Lead book review

Good stories of bad Bloomsbury behaviour

Bunny Garnett and Henrietta Bingham may have been borderline members of the Group, but they made up for it with their scandalous escapades, as Sarah Knights and Emily Bingham reveal

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Bloomsbury Outsider: A Life of David Garnett Sarah Knights

Bloomsbury, pp.632, £19.99, ISBN: 9781448215454

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham Emily Bingham

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, pp.384, £18.99,, ISBN: 9780809094646

In March 1923 a large birthday party was held in a studio in Bloomsbury. It is often assumed that the eponymous Group was habitually glum or intense; but there were a lot of parties. The artists were Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and the birthday was David Garnett’s 31st. David (known as Bunny) was a handsome, fair-haired fellow of bisexual charm, beloved by Grant, among others. His second novel, Lady into Fox, inspired and illustrated by his wife, Ray, had been a literary sensation the year before.

There was much energetic dancing, and a floorshow was provided by the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, Maynard Keynes’s wife, and by Harriet Bingham, a new friend of Bunny’s, a recent arrival from a very different world. She was an alluring girl from Kentucky, who brought cocktails and a cake decorated with foxes and sang negro spirituals in a husky southern voice. Bunny and Henrietta were to have a brief affair; by coincidence, both are now the subject of biographies. Both books tell good stories of bad behaviour and fill in corners of the Bloomsbury jigsaw.

The decision to call Bunny Garnett ‘Bloomsbury’s outsider’ is questionable, given the intimate connections explained in Sarah Knight’s thoughtful and carefully researched account. (Less surprising is the photograph of him chosen for the cover (see right), clambering naked up to a window in Provence, muscular and tanned all over apart from white buttocks). Although this book does full justice to Bunny’s long and productive life as the author of over 30 books and an influential man of letters, his private life makes for easier reading. Bunny’s looks in his youth drew both sexes to him; he saw no reason from then on not to enjoy himself as he pleased. The only child of deeply literary parents — his father Edward a publishers’ editor and friend of Conrad and both D.H. and T.E. Lawrence, his mother Constance, the translator of Tolstoy and Chekhov — he grew up in a ménage à trois with Edward’s mistress, Nellie Heath, which in Knight’s view explains a lot.

A conscientious objector during the first world war, he spent much of it as a farm worker at Charleston, Clive and Vanessa Bell’s house in Sussex, with Duncan Grant, who was in love with him, and Vanessa, who was in love with Grant. When Angelica Bell was born in 1919, Bunny wrote in a letter to Lytton Strachey that he might well ‘marry it’ one day. At the time this was, according to Knights, merely a camp joke.

In the meantime, though, to Grant and Strachey’s undisguised horror, he married Ray Marshall. The story of his marriage is painful; having decided that she was essentially ‘a woodland creature’, he repeatedly left her with their two sons in the country while he pursued his amours elsewhere, explaining that he could not bear to be tied down. By the time she was dying of cancer in the late 1930s, he was indeed pursuing the very young and very beautiful Angelica, almost three decades his junior and his former lover’s child. They were married in 1942 and went on to have four daughters before, in her forties, she broke away. He ended up living alone in France, still amorous, still writing away. He died in 1981.

Knights’s account of all this is even-handed until an afterword, where she suddenly breaks with biographical convention and turns into her subject’s champion. Angelica Garnett’s own account of her childhood and marriage, Deceived with Kindness, came out in 1988 and drew an unflattering picture of a Bloomsbury childhood, especially of the mother who allowed her to grow up not knowing that her real father was Duncan Grant, and of Bunny, who seduced her when she had no idea that he had been her father’s lover. Knights blames Angelica for the fact that Bunny has subsequently been overlooked as a writer and disapproved of as a man. He was, however, much loved by his friends, former lovers and his children; and has clearly won his biographer’s heart as well.

Bunny Garnett climbing into a window at La Bergère, Cassis, in the 1920s
Bunny Garnett climbing into a window at La Bergère, Cassis, in the 1920s

If Bunny knew how to charm and beguile while behaving badly, so did Henrietta Bingham, the wayward daughter of a well-off, well-connected Kentucky tobacco magnate and newspaper owner. Her story has now been shrewdly and sympathetically written by her great-niece Emily, a published historian who decided to investigate the family black sheep. Like Bunny’s, Henrietta’s physical charms were powerful, and appealed to both sexes; she was most strongly drawn to women, but grew up not in tolerant Bloomsbury but in a society where any whiff of lesbianism was shameful and dangerous. After her appalling experience at the age of 12 in the car accident which killed her mother, Henrietta became the focus of her father’s adoration. Known as ‘the judge’, he dominated, depended on and spoiled her, controlling her through money and naked emotional blackmail. The Binghams of the time appear like characters from a Tennessee Williams play, their lives ravaged by alcohol, secrets and sudden death.

Apart from her father, the key person in Henrietta’s life was her first love and lifelong friend Mina Kerstein, the teacher she met at Smith College, a clever, strong girl from an intellectual East Coast Jewish family. The two travelled to London, where Mina also made great friends with Bunny (though she was never, to his regret, his lover), and fearing that both their lives would be ruined if they remained gay, arranged for them to be analysed by Freud’s associate Ernest Jones. Mina turned out to be not gay at all, but Henrietta, although she was to have several male lovers, certainly was.

Perhaps the most remarkable result of Emily Bingham’s impressive researches are the reports and correspondence concerning the decade or so Henrietta spent being treated by Jones, at her father’s expense (her biographer casts a cool eye on all this) and at further huge cost to her own emotional wellbeing. The cruel and ignorant pathologising of homosexuality by respected physicians is shocking.

Henrietta broke several Bloomsbury hearts, including the sculptor Stephen Tomlin’s and the painter Carrington’s, before being summoned home by the judge to support him in his political ambitions. She had more secret affairs with women, drank too much, and was prescribed too many drugs; the analysts and doctors who attempted to ‘cure’ her have a lot to answer for. But in 1933, ten years after Bunny’s birthday party, she was back in London, sleek and glamorous, at her father’s side when he was made ambassador by Roosevelt; she entertained the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson as well as her Bloomsbury friends and fashionable Afro-American music-hall stars and jazz singers. She also embarked on a stable relationship with one of America’s Wimbledon champions, Helen Jacobs, to which the judge (and the press) turned a blind eye and which continued for a while after she returned to Kentucky; but dread of exposure and her deep-rooted fear of dependence made long-term happiness impossible.

There were other lesbian loves, several of them actresses, including Tallulah Bankhead and Beatrix Lehmann; but nothing lasted.The judge died in 1937; thereafter, though she dabbled in journalism, bred horses and ran a farm, Henrietta’s life unravelled.
Her younger brother took over the news-paper empire she had once been offered, while the booze and the pills took her over.There were scenes and scandals and after her death in 1968 her name was seldom mentioned in the family until her great-niece decided to write her life. Along the way Emily Bingham discovered a steamer trunk in the attic of the old family home. In it were bundles of letters from men who had fallen for Henrietta. But of the women she loved, and who loved her, there was no trace.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

'Bloomsbury Outsider: A Life of David Garnett', £16.99 and 'Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham', £16.99 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Anne Chisholm is the biographer of Frances Partridge and co-author of The Bloomsbury Cookbook.

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  • Guest 1

    ‘Bunny and Henrietta’ – and people wonder why some folks turned to fascism in the 1920s.

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  • The_greyhound

    Anyone who has tried to read a novel by that clueless entitled bluestocking Virginia Woolf, or winced at Vanessa Bell’s inept “paintings” will wonder why we need any more books on the essentially negligible crowd of self-publicizing narcissists.

    And the answer of course is that we do not.

    • LFM

      Whether Virginia Woolf was “entitled” is of course a matter of opinion, but anyone who really knows Vanessa Bell’s work must acknowledge that was not an “inept” painter. She chose a non-realistic style in later life under the influence of Matisse et al, but as an art student trained by such teachers as John Singer Sargent, she was perfectly capable of producing paintings in the grand manner.

      • The_greyhound

        And of any other student as much could be said. I have only be reduced to tears of laughter twice in my life in the presence of an “artistic” endeavour, once at a concert of modern string quartets of surpassing pretentious awfulness, and once at the sight of Charleston.

        • LFM

          “And of any other student as much could be said.” Really? That he had been taught by John Singer Sargent, won Sargent’s praise for his work, and was able to paint “in the grand manner”?
          I knew some very skillful art students in my youth, but few in that class.

  • Will Jones

    In recounting this sordid tale of vanguard libertarianism the only people who come in for your moral censure are the psychologists just doing their job and trying to help them according to the standards of the time. Are you for real? A bit of moral compass is needed here I feel.

    • eyeresist

      I think the behaviour of “Bunny” is shocking enough to speak for itself, without underlining.

  • Frank Marker

    Can I recommend Radio 4’s comedy series Gloomsbury. It’s hilarious and tells you all you need to know about these self-absorbed bores.

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  • Hegelman

    James Joyce was a much better writer than any of these.

    I remember a wonderful passage in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

    “Stephen meandered dully to the sordid seaward where the yellow wind rusted the ferns that beckoned to wishing deeps where the weasel fishes (O Sanctum Honora! Causat in juxes sinquid menora, saith Father Coughlin with his green breaths. But Parnell’s waxen host beckoneth not…) winded the wining of the sleek sea-leeks.

    A brazen sound caroused in his ear. The dagger of Hanan and the jaggez blade of Connor cut his kidney but he thrust them from him and him and him with a washing sound like old Daedalus in Jimmy’s Pub half- hour less the half-day of the most drunketh month in Clowngownes.

    – Ireland’s the farrow of the sow of the Sower! yelled Connor who for his soul’s slaked sake had changed his monniker to Conor (also in disdain of Kitty O’Shea). ”

    And so forth. I could go on but won’t. It’s very great literature until you get the hang of it.

    • Sue Smith

      Yeah, Joyce just doesn’t do it for me. It’s the literary equivalent of (the musical ‘experience’) “Pierre Lunaire” by Schoenberg – screeching, self-consciously technical, completely ice-cold and incomprehensible. But lots of people like it; go figure!! It’s just freezing cold to me. I like my culture to warm me, at least a little. How can there be passion without warmth, I ask?

      When I read Shakespeare or listen to Beethoven I experience the ‘riot’ of the heart. Not so with Joyce.

  • ExToryVoter

    Even a cursory examination of the lives of those within the Bloomsbury set reveals what a deeply unhappy and messed up collection of individuals they were, with a fair few of their number meeting death by suicide. The set were not nearly as glamorous and attractive as their devotees seem to believe.