the beautiful house at Ham Spray throughout the war, and had a child, Burgo. Ralph died in November 1960; in 1963, so did the young Burgo, while talking to her on the telephone. Frances wrote to me that she and Ralph were wrapped up in each other, "perhaps so much as to be tough on Burgo. B was an enchanting child with many potentialities, not suited by school and growing up a nervous, but original and loving character."

Frances was hit hard by their deaths and the Sixties were for her a desolate decade, as shown by the three published volumes of her diaries for that period. The current volume, Life Regained, is positively cheerful by comparison.

In the many books about Bloomsbury, Ralph has been pictured as a hearty, handsome, not very intellectual, good chap. Though she has not made a campaign of it, Frances is always glad to have a chance to set the record straight.

"The first source of his portrait," Frances wrote in the preface to A Pacifist's War, "was his very old friend and rival, Gerald Brenan, whose assessment (inaccurate in my view) was accepted in all innocence by Michael Holroyd in his life of Lytton Strachey, and has 'type-cast' him, as it were, in other subsequent accounts."

"He was a very strong character," Frances wrote to me on 1 July this year, "and extremely interested in people. My 30 years with him were intensely happy. He had a first-rate mind and good memory (scholarship from Westminster - where he was head boy - to Christ Church)."

Ralph, who won the MC and the Croix de Guerre, and became a major at 19, clearly also had a good brain; he was a reviewer for the New Statesman, and wrote a book on Broadmoor that is still consulted by criminologists. "So much for what I lost," she wrote to me, and why "I couldn't possibly have taken another mate. But friends - some might think I look to too many."

Though life dealt Frances a few hard knocks when she was in her sixties, in her seventies she recovered her equanimity, her optimism and her ability to enjoy life. She doesn't worry about ageing, not only because she does it so well, but because she had her brush with fear of the future a few weeks after going down from Newnham.

"The realisation of the passing of time, tick by tick, moved suddenly into the foreground of my consciousness and remained as a horrible obsession for several days. True, 21 was not a great age, but I would never be 20 again. Gradually it disappeared, was soaked up like black ink by blotting paper, until in the end I had completely accepted the flight of time as part of the cosmos, and growing old has given me very little anguish since."

'Life Regained: Diaries 1970-1972', to be published on 10 August (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 18.99)