Frances Partridge

Centenarian survivor of the Bloomsbury Group
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The Independent Online

Frances Catherine Marshall, writer and translator: born London 15 March 1900; FRSL 1982; CBE 2000; married 1933 Ralph Partridge (died 1960; one son deceased); died London 5 February 2004.

Save for Angelica Garnett, Frances Partridge was the last direct link with Bloomsbury, and her death, at the great age of 103, closes a chapter in English literary life. Her friendships with Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey alone, so vividly chronicled, would have assured her own immortality. But born and brought up in the heart of Bloomsbury itself, in Bedford Square, she became allied by marriage or friendship to just about everyone of significance in the literary and artistic worlds of the Twenties and Thirties.

For 30 years Frances Partridge lived in Lytton Strachey's former home, Ham Spray House. Married to Dora Carrington's former husband, Ralph Partridge, she was related by marriage to David Garnett and knew intimately Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant, whose granddaughter Henrietta Garnett married her son, Burgo.

Born Frances Marshall in 1900, the youngest of a family of six reared to regard Charles Darwin as God and atheism as perfectly normal, she was educated at Bedales and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where initially she read English, switching to Moral Sciences, a tripos consisting of Philosophy, Psychology, Ethics and Logic. She was drawn to what was then the novel idea of a career in applied psychology, but unable to find serious paid employment for which she was qualified she applied for a job, at £3 a week, in the bookshop in Taviton Street run by David Garnett and Francis Birrell.

Thus it was only a matter of time before she met Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Maynard Keynes, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Lord David Cecil, Saxon Sydney-Turner - all those who already had the entrée to Lytton Strachey's rented house at Tidmarsh and to Charleston in Sussex, the informally run farmhouse inhabited on a most unorthodox basis by Clive and Vanessa Bell and Vanessa Bell's bisexual lover Duncan Grant, for many years the unacknowledged father of Angelica Garnett.

It was not long before Frances Marshall found herself entangled in another extraordinary ménage à trois, at Tidmarsh, where Lytton Strachey was in love with the literary journalist Ralph Partridge, Partridge with the painter Dora Carrington, and Carrington, most improbably of all, with the quite obviously homosexual Strachey. Ralph and Carrington got married; then Ralph and Frances fell in love.

The appalling drama that enabled Ralph and Frances eventually to marry was played out at Ham Spray, in Wiltshire, the house to which Ralph Partridge and Lytton Strachey had moved as joint owners. Carrington had remained devoted to Strachey, and when, in 1932, he died from cancer she became determined to commit suicide, only succeeding after a hideously bungled attempt to shoot herself.

Already an experienced translator - she spoke fluent French, Italian and Spanish - Frances Partridge with her husband edited The Greville Memoirs (1938). In 1981 she published, in Memories, an account of her life up to the age of 33. She had many years earlier formed the habit of keeping a journal, and in 1978 she published her first volume of diaries, A Pacifist's War. Everything to Lose appeared six years later, ending on a heartrending note with the death, in 1960, of her husband.

A third volume of diaries, appropriately enough entitled Hanging On, and covering the years 1960-63, came out in 1990. It more or less explained how she managed to cope with her bereavement, and she spoke adamantly to friends of her decision not to publish another volume, for it would have meant beginning almost straightaway again with a second devastating blow, the sudden death in 1963 from a heart attack of her 28-year-old son Burgo.

In 1958 Burgo wrote a rather slapdash, but commercially successful book called A History of Orgies, clearly the work of a young man in a hurry, and Frances was not entirely approving. Burgo's wife, Henrietta Garnett, was truly a child of Bloomsbury. Her father, David Garnett, had enjoyed a youthful affair with her grandfather, Duncan Grant, whose illegitimate daughter by Vanessa Bell, Angelica, had married Garnett after the death of his first wife, Ray Marshall, the sister of Frances.

When Burgo dropped dead while making a telephone call to the journalist Peter Jenkins, Henrietta was just 19 and the mother of a two-month-old baby. She begged Frances not to publish anything about his death, a request she honoured in spirit, for when in 1993 she decided to go into print once more, with a volume of diaries called Other People, covering the years 1963-66, she omitted the details of Burgo's death and concentrated, perhaps too much so, on her own second bereavement and how she tried to come to terms with it.

Compared to the earlier diaries, Other People was in parts a sad stodge, too full of personal grief, too anxious continually to protest the author's lack of belief in God. In neither this volume, nor the three that followed, Good Company in 1994 (1967-70), Life Regained in 1998 (1970-72) and Ups and Downs in 2001 (1972-75), was she well served by her editors; the books are full of references to people hard to identify and of far less interest than the people she had written about in earlier years.

But by 2001 Frances Partridge was herself over 100, beginning to lose her sight, if none of her interest in the quirks of human nature. In her own life she had always remained faithful to the virtues she most admired in Bloomsbury, honesty and integrity. Her generosity towards other writers became legendary; she was always ready to share with them her phenomenal memory, even allowing them on occasion to delve into her unpublished diaries. No one left her flat in West Halkin Street without feeling better for the visit.

Not that Partridge was always at home. Many of her diary entries record visits overseas, and she thought no year had been properly fulfilled without at least three trips abroad. Travel, like books and music (she played the violin in string quartets, and regarded a visit to the opera as a treat), was a passion. "The attraction of travel is so obvious," she once observed, "I can only think those people who don't travel are windy, they're afraid of the unknown. Travel is about the excitement of strangeness."

Her other cherished occupation was keeping friendships in good repair. Ralph Partridge had been the cornerstone of her life, and it is obvious from her diaries that she thought other people had not regarded him highly. For clever and amusing women she always had a warm spot. She wrote a biography of her closest friend, Julia Strachey (Julia, 1983), and she was particularly fond of Lady Anne Hill, the wife of the bookseller Heywood Hill, and Lytton Strachey's sister-in-law the psychoanalyst Alix Strachey. Many of her male companions were homosexuals, and her frequent visits to stay at Long Crichel, the male literary salon owned by Edward Sackville-West, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Raymond Mortimer and her London neighbour the painter Eardley Knollys, produced some of her most enlightening pen-portraits.

It was typical of someone so devoted to intellectual ideas and stimulating conversation that Frances Partridge resolutely refused to own a television set, so that friends with whom she stayed in the country at the weekends had to provide a résumé of soap-opera plots, which she would then attempt to follow on the screen in open-eyed amazement, like a child at her first pantomime.

She was greatly loved and admired by a wide circle of friends, some of whom in late life may have been mildly surprised by her astringent comments on them in her books. Constantly available on the telephone, she would restore her own spirits with a stiff whisky at six o'clock and then, in old age, what she would look forward to most was a quiet evening with an old friend; or better still, for she was reviewing for The Spectator into her late nineties, on her own with a good book.

Michael De-la-Noy

Frances Partridge kept fascinating photograph albums, writes James Fergusson. There's a photograph in Friends in Focus, her selection from them published in 1987, of her and her husband Ralph lying side by side with their books outside a house in Suffolk. "Ralph and I had always liked reading different books in close proximity," reads the caption. Frances looks cool and rather serene, head resting on a graceful hand, Ralph big-eyed and suspicious, as though interrupted at a crucial point in his chapter.

Frances said to the end of her life, 43 years after Ralph's death, that she didn't get less lonely being without him. This was to others' profit. Her gift for companionability was applied freely to her enormous acquaintance, young, old, Bloomsbury and other. She had an impressive zest for parties, even when she was 100 and her sight was going, and her wobbliness demanded the use of a wheelchair. The sight of that fiercely unsentimental, anti-class centenarian being propelled round the Queen's Buckingham Palace reception in 2001 for the "British Book World" was somehow reassuring and ennobling.

She tended to be described as the "last survivor of the Bloomsbury Group", though she was never strictly of the group nor even, at least until the death of her old friend George ("Dadie") Rylands in 1999, the last of that interesting generation. Her great age made her an object of physical fascination - an alert but ravaged face on her modest frame - and her memories bestowed on her the status of an historical guru. Friends in Focus snapshots T.S. Eliot smoking cigarettes with Ottoline Morrell, Aldous Huxley dancing with Mark Gertler, Raymond Mortimer posing as St Sebastian, Virginia Woolf monumental like a statue, Lytton Strachey in bed. It also shows photographs of her as an improbably old-fashioned undergraduate at Newnham and a delicious naked bather on a Wiltshire riverbank.

She was not only a loyal Independent reader, from the time the newspaper was first published in her 87th year (she was a devotee of its crossword), but also an occasional, if reluctant, Independent writer, contributing obituaries of such old friends as Noel Carrington, the enterprising inventor of Puffin Picture Books, and brother of her husband's first wife, the painter Dora Carrington.

When Christopher Hampton's film Carrington came out in 1995, the Barbican Art Gallery in London put on a show of Carrington's work, the first since Noel Carrington's exhibition at Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, in 1978. Frances Partridge had expressed herself unmoved by the fuss over the film (in which she was played by Alex Kingston), complaining more of Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey on which it was based. But even she, present of course at the opening party for the exhibition, where Emma Thompson (who played Carrington) was being filmed for television cavorting in front of Carrington's pictures, seemed a bit shaken by the blurring of the lines of fact, as she saw it, and natty dramatisation. (What on earth did she make of Nicole Kidman's playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours?)

In 2000, the year she saw in her century, she was finally honoured by her country, as CBE, and invested by London University as an honorary DLit. In 2002, at the age of 102, and five years older than the Queen Mother when she had the same operation (indeed, a year older than the Queen Mother at death), she was given a new hip.

Her death in the month before her 104th birthday will have the same effect in a certain circle as that of the widow of the late monarch. For Frances Partridge had become a sort of commoner's Queen Mother, emblematic and much loved, for her eloquent survival, her studious lack of vanity, her stubborn cheerfulness in the face of astonishing old age. She represented many of the Bloomsbury virtues - high-mindedness, clear thinking, directness even to asperity, wide-ranging inquisitiveness, particular loyalty to friends - while also enjoying the pastimes of the Victorian age into which, just, she was born. (In Who's Who she listed her recreations as music, reading and botany.) Her London flat was Bloomsbury in Belgravia - simple, unpretentious, with many books and a few beautiful things: Stracheyana, paintings by Carrington, an Anrep mosaic.

There, even bedridden at the end, she still entertained a stream of visitors, and accepted with delight meals delivered to her door by her neighbour Anton Mosimann.

* Michael De-la-Noy died 12 August 2002