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Books blog: Familial chaos ruled amid Bloomsbury bohemia

Members of the Bloomsbury Group, from left, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, pictured in 1915 (Wiki)

I have been having an interesting discussion with a Quaker friend of mine, on the subject of the Bloomsbury Group. As an enthusiast of arts and crafts she is a fan of Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, and has visited Charleston, the farmhouse in Sussex where Vanessa, a painter, lived in a somewhat Bohemian ménage. She was married to Clive Bell, the art critic, but had a long-term affair with the promiscuous Duncan Grant, another painter (who was also the lover, at one stage, of the writer David Garnett). If you are confused by now, remember this is Bloomsbury.

Vanessa had a daughter, Angelica, by Grant, who was passed off as Clive Bell’s daughter until at the age of 18, Vanessa told her the truth. Naturally enough, Angelica was very upset, blaming her mother for her subsequent unhappiness. She married David Garnett, when he was almost 50 and she was 24, not knowing of his earlier liaison with her real father; they later separated.

My view of the moral chaos surrounding the lives of these Bloomsbury aesthetes is that large emotional and other problems are bound to surface for those, like Angelica, who are victims of their parents’ insouciant attitude towards marital fidelity and sexual boundaries. My friend gave me the modern response to this kind of situation: if everyone is completely candid, the children are told the truth early on and they are raised in a stable home without destructive conflict, they will not be emotionally damaged. Vanessa and Clive had separated in a cordial manner, Vanessa and Duncan were in a committed relationship and Angelica had a problem with emotional resilience.

It seems that Vanessa was under the happy illusion that her daughter had “two fathers”. In her memoir of those times, Deceived with Kindness: a Bloomsbury Childhood, Angelica wrote her own verdict: “I had none.”

I have been pondering how to mount a decent argument against my friend. I have been reading an excellent and wryly humorous book, Life Lessons: Fifty Things I Learned in My First Fifty Years by the US Catholic apologist and author, Patrick Madrid, which is published by Ignatius. In his chapter “The License” he gave me the answer. Relating how, when he first got a driving licence aged 16, he was caught speeding, then tried to conceal this from his parents, had to go to court and then undertake a speeding awareness course, he concludes: “Getting your driver’s license is an analogy for human freedom. It confers rights and privileges yes, but also imposes certain limits, liabilities and obligations. Getting behind the wheel of a car and heading out on the open road isn’t simply a matter of going where you will as fast as you want. Nor is life.”

“The rules of the road…are there for a very important purpose. When a motorist disregards and disobeys those rules, accidents happen…and sometimes people die. This is true of life. Real freedom doesn’t consist in doing whatever you want, however you want, with whomever you want, just because you want to – that’s license, not freedom.”

Madrid concludes the chapter, “I discovered that God’s “rules and regs”, his moral precepts, are designed to enable us to be truly free so we can become truly happy. That, by far, was the most important lesson I learned from the speeding ticket.”

The privileged and gifted members of the Bloomsbury Group were all atheists, with a complete disregard for the moral “rules of the road”. Inevitably this caused collateral damage for those, like Angelica Garnett, who were caught up in their seemingly carefree and tolerant lifestyle. I will run this argument past my friend.