1 June, 2009Issue 9.6EuropeLiteratureWriters

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To Only Connect

Patrick Maxwell

partridgeAnne Chisholm
Frances Partridge: The Biography
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009
440 pages
ISBN 978-0297646730

Hardly the best known of her Bloomsbury Group peers, Frances Partridge is more notable for her personal relations and sheer longevity than for any sort of literary corpus. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Partridge will not jostle for a place in 20th-century literature’s hall of fame, and though her six volumes of diaries were celebrated upon publication, they are little read today. But Partridge’s long life is nonetheless worth revisiting. Gracefully outlasting a century, she glided through her 103 years with style and a sprinkling of scandal. Anne Chisholm’s excellent new biography rescues Partridge from the brink of obscurity, depicting the diarist as both a remarkable woman and a fascinating window to Bloomsbury’s drama.

A collection of artists, writers, and intellectuals based in London near the British Museum, the Bloomsbury Group produced some of the most famous work of the 20th century. While Bloomsbury’s most noted members, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, are celebrated for their literary work, the group is perhaps best remembered for its liberated ideals and rejection of Victorian convention—the recounting of which generates much of the biography’s excitement.

Partridge’s introduction to this bohemian scene came after school at Bedales and Cambridge, when she took a job at Birrell & Garnett, Bloomsbury’s favourite bookshop. There, her “pretty dark eyes” and “the best legs in Bloomsbury” caught the eye of Ralph Partridge, a decorated major turned literary playboy, who would become the love of her life.

Things were far from straightforward. Ralph was already married to the bisexual painter Dora Carrington, who was in love with the gay writer Lytton Strachey who, in turn, loved Ralph. This triangle was complicated, first by Ralph’s bullish seduction of Frances, and later by Strachey’s death from cancer, which precipitated Carrington’s suicide and made Frances the scapegoat of Bloomsbury gossip. Chisholm expertly handles the sexually charged emotional drama of this period, drawing from the letters of all four participants to highlight the tension of the foursome’s shifting loyalties and exclusive hostility. She injects particularly tantalising tidbits from Strachey and Carrington’s explicit correspondence, breathing new life into this famous ménage à quatre.

In the early stages of the biography, Chisholm is keen to provide a fuller picture of Ralph in accordance with Partridge’s request “to get Ralph right” since “no one ever has”. Frustration with Ralph’s brazen affairs led Partridge to prune mention of them from much of her writing. Though Partridge’s diaries often documented the scandalous polygamy of her friends, she remained blind to Ralph’s faults until she died. Partridge explained that the desire to repair her husband’s reputation motivated publication of her diaries: “I am anxious”, she wrote in the preface to A Pacifist’s War, her first volume, “to remove these distortions and substitute as detached a picture as I can.”

Chisholm juggles this task professionally. She dedicates two chapters to exposing Ralph’s excellence as a soldier and intellect, but unlike Partridge, admits the truth in his reputation as a boorish public schoolboy, sexually liberated by Carrington and Strachey. Chisholm draws from the broader Bloombury Group in this effort, reporting Virginia Woolf’s amused declaration that after an evening of Ralph’s sexual vulgarity, her husband “Leonard went home and contemplated, seriously, some scientific form of suicide.”

This type of Bloomsbury gossip is, of course, one of the main appeals of Partridge’s diaries. But Chisholm resolutely rebuts the suggestion that Partridge is merely a literary hanger-on. She records Partridge’s achievements as a translator, biographer, indexer, and botanist. Perhaps most importantly, Chisholm establishes the emotional resonance of the six volumes of diaries published since Partridge’s 77th birthday. These diaries depict an enviable life of leisure lived out amidst a long list of literary celebrities. But they also illustrate Partridge’s personal suffering and gentle humanity, which both reflect and refract the arrogance of Bloomsbury.

By 1964, Partridge had suffered the tragedy of a husband and son dying within the span of three years. Taking advantage of an active mind and her extensive network of friends, Partridge invoked Voltaire’s maxim: “Courage is not enough. Distractions are necessary.” She refused to capitulate in miserable solitude, instead throwing herself into travel and finding respite in witty, descriptive diaries.

The diaries echo Bloomsbury themes in Partridge’s singular, deeply human voice. In one, for instance, she explains “because though I can never invent or imagine anything, I have a passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought and experienced, for its own sake—to express, or communicate or both?” At times like these her tone echoes Woolf’s wondering, dark ruminations in Between The Acts, and the reader becomes a trusted confidant. The influence of her celebrated peers is strong throughout; like E.M. Forster, Partridge strives in her diaries to “only connect”.

These diaries provided solace to bereaved readers of Bloomsbury, who were inspired and reassured by Partridge’s wry observations. Many wrote to her for further support and she personally replied to every letter. Chisholm convincingly champions Partridge’s kindness as her strongest suit, but as with her treatment of Ralph, she retains healthy scepticism of her subject. Throughout the biography, Chisholm criticises the self-interested exclusivity of Bloomsbury’s ideology.

Most notably, she disapproves of an approach to parenting that hardly leaves one hankering to have been Bloomsbury offspring. “Childishness”, thought Partridge, “is boring except in certain kittenish aspects.” Accordingly, the Partridges kept contact with their son Burgo minimal and insisted on being called Frances and Ralph, never Mummy and Daddy. Burgo suffered in his role as second fiddle to his parents’ social life. Prone to weeping and regular escape attempts from school, he was haunted by fears that his parents had died. Highlighting the darker side of Bloomsbury life, Chisholm cites a V.S. Pritchett short story that reiterates the popular rumor that Burgo was found digging his parents’ graves in their garden.

Chisholm also takes explicit issue with Partridge’s lifelong pacifism, wondering how anyone could object to war when the enemy was Hitler. Bloomsbury’s insulation from reality—an accusation of its many critics—certainly shows here. It is hard to take Partridge’s politics very seriously when the biggest “trial of war” she encounters is the unreliability of domestic help and a trip to London, which includes a new tweed suit and lunch of “salmon, asparagus and zabaglione” at the Ivy. Chisholm notes that pacifism is the only topic on which she found Partridge’s 100-year-old mind to be closed: “It was not that she would not address the matter, but that she could not; she had long ago rejected all the arguments I could deploy.”

Chisholm seems to have been so seduced by Partridge’s “cocktail party tact” that she is quick to forgive the woman’s foibles. She could certainly have been more critical of the lifelong socialite and less charmed by her grace in old age. But in the end, her affection for Patridge suffuses the biography and, rather than turning the reader away, elicits real sympathy for its subject. One can almost forgive Partridge’s selfishness, seeming exploitation of her position, and privileged isolation from reality. And even where we can’t forgive, readers are left thoroughly convinced that Partridge, a bystander to glittering acquaintances in her own work, deserves a turn at centre stage.

Patrick Maxwell graduated with a first in English Language and Literature from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He is currently teaching English in Russia.