Frances Partridge

The last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Group, she found fulfilment as a writer through the recollection of her own life

Nigel Nicolson
Monday February 9, 2004
The Guardian

  

Photos above obviously of early and late in life (click on the leftwards one).

On her 30th birthday, when she was still Frances Marshall, she wrote in her diary: "I find grey hairs in my head but do not greatly care." In her 90s and beyond, when at last old age had eroded her beauty, she cared even less, because it was her capacity for friendship that mattered most to her - creating it, moulding it, developing it - a gift even greater than her skill at recording it, in the diaries which she began to publish at the age of 78.

Frances Partridge, who has died aged 103, was never a scintillating woman. That was not her style. She was intelligent and lively, emotionally well-balanced, and she lubricated conversation by her eager attentiveness, her sweetness of manner, her "niceness" in a competitive world where that very quality was suspect and the word taboo.

"Frances is coming" was a phrase that alerted everyone to an evening or weekend which would be pleasanter than it would have been without her, and more productive too, for she would turn gossip into discussion, and almost alone in Bloomsbury was innocent of malice. Besides that, her dark looks were a joy to gaze upon, and Bloomsbury was by no means indifferent to looks.

Frances was born the sixth child of an architect, William Marshall, a dominating man who cut quite a figure in the upper-middle class of Edwardian society, and his wife Margaret; it was no wide gap that Frances had to cross before being accepted into the middle-circle of the Bloomsbury Group.

It was Julia Strachey, a schoolfriend at Bedales, the progressive school in Hampshire, who introduced her, and, as she put it in her memoirs, "one Strachey led to another," until, via the English and moral sciences degree she took at Newnham College, Cambridge, she became an intimate of Lytton, Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge at Ham Spray, the house they shared in Wiltshire.

For six years from 1922 she worked in the bookshop near the British Museum owned and managed by David Garnett and Francis Birrell, where all Bloomsbury bought their books, and soon there were no Bloomsbury locales - Rodmell, Charleston, Tavistock Square, and above all, Ham Spray - where she was not welcomed.

Ralph Partridge married Dora Carrington in 1921, without much love on either side, mainly in order to keep intact their triangular relationship with Lytton Strachey. Their curious story has so often been told - and even filmed, in Carrington (1995), with Emma Thompson in the title role, and Alex Kingston as Frances - that it has ceased to be curious. Carrington fell in love with Ralph's closest friend Gerald Brenan, and Ralph soon came to love Frances Marshall with a mutual passion that could not be denied. They considered "infidelity" no crime unless it was accompanied by deception. So Frances and Ralph lived together in London, visiting Ham Spray at weekends.

In 1932 Lytton Strachey died there of stomach cancer, and Carrington shot herself two months later. Early in the next year Ralph and Frances married. They had one son, Burgo, who died aged 28 of a heart attack in 1963. It was as happy a marriage as any which is recorded, and the record is Frances's own diary. Without histrionics, she conveys the pleasure which each took in the other's company, the pleasure of travelling together, of sharing the same table and bed, of discussing without staleness the great moral and political issues of the day.

Both loved music (and dancing: they once actually came second in the national ballroom championship) and literature. Both were agnostic, both became committed pacifists, Ralph in consequence of his experiences in the first world war, Frances as early as nine years old when she watched boys battering each other at Bedales. They lived at Ham Spray throughout the second world war. It was for them A Pacifist's War, as she titled her first book (1978), but they managed to reconcile their abomination of the conflict with providing an occasional refuge for those who were doing their best to win it. Whether it was the arrival of the pig-sticker or her rediscovery of the violin and chamber music, her vivid recall delighted a new generation of friends.

Ham Spray was their home till 1960, when Ralph Partridge died. Neither wished to achieve very much except to create their own brand of happiness and spread it to their friends. Together they did a vast amount of work to help Lytton Strachey edit the unexpurgated edition of the memoirs of the 19th-century political diarist Charles Greville, publishing it in eight volumes in 1938, and Ralph had worked for a time with the Woolfs as an assistant at the Hogarth Press.

However, it seems almost by accident that she discovered in her old age that she too had been a writer, and that the world might enjoy her diaries, sharpened for publication. After her wartime book came the memoirs entitled Memories (1981); Julia (1983), a life of Julia Strachey which was more an account of their relationship than a biography; Everything To Lose (1986), her diaries from 1945 to 1960, ending so movingly with the thump of Ralph's fatal heart attack upstairs; a slight book of family photographs, Friends In Focus (1987) - happy of course, if not exactly in focus; and five further volumes of diaries, concluding with Ups And Downs (2001), covering 1972-75.

She lived the rest of her life in London, unfailingly convivial as guest or hostess, finding it difficult to refuse any invitation. "I have been a Yes person all my life," she wrote in her memoirs, and in its concluding pages she wondered why writers have paid so little attention to friendship. "Sustaining, warming and endlessly refreshing, it should surely have had almost as many poems written to it as have been dedicated to love."

Her own life, and her books, have done much to fill the gap.

Frances Catherine Partridge, writer, born March 28 1900; died February 5 2004

And, now, a review:

Pick up a Partridge

Frances Partridge's diaries chronicle a century of conversation. And a bit of housework

Peter Conrad
Sunday November 19, 2000
The Observer


Diaries 1939-1972
Frances Partridge
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 25, pp715
Buy it at BOL

If you live to be old enough, your world predeceases you. Frances Partridge's life has comprised the entire length of the twentieth century, though by the time she reached her seventh decade, she felt herself to be a ghost, haunting a world she no longer recognised. The high-minded Bloomsbury bluestocking now had to cope with the rude egalitarianism of Harold Wilson's Britain.

Even the Queen Mother, her exact contemporary, seemed better acclimatised to the new dispensation: in a 1971 diary entry, Partridge sees her 'tittuping along on pig's-trotters shoes', and notes her resemblance to the jowly, socialist bulldog Wilson.

Frances, born in Bedford Square, married into the Bloomsbury Group: she inherited her husband Ralph from the painter Dora Carrington, who had been fatally besotted by Lytton Strachey. Frances and Ralph were not much more than literary hangers-on - he did some reviewing and she was a part-time translator - but they earnestly subscribed to the Bloomsbury creed, which valued personal relationships above ideological commitment and calculated that hedonism, in a world bereft of God, was the only rational response to existence. In 1940, Frances acclaimed her friend Molly MacCarthy as 'the arch-priestess of fun'; she and her intimates, who conscientiously objected to the war, did their best to ignore it, and played records of Monteverdi and Haydn while the bombs fell.

Their preciosity concealed a dismaying defeatism. 'How can we win this war?' Frances asked her diary as the Germans closed in on Paris. 'Oh, if only we could then lose it quickly.'

While others fought, the Partridges chattered. Lolling beneath a beech-tree with Clive Bell in 1941: 'We ranged over the inexhaustible subject of what was of ultimate value.'

Frances herself was a keen philosophical arguer, only equalled as a talker, it seems, by the logorrheal flights of Lord David Cecil. 'Conversations,' she reckoned, 'could take the place of events', a prescription for the kind of novel admired by Bloomsbury, and also a convenient formula for snubbing history.

The conversations mostly happened at country houses, where Frances was, according to the catty Cecil Beaton, 'the most popular guest in England, who has to be booked weeks ahead'. Those houses were also the sacred sites of Bloomsbury fiction: Howard's End, Poyns Hall in Between the Acts, or the holiday home of the Ramseys in To the Lighthouse. The Partridges had their own talking shop in Wiltshire, and when Frances had to sell the house in 1961 after Ralph's death, a friend who'd taken part in blathering weekend marathons there described the place as 'a centre of loving hospitality and enlightenment and the greatest civilised taste in all things', as if it had been the Acropolis.

No wonder that Frances, visiting Athens, saw the haughty sculptured temple maidens of the Erectheion as 'a row of Vanessa Bells'.

The people graded one another like examiners in Oxford Finals. Visiting Duncan Grant at Charleston, Frances validates 'the first-rateness of this Bloomsbury world'. The angelic temper of Sebastian Sprott places him 'in the first class', though a 'curious lack of soaring power in his mental processes' demotes him to an upper second. Such decisions were not left to the drearily professional dons.

When Frances's son, Burgo, frets about his Oxford entrance exam, a family friend encouragingly remarks: 'Oh, I know people who've got into Christ Church who could hardly put a cross against their name.'

The seminars about ultimate value could only proceed if slavish drudges took care of the cooking and cleaning. In 1944, Frances warns Ralph: 'If you want me to remain a human being you must find me a "help".' A nameless skivvy appears a week later, identified only by her cheap dentures. 'What joy, what comfort!' coos Frances, and returns to argufying.

Her friend Julia Strachey volunteers to do some washing-up as if it were war work, and Frances calls her concession 'heroic'. The highly-strung Julia wants to be evacuated from London during the Blitz, but rehousing her proves difficult. 'I can't bear,' she shrills, 'to stay in any rooms that aren't Georgian.'

This doomed class did not survive the war which it so elegantly sat out. In 1945, Frances woke up to 'the horror of servantlessness', then to the realisation that she inhabited a mass society with scant regard for the self-cultivating individual. No one now reads Henry James (who was a friend of Frances's parents); instead, 'the common man', as she calls him, watches what she disdainfully refers to as 'the telly'. To her credit, she challenges the reactionary ire of a crony such as Lord Edward Sackville-West who, fulminating against the Angry Young Men, announces: 'I hate equality.'

David Cecil exposes the mindlessness of his highbrow pretensions when he denounces the idea of the intellectual - which stinks, he says, of redbrick universities - and proudly prefers to call himself a dilettante.

The new culture at least enabled Julia to avoid banal domestic chores: in 1961 she serves Frances 'a frozen Woolworth meal out of foil dishes [no washing-up]'. When Ralph goes into hospital, Frances confronts the 'great emporia' where 'mind, feelings and thoughts are buried under a mass of tubes and switches'. Yet on a trip to Leningrad, she acknowledges that uniformity is 'the price that must be paid for fair shares'. A wrenching deconversion occurs at Covent Garden in 1971, when a titled crone objects that: 'They won't let one leave one's glass on the edge of the box!' She is unimpressed when Frances suggests that this might be a hazard for people sitting below: 'The stalls, I see, are the lower classes!' The opera that night is Le Nozze di Figaro, which rehearses the revolution.

The talkathon winds down, as Frances recognises that conversations are ephemeral sandcastles. At last she is unceremoniously shushed: during the summer of 1964, she's rebuked by a nun at Assisi for loudly prating about the frescoes, then 'ticked off for talking too much by a fanatical pipe-smoking addict' on Centre Court at Wimbledon. After this 700-page monologue, I, too, was grateful for the silence.