The Twilight of the Intellectuals
Not surprisingly, Spalding is on much firmer ground when she turns away from the Vanessa Bell (which she does as often as possible in this book) to recount the bizarre history of her subject's personal affairs. Yet there, too, while nothing if not candid in disclosing a great many unpleasant facts—especially regarding Vanessa Bell's protracted liaison with the homosexual Duncan Grant—Spalding can never quite bring herself to align these facts, which have much to do with concealment and a kind of emotional martyrdom, with the values that Bloomsbury prided itself on living by. Foremost among these values—according to the Bloomsbury myth, anyway—was what Virginia Woolf called 'the old Cambridge ideal of truth and free speaking.' This has been said again and again to have been the moral cornerstone of the Bloomsbury ethic. Yet the truth is, this 'ideal of truth and free speaking' was rarely, if ever, the governing principle of Vanessa Bell's adult life. For one thing she could never speak openly of her true feelings about the homosexual attachments which remained central to Duncan Grant's existence during all the years they lived together. On the contrary, she was obliged to extend hospitality and even a show of affection to his many male lovers as a condition for being allowed to have a place in his life. She always knew that Grant had never loved her in the way that she had come to love him, and she accepted the humiliations of the situation in silence. But by then, of course, remaining silent about the way she lived was already a habit with Vanessa Bell. When she rejected her husband and took other lovers, and he took up with a succession of mistresses, to whom she was also obliged to extend hospitality throughout her life, this too had to be concealed—most notably from Clive Bell's wealthy and eminently respectable parents, whose tastes and interests Vanessa Bell loathed but upon whose financial generosity the Bells were largely dependent for their 'free' way of life. (Neither Vanessa nor Clive Bell ever had to work for a living.) The 'life of retirement among fine shades and nice feelings' wasn't cheap, and it was the benighted parents of her husband-the very archetypes of the philistine squirearchy which Bloomsbury held in such contempt-who were expected to pay the bills. Reading Vanessa, Bell, one quickly comes to realize that the Victorians had nothing to teach Bloomsbury when it came to self-interested concealment and hypocrisy.
The most egregious example of the Bloomsbury double standard—for that is what it always came down to—is to be found in the appalling tale of Vanessa Bell's daughter, whose father was known to virtually all members of the inner circle to be Duncan Grant but who was nonetheless brought up to believe that she was the child of Clive Bell. Again, the principal reason for this deception seems to have been the need to conceal the truth from Clive Bell's parents, who, being the sort of dodoes they were, could not be expected to react to the actual situation with the requisite sympathy and understanding. And no wonder—for there was quite a lot to the situation that required some understanding. At the time of the child's birth, Vanessa Bell found herself presiding over a difficult menage a trois, with David Garnett more or less in residence as Duncan Grands favorite of the moment. As it turned out, the man who proved to be the most passionately devoted to the newborn child was neither its actual father nor its official one but Garnett, the child's father's lover, who promptly announced his intention of marrying the girl—which, to the horror of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, he actually succeeded in doing some twenty-odd years later. About that, interestingly these pillars of Bloomsbury liberation acted as if they were performing a charade of outraged Victorian parenthood.
Meanwhile, Bloomsbury's celebrated candor in matters having to do with sexual behavior—all the much-quoted talk about 'buggers' and 'semen' and such—was totally suspended in the girl's upbringing. Not only was she kept in perfect ignorance about the fact that the man whom she and her mother lived with was her real father, but she was also kept in the dark about the most elementary facts of life. So complete was the daughter's innocence in this respect that at the age of seventeen she had to be sent to a physician to be instructed in the mysteries of sex. Even this proved to be futile, alas, for the physician (a woman) was so stunned by the girl's ignorance that she could not bring herself to explain anything. Clearly the ideal of 'truth and free speaking' had its limitations even for Bloomsbury. So too, by the way, did the application of Bloomsbury's feminist standards. Thus, while the Bells' two sons were brought up in the expected atmosphere of sexual candor and as young adults were encouraged to disclose the details of their sexual affairs to their mother, Vanessa Bell's daughter was allowed no such freedom of action or expression. She seems to have been raised in a moral void, denied the advantages (such as they were) of Bloomsbury's 'new dispensation' yet denied as well whatever comfort, security, or guidance might have been provided by the conventions it was designed to displace.
About all this, too, Spalding gives us a very frank and unsparing account. Yet for all of its frankness, there is finally something just a bit obtuse about this book. It is as if the glamour and prestige of its dramatis personae have had the effect of stripping its author of her capacity to form a judgment of either the actions or the characters she so meticulously describes.