Books: Turning pages in a paper life

Bloomsbury's great survivor has blossomed into a peerless diarist, reports Frances Spalding
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Life Regained: diaries 1970-1972

by Frances Partridge

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20

Frances Partridge, born in 1900, was in spanking good form at the age of 70. The year 1970 may have begun in the doldrums ("London is a plague-stricken and deserted city"), but she is undefeated by the cold and darkness. Pulling on fur coat and trousers, she journeys round the block, "peering owlishly" through the frosted windscreen of her Mini, then goes back to bed, "triumphant" with the Sunday papers.

The pages of this book brim with pleasure; also with a critical alertness. "Unless they are giving off rattles of laughter," she observes of a country house party, "they don't feel alive." Her intelligence arms her against negative forces, but she knows, too, that in some circumstances it is wiser to adapt.

Her grasp of this first became apparent in the 1920s when, soon after she came down from Cambridge, she caught the attention of Ralph Partridge. He was embroiled in a menage a trois with Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington. At Strachey's request, Frances Marshall, as she then was, held back, and not until after Strachey's death and Carrington's suicide did she and Ralph marry. In this way drawn into Bloomsbury, Frances Partridge upholds their beliefs in the importance of friendship and in the need for rationalism and intellectual honesty.

In the course of these diaries, she travels to Poland, Russia, Corfu, Italy, France and Spain, and is adept at evoking the flavour of a Mediterranean landscape or the Victorian attractions of the Isle of Wight - "a comfortable, non-hysterical landscape".

She is also stirred to write by the small dramas supplied by her friends. There are causes for joy, as when she observes the calmness in her close friend Janetta after her third marriage; but she is equally acute on marital difficulties, operations, illness and "the increasing obscenity of old age". She despairs when the Vietnamese war spreads into Cambodia: "How tiny, vulnerable and unimportant seem my own activities in face of this world horror and the sinking of various friends into death and confusion." She grieves that there are "fewer people one is effortlessly at ease with". But her melancholy remains brisk: while deploring London's summer visitors, she notes "the dazed, cross expression of all sightseers".

With the appearance of each new volume, Frances Partridge has grown in stature as a diarist. At first, in her wartime diaries, her stance epitomised that of a civilised observer. But in those diaries covering the years following the death of her husband and her son (at the untimely age of 28), she showed how unresponsive human agony is to rational thought, while placing her trust not in supernatural help but in what the mind can achieve. This made the gradual revival of hope and happiness all the more moving.

What makes her especially good as a diarist, rivalling James Lees-Milne and Anthony Powell, is her invigorating sanity, her sharp observation and her quick appreciation. She revels in her friendship with Dadie Rylands ("easy and voluble") and Raymond Mortimer, and uncovers more in the continuing saga of her friendship with the increasingly batty Julia Strachey.

Her delight in thinking and talking is a recurrent theme. After a weekend at the Cecils, with John Bayley and Iris Murdoch as fellow guests, she notes that "conversation raged like a forest fire". She judges a dinner party a success because "everyone was highly and concentratedly themselves". She is less enamoured of "Bloomsbury hounds" who besiege her, but the rigorous questioning of their motives is also turned on herself, with touching effect. "I thought about all the paper in my life, the respect I treat it with ... It struck me as sad, and that perhaps it had taken the place of flesh and blood, becomes too important, and that may be why I've minded the postal strike so much. Has my life become too much 'on paper'?"

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