Frances Partridge (Filed: 07/02/2004)

Frances Partridge, who died on Thursday aged 103, was the last survivor of the Bloomsbury set; it was an unlooked-for status, and one she partly transcended in the last years of her long life with the publication of volumes of diaries that related her post-Bloomsbury existence and secured her a secondary reputation as a writer blessed with style and an unflinching gaze.

As a child she encountered the Stracheys, the Pearsall Smiths and the Stephens, and by her mid-twenties she was on friendly and even intimate terms with the great names of Charleston and Gordon Square. Under their influence, she retained to the end of her life a Bloomsbury cast of mind, the ingredients of which included Leftish politics, pacifism, intellectual curiosity, contempt for what she saw as the self-deceiving consolations of religion, and a delight in friendship with people of all ages.

Her diaries and memoirs provide a vivid, engaging and often touching account of a way of life that now seems impossibly remote. It combined high-minded ideas with adequate private means, elegant places in which to live, foreign travel and long summer days spent on the lawn reading, chatting or playing games with congenial and sometimes dashing fellow-members of the English intelligentsia.

This idyllic way of life was interrupted in the early 1960s by the death of her husband, and then of her only child. The stark closing words of Everything to Lose (1986), the second volume of her diaries, are: "Now I am absolutely alone and for ever." But she went on to make a new life for herself in London: in her nineties she remained as alert as ever, writing reviews for the Spectator, driving her ancient Mini, lending a hand to an interminable procession of Bloomsbury biographers, attending publishers' parties and pouring drinks for the steady stream of visitors to her flat near Belgrave Square.

This apartment was itself a pleasing relic of Bloomsbury, with its dusty pink walls, a bedroom cupboard that once belonged to Lytton Strachey, paintings by old friends such as Dora Carrington, Henry Lamb and Vanessa Bell, and a mosaic cat in the fireplace, the work of Boris Anrep.

She was born Frances Catherine Marshall at Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, on March 15 1900, the youngest of six exceptionally good-looking children. Her father, who was in his fifties when she was born, was an architect and sportsman who reached the final of the first Wimbledon tournament. Her mother, a keen suffragist who took Frances to her first march at the age of six, was the daughter of an impecunious Irish clergyman. The family spent the week at Bedford Square and the weekends at Hindhead, though after her father's retirement in 1908 they moved full-time to the country. From an early age young Frances was exposed to the company of radical thinkers and literary men.

As a child she was introduced to Henry James, "a bulky-looking figure looking much like a butler". Through her school-friend Julia Strachey - whose life she later wrote - she met Desmond MacCarthy and his family, and the critic Roger Fry, who explained "in his beautiful deep voice why it was wicked to like peacock blue". Hindhead itself was a nest of advanced thinkers. After a conversation at the age of 11 with Adrian Stephen, the brother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, "God finally dropped out of my universe".

In 1915 Frances Marshall was sent to Bedales, where - after some initial trepidation - she came to enjoy a regime of bathing naked and of dormitories in which the windows were left open in all weathers, so that snow swirled about their pillows and the wooden-slatted beds.

She then, in 1918, went up to Newnham College, Cambridge. An excellent dancer, she partnered Lord Louis Mountbatten at the Varsity Dance and made friends with George "Dadie" Rylands, Patrick Blackett and Lionel Penrose. She began by reading English, but switched to Moral Sciences in her last year. On coming down, she was offered a job as an industrial psychologist by Cyril Burt, who was eager to find out why the waitresses in Lyons Corner Houses smashed as much crockery as they did.

Frances Marshall escaped instead to the bookshop near the British Museum run by Francis Birrell and her sister's husband, Bunny Garnett. They gave her a job, at 3 a week, and she remained there for the next three years. Through the bookshop she got to know the denizens of Bloomsbury, and was invited to spend weekends at Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell, and Tidmarsh, that of Lytton Strachey.

Among the new friends she made was the barrel-chested Ralph Partridge, then a traveller for the Woolfs' Hogarth Press. He had won two Military Crosses and the Croix de Guerre in the First World War, and had then gone up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as an oarsman. He was now living in a more than usually complicated menage a trois with Lytton Strachey and the painter Dora Carrington. Carrington was besotted by Strachey, who was homosexual; Strachey was in love with the distinctly heterosexual Partridge; while Partridge himself had recently married Carrington. Two weeks later she had muddied matters further by falling in love with Partridge's former comrade-in-arms, Gerald Brenan.

In 1924 Strachey and Partridge jointly bought Ham Spray in the Wiltshire Downs, and set up house there with Carrington. But their domestic harmony was threatened when Partridge proceeded to fall in love with Frances Marshall. This was not unreasonable, since she was, and remained, an exceptionally attractive woman, with a neat figure, clear features, a bright smile and even brighter brown eyes.

The following year she and Partridge travelled to Spain together; on their return, Frances Marshall was interviewed at the Oriental Club by Strachey, who was not only worried about losing Ralph Partridge, but also about the effect that the end of the happy triangle would have on Carrington. A modus vivendi was soon arrived at. Ralph and Frances moved into 41 Gordon Square, the intellectual heart of Bloomsbury (James and Alix Strachey lived on the top floor, and Lytton rented the ground floor); weekends were spent at Ham Spray.

This bohemianism never concerned her: in old age she declared, "Social conventions have always seemed to me a means of avoiding thinking out one's own values and clinging blindly to the security of being like other people - a process that starts among the snake-belts of prep schools and ends in Jennifer's Diary."

In 1928 Partridge began work on editing the first complete version of the memoirs of Charles Greville, the early 19th-century political and social diarist. It was a job which, according to Frances Marshall, occupied "all Ralph's working hours, and most of mine" for the next nine years until the memoirs were published, in eight volumes, in 1938. Although always extremely loyal to (and defensive of) her husband, with whom she was very much in love, even Frances Partridge had to admit that, in terms of a career, Ralph otherwise failed to achieve much beyond a course in book-binding, occasional reviews for the New Statesman and - towards the end of his life - a history of Broadmoor Prison.

In 1932 Lytton Strachey died of cancer, and two months later an inconsolable Carrington shot herself. In the aftermath of these melancholy events, Ralph and Frances were married in 1933 and moved into Ham Spray with their son Burgo, who had been born in 1925. A Regency house of the kind that might have housed one of Jane Austen's heroines, Ham Spray became the centre of their lives, with occasional forays to London to attend a meeting of the Memoir Club or to see their wide and varied circle of friends.

Among these were members of Old Bloomsbury such as E M Forster and Duncan Grant; the artists Henry Lamb and William Coldstream; the writers V S Pritchett and David Cecil; aesthetes such as Eddie Sackville-West and Eddie Gathorne-Hardy; and younger friends, for example Patrick Leigh Fermor, Xan Fielding, Robert Kee and Simon Raven.

During the Second World War, both Partridges were conscientious objectors, which made them temporarily unpopular with some of their friends. Frances's wartime diaries formed the basis of the first of her own books, A Pacifist's War (1978). In the post-war years she undertook several translations of French and Spanish literature, but it was only 15 years after the deaths of her husband in 1960 and of Burgo three years later (aged just 28) that she began to produce her autobiographical volumes.

Her writing was luminously clear and honest, amused and amusing, delighting in the achievements and misfortunes of her clever and entertaining friends. Among the best of her books was her portrait of her increasingly unbalanced childhood friend, Julia (1983), and the two central volumes of her journals, Everything to Lose (1986) and Friends in Focus (1987).

Despite her great age, until only two years ago Frances Partridge continued to negotiate the stairs at her first floor flat in Belgravia. She refused to allow anyone in to look after her between teatime and the cocktail hour, the period during which she entertained her friends. She particularly prized friendship. "If I learnt anything from Bloomsbury," she said in 1998, "it was the importance of deep and lasting friendship. I've always been fortunate to have good and true friends. It's the one thing that has made life worth living."