9 October 2019

Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett

My visit to Charleston Farmhouse in September was originally planned as a way to learn more about Virginia Woolf.  But once you cross the threshold of a home, see the rooms and spaces in which its occupants went about daily life,  they quickly become more than a reference in ink.  Who better to throw open the curtains on life at Charleston than the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant?  Neither glowing romp about an idyllic life in the Sussex countryside or a dreary moan, Deceived with Kindness is the touching account of a woman hoping to reconcile the vulnerabilities of her childhood with the hindsight of adulthood.

'As I thought about my childhood and adolescence I began to realise that the past may be either fruitful or a burden; that the present, if not lived to the full, may turn the past into a threatening serpent; and that relationships that were not full explored at the time can become dark shapes, in the shadow of which we do not care to linger.'

Steering purposefully away from convention,  this circle of friends had homosexual relationships, lovers and mistresses outside of marriage, and embraced free thinking.  Yet there was a surprising amount of repressed behaviour, largely due to their Victorian upbringing.   Images of Vanessa, Duncan, Lytton, Virginia and Leonard relaxing on various lawns paint a picture of a carefree existence but there were several emotional dynamics at play.  Vanessa very much wanted to have a child with Duncan, who was in a relationship with David Garnett.  Shortly after beginning a sexual relationship with Vanessa, she became pregnant with Angelica.   Clive and Vanessa's marriage had been floundering for many years so his time at Charleston was usually limited to weekends.  He left the bulk of Angelica's upbringing to Vanessa.   Duncan also remained in the background when it came to any sort of parenting.  Angelica's observation is heartbreaking....

   'Although Vanessa comforted herself with the pretence that I had two fathers, in reality - emotional reality, that is - I had none.'

Brighter moments of Angelica's life included her two older brothers, Julian and Quentin, but they spent much of their time away at school.  Knowing that Virginia railed against the lack of education for girls, I was surprised to discover that Vanessa had a completely opposing viewpoint.  She would have been happy for her children to learn in an informal arrangement, while at home surrounded by nature.

Travelling back and forth between Firle and London there are wonderful descriptions of life inside 46 Gordon Square, where Vanessa had rooms on the upper floor.

'I sat on the chequered coconut matting, rough and uneasy to my bottom, sheltered from the heat by Nessa's knees, while her hands would take from the mantelpiece, and bring down to my level, the dried oranges and lemons used for darning socks.'

The property at Gordon Square was transferred to Maynard Keynes after Vanessa and Virginia had both married and went to live elsewhere.  While visiting, and as a special treat, Angelica was allowed to take her bath in Keynes' large tub.   She remembers him tossing sponges at her from a distance while impeccably turned out in expensive suits.

Once during a visit to Tavistock Square, Virginia brought out rolls of paper she had bought in New Oxford Street, along with pins and paste, to make a doll resembling Ottoline Morrell.  The image of the doll produced hoots of laughter from Virginia.  Another wonderful anecdote involves Angelica and her aunt throwing cubes of sugar from the window to horses waiting patiently below.  In contrast, visits to Clive's parents' home were more refined....

   'The house was a kind of petrified zoo.  In the library a lamp stood on a tripod of hooves, once those of a deer, and on the writing-table, furnished with the thickest of inlaid writing-papers was an ink-well made from another, larger hoof, perhaps that of the moose in the hall, king of all these relics.'

Christmas was usually celebrated with Clive's family in Wiltshire.  A driver would collect them at the station and then on to the Bell's grand home where plates of cucumber sandwiches would be waiting.

There is much to be gleaned from Angelica's memoir.  Victorian social mores melting into a less strident book of rules, the inequality of acknowledgement between male and female artists, reading about Virginia Woolf through the eyes of a child and finding so much humour,  a changing countryside, once fairly tranquil now blighted by noise from planes and cars.  Angelica also dissects her feelings about her marriage and divorce from David Garnett.  And while some of her descriptions of his behaviour are not complimentary she acknowledges they are her point of view and perhaps unfair given that Garnett could not speak for himself.

Angelica Garnett's childhood, spent in the company of the Bloomsbury Group was extraordinary.  Once she was old enough to look back at certain situations from her childhood, she became ever more depressed.  Putting pen to paper as a way to tease out her feelings and understand her upbringing but the process took several years.  Some readers have found this book to be harsh at times and riddled with snobbery.  To the contrary, I found Angelica's sincere thoughts and her apology for misunderstanding the actions and/or intentions of Vanessa, Duncan and Clive to be quite moving.

Deceived with Kindness is my read of the year.  It's early October but I don't think there's another book on the horizon that could topple it.

Angelica with her aunt, Virginia Woolf
(Ramsay & Muspratt - 1932)

2 comments:

  1. A wonderful review, Darlene! I've been intrigued by this for years but haven't got around to reading it yet. I can imagine it would have been a very challenging environment to grow up in and, yes, a very lonely one in some ways with parents as absorbed in their artistic and romantic lives as Angelica's were.

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    1. You can't be more informed than getting a few details straight from the source. I don't know how many times I've read, and it was repeated on the tour at Charleston, that Angelica found out Duncan Grant was her biological father in her late teens. She says in her memoir that at around fourteen, one of her friends revealed what everyone knew...but Angelica had already figured it out.
      If you're feeling in a Bloomsbury mood, buy a copy and set aside a cosy day!

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