Bell's 'Bloomsbury': works finer than lives

March 24, 1996|By ROBERT RUBY | ROBERT RUBY,SUN STAFF

"Bloomsbury Recalled," by Quentin Bell. Columbia University Press. 234 pages. $24.95. Quentin Bell forgives his elders in this calm, generous memoir for all their painful, intimate flaws as members of the British artistic flowering known as Bloomsbury. He manages to sound always warm and kind even when offering reminders that the Bloomsbury circle of relatives and lovers and friends was as imperfect as it was gifted.

The Bloomsbury Age lasted from 1910 to the eve of World War II - that informal, well-to-do collective of artistic and social experiments carried out in London and the Bells' country house and the house of the author's aunt and uncle, Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Mr. Bell retouches their portraits without flattery. But the reader who has not read some of their books or seen their paintings could mistake this for a catalogue of foibles.

Virginia Woolf could be wholly self-absorbed and cruelly sharp. Clive Bell, the author's father, was a snob even with his mistresses. He also developed an appalling contempt for democracies. Lady Ottoline Morrell was indeed a flamboyant and unselfconscious hostess - her face as brightly made-up as a sunset by J. M. W. Turner, says Mr. Bell - but offered her guests more spectacle than insight.

Bloomsbury wasn't entirely about writing or painting. Even if the movies portraying it suggest otherwise, it wasn't about sex. Yes, there were many lovers and many experiments, but also acutely painful jealousies. In the retelling, the household dramas - the painter Duncan Grant, who was the lover of Vanessa Bell, arriving at her house with male lovers in tow, for example - sound extraordinarily trying. But there was a rich sustenance of kinships, interlocking relationships and - allied to those things - the passion for paintings and books.

Mr. Bell is an art historian and painter. Now 85, he is the last living remnant of Bloomsbury. In writing about his famous elders, he modestly compares himself to "those figures upon the margin of a canvas pointing inwards towards the main subject of the picture." He is something more than that: Along with Michael Holroyd and (through her diaries) Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bell long ago became one of Bloomsbury's greatest chroncilers.

So he has covered this ground before, especially in "Virginia Woolf, a Biography." And nothing in "Bloomsbury Recalled" is as dark or affecting as that earlier account of Woolf's talent and terrible despair, and of Leonard Woolf's devotion to her. In this new volume, Leonard Woolf again emerges as the one person in Bloomsburg you might fully trust. There are new details, but Mr. Bell does not find new heroes.

The other actors now seem as remote as those Strachey debunked in "Eminent Victorians" in 1918. Who is the paler figure - Clive Bell or General Gordon of Khartoum? Many of the Bloomsbury figures begin to seem quite small.

But Mr. Bell is not a debunker. He brings you into his drawing room and these are his parents and their devoted friends, and it is best if you already know them through their works. His memoir is a gentle reminder that the works were finer than the lives.

Robert Ruby, deputy foriegn editor of The Sun is author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms." He is also a frequent traveler to Bloomsbury through it's novels and memoirs.

Pub date 3/24/96

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