The Bloomsberries live in the words of the artist

October 03, 1993|By Laurie Kaplan

SELECTED LETTERS OF VANESSA BELL

Edited by Regina Marler

Pantheon

593 pages. $35 "There was never such a thing as the 'Bloomsbury Group,' " wrote Vanessa Bell to Leonard Woolf after the end of World War II, and years after Bloomsbury had ceased to irritate the Establishment.

If, as she so boldly asserts, no such phenomenon existed, why is Bloomsbury such a marketable commodity? Biographies of anyone even tangentially related to Bloomsbury proliferate. Today's readers delight in the convoluted circumstances of the Bloomsberries' love affairs, and theater buffs pay small fortunes for dress circle seats for "Aspects of Love," Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical interpretation of Vanessa Bell's daughter's marriage to her natural father's former lover.

The Charleston Magazine provides a venue for articles about the Group's contributions to culture; picture books feature stylish photos of the Group's offspring; there is even a gorgeous, glossy book of Omega Workshop needlepoint designs for fire screens and rugs. Biographies of Virginia Woolf appear regularly, along with critical studies of her novels. There are six volumes of her letters and five volumes of her diaries.

Does the reading public really need another book about a small society that may not have existed in the first place, and that didn't last very long if it did?

The answer, of course, is yes. In the same letter to Leonard Woolf, her brother-in law, Vanessa Bell suggests rather sardonically that "if Bloomsbury is to be written about it must be by its own members . . . ." In "The Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell," the artist does just that: She writes about the daily lives of some of the most imaginative and productive people of the first half of the 20th century.

She has a keen eye for details. Fabrics, prices, iris beds, paintings, symptoms of illness -- everything is within her purview. As the doyenne of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell held a perfect position from which to scrutinize everyone.

She visited Matisse and Picasso in their studios; she knew Henry James, Ottoline Morrell, Lytton Strachey and Vita Sackville-West; she lived with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. John Maynard Keynes called her "Ludendorff Bell," and she called Virginia Woolf "The Goat," "Beloved Monkey," `The Wombat," and "William."

In letters that are almost always good-natured and diverting, Vanessa breathlessly juxtaposes the condition of England and the laissez-faire sexuality of family and friends. She mentions curtains and dinner, and then reports frankly on the asexuality of Leonard's and "The Goat's" frigid marriage. She outlines the Byzantine arrangements of an immensely complicated domestic life along with the challenges involved in depicting pure form or transforming Britain's domestic decoration.

Vanessa Bell wrote letters daily -- she considered them "proof of love" -- and more than 2,500 survive. A collection of letters evokes a person in a way a biography somehow misses. Unlike a biography, which is someone else's interpretation of a life, letters give a personalized glimpse of the soul of the writer. Although Vanessa's letters are less quotable than her sister's, and are therefore more "ordinary," she presents a more unguarded picture than Virginia Woolf ever reveals.

Very supportive of her sister, she still forthrightly addresses Virginia's mental breakdown: The doctor, she tells her, "said that your not being able to sleep showed that you were not right and that you needed all possible quiet and rest to make up for the want of sleep." Vanessa banters gently with Virginia -- "You may hook your learned nose at me in disdain" -- even when her sister has become uncontrollable and potentially violent.

The consistent tone of Vanessa's letters deflates the assertion by some scholars that her letter of March 20, 1941, brutalized Virginia into committing suicide: "You're in the state when one never admits what's the matter, but you must not go and get ill just now. . . . Do what Leonard advises and don't go scrubbing floors, which for all I care can remain unscrubbed forever."

What shines through these letters is Vanessa's expansive spirit -- enveloping, intelligent and very human in joy and in sorrow. Seriously concerned with contemporary decorative arts and painting, she is also a mother, wife and friend. Balancing mundane chores, "awful servant crises" and child-care problems with a career, she seems to be the prototype of the modern working woman.

Vanessa writes to everyone, especially her children, as though they are equals. Long, chatty, deeply personal and affectionate, her best letters are to her son, Julian, when he is teaching in China, and these letters seem closest to her heart. In one letter to him, she dissects what she perceives as Virginia's elitism, or her need to maintain her own "poise":

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