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Living the pagan idyll

Frances Partridge, by Anne Chisholm

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

Frances Partridge Anne Chisholm

Weidenfeld, pp.402, 25

For years an intimate friend of my mother Rachel Cecil, Frances Partridge inhabits my memory from early childhood. Before she reached 50, her dark, delicate skin was already seamed with a thousand wrinkles like a very old woman’s, although she remained youthful all her prodigiously long life, retaining an acute power of sympathy. She would ask one searching personal questions and loved arguing, but good-humouredly, despite her strong pacifist and anti-religious convictions which were hotly contested in my home. Her youthfulness showed also in her birdlike gaze and musical, emphatic voice, the hallmark of the Bloomsbury circle with which she was so long associated. My childhood recollections include also her husband Ralph, a barrel-chested, manly presence, florid, pipe between clenched teeth, reputedly a keen nudist.

The Partridges, at their home in Ham Spray, Wiltshire, seem to epitomise a delightful country idyll which quite a few fortunate people, my parents included, enjoyed in the decade before the second world war, despite economic depression and fearsome events in Europe — a literary life enlivened by picnics, bathing in secluded coves, costume balls in country houses thrown by such as Cecil Beaton, and a Wessex landscape still amazingly unsuburbanised, intimate and secret.

Some of this is evoked in the text and photographs in Anne Chisholm’s absorbing book, which is above all the story of a marriage: Frances, although late in life a writer, never had a career, nor did Ralph. They first met in 1922. Ralph was the unhappy husband of the artist Dora Carrington whom he had met on leave during the first world war. He pursued Frances indefatigably (as he did many other women) until he succeeded in persuading her to live with him; Frances accepted the continuance of his marriage to the manipulative Carrington, and their complicated ménage, which included the homosexual Lytton Strachey, Carrington’s great love. After Strachey’s death in 1932 and Carrington’s subsequent suicide, Ralph and Frances were married. Despite what must have seemed an inauspicious beginning, their marriage was singularly successful, in large part thanks to Frances’ judicious outlook and, above all, her lifelong determination to protect her amorous, vulnerable husband from himself and his critics.

The fact was that Ralph was a victim of the 1914-18 conflict, despite having had what could truly be described as a ‘good war’ — he had been awarded the Military Cross and bar and by January 1918, at the age of 23, had attained the acting rank of Major in the 6th Royal Warwicks; but he had also been wounded and, briefly but traumatically, buried alive. When the war was over, with a father in the Indian Civil Service, and with an exemplary service record, he might have become a member of parliament or a government servant, like other capable young men of his background; but he felt he had done his bit for his country — he belonged to what A. J. P. Taylor has identified as the true ‘lost generation’: not the glorious dead, but the large cohort of young men of Ralph’s class who were drained by their wartime ordeal of any interest in peacetime public service.

Rather, glad just to be alive, he let himself be drawn into a new world embodied in Lytton Strachey, the ridiculer of solemn puritan ‘Victorian values’ and in the wild, tantalising Carrington; the carefree paganism and the enjoyment of the naked body were the very antithesis of mephitic mud and trench nightmares. Ralph found solace in sensual adventure. In this he was not unique, nor were the Bloomsbury circles in which he and Frances moved: sun-worship, naturism and liberated love were sweeping Europe; memoirs of that interwar period — such as Dame Alix Meynell’s Public Servant, Private Woman — are full of nudist recollections, often with accompanying photographs. Under the same Bloomsbury influences Ralph swung soon from patriotic ex-warrior to convinced pacifist, a position he and Frances maintained throughout the second world war.

Ralph’s vitality was under-used. He was practical: he evidently kept the family finances (to the reader, mysterious) afloat. Had he pursued a professional career, he would not have needed so many romantic diversions and might have felt more at ease with himself; he might, some said, have done more for Frances. She, however, felt he was misunderstood and before she died asked Anne Chisholm, when writing this biography, to ‘get Ralph right. No one ever has.’

One has the feeling that though the book shows him to have been more intelligent, cultivated and generous-hearted than many members of Bloomsbury or their biographers have allowed, Anne Chisholm nonetheless fails to warm to him. I had to remind myself that my parents, albeit critical of the Partridges’ theories about the rearing of children, always spoke of him with fondness and admiration — unthinkable had he been simply the self-indulgent figure who, inadvertently perhaps, emerges from this book. In judging him, one has to remember, too, the long-term damage that the Great War did to so many of its survivors like Ralph; Frances understood this and forgave, and the blind eye she apparently turned to his infidelities had a constructive and healing purpose; for what object was there in condemning a man who needed her and who was, all things considered, a marvellous and supportive companion?

Suffering deeply from the loss of Ralph in 1960 and their only son Burgo’s death three years later, Frances struggled at the age of 63 to recover, living for another 40 years. She was to achieve renown as a diarist and writer of memoirs when she discovered, in publication, a therapy for her grief. Along the way she gathered, as always, an ever-widening circle of friends of all ages. Her humour and warm-heartedness, more evident in real life than in the often oddly censorious tone of her journals, and the rationalism she could carry to bizarre extremes, in (for example) her disapproval of funerals, wakes and gravestones — to the extent of dispensing of these altogether for Ralph and Burgo — are well conveyed in Anne Chisholm’s thought-provoking portrait of a remarkable, lovable woman. 

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