edited by
Email this review


 In this selection of 300-plus (from over 2500) surviving letters of Vanessa Bell (1879-1978), Marler adds a warm, modest, humane, and maternal tone to the raucous Bloomsbury chorus--to the ironies, cruelties, and wit of Virginia (Bell's sister) and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Ottoline Morrell, all of whom appear in these casual letters. A painter and decorative artist, Bell wrote letters that reflect the trivia and gossip of the atheistic, unsentimental, sexually liberated Bloomsberries, to whom she was a loving and unassuming center. However self-deprecating she was about her feelings--expressed in her disheveled appearance and frugal style- -Bell's painting, aside from experiments with abstraction and her decorative murals, was aggressive, a distorted and raw realism. Devoted to her art, her husband Clive, and her lovers Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, Bell was fascinated by the ``maternal instinct'' awakened by her children: Julian, who died in the Spanish Civil War; Quentin, who became an artist (and who writes a moving prologue here); and Angelica, her daughter by Duncan who grew up to marry David ``Bunny'' Garnett, a man 26 years her senior and once her own father's lover, and to produce four daughters to delight Vanessa. The best letters here include a caricature of the Bloomsberries attending a film depicting a Caesarian section (1931); several to Julian in China (1935-37); laconic responses to Julian's death and Virginia's suicide (1941); and explicit homosexual fantasies about Keynes and Strachey cavorting with young boys. Vanessa was by her own admission a better painter than writer- -and, indeed, her letters lack the bite and wit of other Bloomsbury writings. But Marler's biographical introductions and meticulous footnotes, as well as the 25 b&w photographs, add substance. The real pleasure here is in seeing Bell mature with the century, her fashionable attitudes replaced by authentic experience.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-41939-X
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1993