When Frances Partridge died five years ago aged nearly 104, her obituaries laid much emphasis on the fact that she had been the last living link to Bloomsbury. As a very young woman, she had been introduced by her lover Ralph Partridge into the famously complex domestic ménage at Ham Spray. Here, she was rapidly caught up in the emotional eddies swirling around the household, with Lytton Strachey in love with Ralph, Carrington married to Ralph but in love with Lytton, and Ralph devoted to them both but deeply in love with Frances. Frances, brought down at weekends, was very much the odd one out, her presence increasingly resented by the two older members of the trio. “Conceivably it might be possible for you to suggest to F,” Lytton wrote to Ralph, “that it would be better if she came down rather less often.”
True to the Bloomsbury spirit of frankness at all costs, Ralph immediately showed the letter to Frances, which hurt her very much. She was, however, a woman of remarkable character, as Anne Chisholm shows in this impeccable biography. Clever, brave, loving and true, Frances refused to take umbrage and by her tact and her devotion to Ralph managed to restore balance to an unusually difficult situation. The exceptionally perceptive Frances not only understood the others’ feelings, she was able to describe in memorable detail in her diary every character, every nuance of daily life among the Bloomsberries. She knew them all, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, David Garnett and Julia Strachey. She was of course closely involved in the terrible sequence of events beginning with Lytton’s final illness and death in 1932, followed shortly afterwards by Carrington’s suicide.
After this double tragedy, Ralph and Frances remained at Ham Spray and married in 1933. They enjoyed a modest but agreeable life together, writing, reading avidly, listening to and playing music, visiting and entertaining friends, travelling abroad and talking, talking, talking. Curious and passionately engaged, the two of them analysed and debated politics, philosophy, literature and the behaviour of their friends from morning till night, Frances even more indefatigably inquiring than Ralph. “In bed, Frances tried in vain to get Ralph interested in discussing Byron,” Anne Chisholm somewhat wrily remarks at one point. This rigorously intellectual approach was applied also to the upbringing of their adored son, Burgo, whose short life appears to have been almost unbearably pathetic. A timid, home-loving child, Burgo was miserable at school, frequently ran away, and was wholly unable to stand up to his father’s masculine hectoring. From this his mother could not protect him, both parents firmly believing in the importance of keeping to their “enlightened” method of progressive parenting. “[Burgo’s] behaviour,” one of their friends remarked, “was always under scrutiny, as if he were a Freudian case study in child development, and often discussed in front of him.”
For the Partridges, the most difficult period of their lives as Bloomsbury bien pensants was during the Second World War, when in the face of widespread condemnation they refused to abandon their uncompromising pacifism. Chisholm deals brilliantly with this complicated subject. “[For Ralph] as well as Frances,” she explains, “the great issue was not how to counter fascism, but how to avoid another war.” Cutting a path through the tangle of arguments on both sides, she shows a clear understanding of the painful isolation of the Partridges’ position, morally admirable but intellectually indefensible, as it was regarded by their more sympathetic friends.
In 1960, Ralph died suddenly of a heart attack, his death followed three years later by that of Burgo, newly married and father of a baby daughter. In a sense Frances never recovered from their loss, and yet this courageous woman was determined not to be defeated. For the next 40 years she set out to lead life to the full, writing, translating, joining an orchestra and working hard to keep up her many friendships. It was now, with the publication of her diaries, that she became such an object of interest to the “Bloomsbury hounds”, as she labelled them, who arrived in increasing numbers to sit at her feet and pump her for her recollections of Lytton, Virginia et al. To her own surprise, Frances came to enjoy the attention and even grew fond of some of the hounds, chief, and most gifted among them Michael Holroyd, as well as the eccentric, endearing Stanley Olson.
Frances Partridge is an outstanding biography, intelligent, sympathetic and beautifully written. Anne Chisholm had a difficult task in that the subject of Bloomsbury has been extensively worked over, not least by Frances herself in her published diaries and memoirs. And yet far from being trapped into producing yet another version of the old story, Anne Chisholm presents us with an arrestingly fresh and different view. Having immersed herself in the vast quantities of material she has found her own perspective, her own clear narrative voice, and by so doing has been able to paint an extraordinarily vivid portrait of her subject. She shows empathy with Frances – most notably in the harrowing passages dealing with the deaths of husband and child – and yet she can be objective, too. She sees the smugness and self-satisfaction, the unconscious snobbery and the occasionally ridiculous side of Bloomsbury high-mindedness. All this without ever losing sight of the sterling worth of her indomitable heroine.