Clive Bell is the perennial supporting character in the biographies of the Bloomsbury group. The husband of Vanessa Bell, brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf and friend of Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, he is often depicted as a witness to historical events rather than a participant in them, a sort of modernist Forrest Gump. At best he is a dilettante with good taste who didn’t quite belong with the intellectuals of Bloomsbury; at worst he is a womaniser with Nazi sympathies who took advantage of Virginia Woolf. In this useful book Mark Hussey lets him take centre stage and delivers a far more nuanced portrait.
Bell liked to play up to his bad reputation — describing himself as ‘made for…nimble sallies, champagne-drinking’ — and throughout his open marriage to Vanessa he conducted numerous affairs. Intellectually, though, he could more than hold his own with the Bloomsbury group and, as Hussey tells us more than once, even if he was not invited to join Strachey and Leonard Woolf in the Apostles, he left Cambridge with a better degree. It was Strachey who went around announcing to whoever would listen that Bell was ‘stupid’, but this may have had more to do with his independence. Strachey told a friend that the problem with Clive was that he was ‘not under our control’.
Bell’s relationship with Virginia was more complicated. Shortly after the birth of Julian, Vanessa and Clive’s first son, he and Virginia were drawn together as they each competed for Vanessa’s attention. What followed was a chaste, emotionally intense relationship that Virginia described as ‘her affair with Clive and Nessa’. This was a particularly delicate time for Virginia, whose mental health was under great strain, but, as Hussey explains: ‘Clive rarely took seriously the fragility of Virginia’s psyche, encouraging her flights into mania with dangerous results and relishing the attention she gave him.’