Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures



Monday, August 2, 2010

Anne Chisholm’s Frances Partridge: A Woman who surely loved in a straight line

I hesitate to commence a review by saying “it makes you think” but actually, Anne Chisholm’s biography of Frances Partridge really does. For those who have not overdosed as I have on the annals of the Bloomsbury group, a little introduction may be useful. Frances Partridge was a woman whose life spanned the twentieth century. She was a pacifist and a diarist and a graduate of Newnham College. She is most famous for having been the second wife of Ralph Partridge and the “fly in the ointment” of his delicate manage a trois with his first wife Dora Carrington, always known as Carrington, and the love of her life, Lytton Strachey. Somebody once commented of the Bloomsbury group that they “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, and that was certainly true of the situation in which Frances became embroiled in the mid 1920s.

What is wonderful about Anne Chisholm’s biography is that it skilfully extracts Frances from the welter of Bloomsbury-abilia whilst also recognising how important that set of ideas was in the shaping of her life. Of course, the book covers the uncommon arrangement at the Strachey/Carrington/Partridge home Ham Spray; the passionate and abiding love of the artist Carrington for the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey; the powerful love that he in turn felt for the man that they both called “the Major” – Ralph Partridge; Ralph’s own place in the jigsaw where he is married to Carrington, but seems to love his housemates in equal measure and knows himself to be the lynchpin that holds them together; the entrance of the beautiful young baggage-less Frances who, despite other offers, throws her lot in with Ralph and by extension his strange compromise of a household; the sudden death of Lytton Strachey and the horrific suicide of Carrington. It would be a strange biography of Frances Partridge if it did not take its reader through these aspects of her story. But, it does not feel to dwell on them too much and it always looks to them as a means of learning about Frances. Its focus is always bringing Frances to the centre of the stage.

Frances Partridge outlived all of the most significant people in her life by a long way, but she was very much still alive when the biographers picked up their pens. It is perhaps to be expected that she was a woman of firm ideas when it came to life writing. Intellectually she believed in truthfulness and one of the reasons that as a young woman she was drawn to the slightly older Bloomsbury group was that they had a powerful commitment to living honestly. On the other hand, she was also fiercely loyal to the memory of her husband Ralph and there were times when assessments of his character, which appear reasonable based on all of the evidence, were unpalatable to her. She had an idea in her head of what he was like and what he was about and she found it hard to cope with conflicting views. One of Anne Chisholm’s achievements is that she holds in focus the opinions of Frances whilst also being kindly critical of them. Frances always maintained for example that Ralph’s love for Lytton was always purely platonic whilst Chisholm acknowledges the possibility that she may have been wrong. When Ralph was characterised after his death as a bullying, braying, bed-hopping parasite, it is easy to see why Frances was upset. Chisholm highlights how Ralph’s historical reputation has been unfairly tainted by the views of some of his influential contemporaries whilst also acknowledging that there is truth in the myth. In considering Frances’s view of life writing so carefully, Chisholm examines the very morality of biography and causes me to think, for the first time, how very strange it must be to be written about. It is of course impossible to know what Frances Partridge would have thought of this book because she died before it was published, but I can’t help but think that the balance and the slightly polite honesty would have been right up her street.

14 comments:

  1. Great review -- sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Definitely a book I want to read. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention (as you have several other books I'd not heard of). I can never 'overdose' on those folks, and could spend the rest of my life reading about them. :<) I read Partridge's, A Pacifist's War, and thought it was just fantastic. You can see the young woman's face in the older one's can't you? So touching. One of those women I so wish I'd known, like dear Virginia.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have not ever heard of Frances Partridge, though her life sounds very interesting. I also can't imagine what it must be like to have someone writing books about your life. It's probably a really weird experience. Very thoughtful review, Hannah!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sounds like a wonderful book. It would be hard for it be anything less than fascinating given the subject, but it sounds as if Anne Chisholm has added an extra dimension with her thoughtful and honest book. Another one on the list to read...!

    ReplyDelete
  5. This sounds fascinating - I think Anne Chisholm has written about Rebecca West, too. One of my favourite writers/activists.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sounds really, really interesting. Thank you for telling us about her, and her biography!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you for more Bloomsbury! I love it! Have just returned from my travels and was delighted to read this post.
    I encountered 'The Children's Book' and bought a copy, which I shall soon read. I just can't resist the cover and your post on it was intriguing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I thought this was a fascinating book & Chisholm did a good job of being objective about Ralph & Frances, especially as she became quite close to Frances at the end of her life. I've read lots of Bloomsbury, including all of Frances's diaries. I'd recommend them to anyone interested in the group.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This sounds like an excellent read and totally up my street. I will definitely be getting this from the library. Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm late to this party, but this sounds like a terrific book. I suspect that Frances saw the "Bloomsberries" far more clearly than Ralph. This will definitely go on the "must-read" list. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks so much for your comments on this post folks. Computer problems have kept me from responding until now. It is such a worthwhile book and I hope that some of you who have not yet read it find time one of these days.

    Happy Wednesday
    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Hannah
    I stumbled across your blog while looking for other reviews of this book. Like you, I really enjoyed it - Frances was such a striking woman.
    Looking forward to reading more of your reviews in future.
    Lyndsey

    ReplyDelete
  13. After reading this post I went and read up on everything I could about the Bloomsbury group. Riveting and very unsettling! I love your blog precisely for out of the box posts like these! I get to learn so much :)

    ReplyDelete