May 17, 2012

RIP: Angelica Garnett


Angelica Garnett (1918-2012)

Angelica Garnett, whose book about being born and raised amidst the Bloomsbury set greatly demystified and darkened the reputation of that “charmed circle,” has died at the age of 93. Garnet was the daughter of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, although she long thought her father was her mother’s husband, painter Clive Bell. She was also the niece of Virginia Woolf, and, after a fling in the spare bedroom at H.G. Wells’ house, became the wife of writer David Garnett, who was the son of translator Constance Garnett.

As a New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox observes, her memoir, Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood, published in 1985, describes the “luminous orbit” of the Bloomsbury set, “a self-reflexive, self-congratulatory milieu in which art was all, sex was the coin of the realm and the only real transgression was the unpardonable sin of being ordinary.” Garnett “grew up in a household that often included her mother, her presumed father and her actual father under one amicable roof, the threads binding the principals — who loved whom, who seduced whom, who married whom, who fathered whom — formed not so much a densely woven tapestry as a Gordian knot.”

A remembrance in the Guardian by Frances Spalding reports …

She had been born at Charleston, a Sussex farmhouse situated at the foot of the South Downs and at some remove from the nearby village of Firle. … at the time of Angelica’s birth it was remote from civilisation and devoid of modern comforts. Vanessa Bell had rented it so that Grant and his friend David Garnett, both conscientious objectors, could obtain necessary employment as farm labourers. Her husband Clive Bell visited at weekends, but marital relations between them had ceased and Vanessa had fallen in love with Grant. He returned her love, despite the fact that he was predominantly homosexual.

An obituary in the Telegraph details how Garnett learned of her true parentage years later:

When her mother took her to one side to tell her that her real father was Duncan Grant, the effect was devastating: “Everyone knew, everyone except me, even my brothers.”

Having dropped this bombshell, Vanessa swore her daughter to silence and Angelica was unable to speak about it to either Grant (who showed little enthusiasm for his daughter) or Clive Bell: “They were painters, I suppose, and they didn’t care enormously about human beings. I suppose they didn’t make the connection between my knowing about my parenthood and my actual existence. I suppose they did not think it mattered.” Meanwhile, although Vanessa comforted herself “with the pretence that I had two fathers,” she wrote, “in reality … I had none.”

The Telegraph notes that the memoir “won good reviews and the JR Ackerley prize for autobiography, but it upset the sole remaining member of her immediate family — her half-brother, Quentin  and it did nothing to lay to rest the ghosts from which she had been trying to break free.”

Her marriage to David lasted 25 years before they broke apart, and she was the mother of four children, two of whom died in their twenties, apparent suicides. In late middle age, having struggled as a painter, she moved to the south of France, and began to not only focus on her painting anew, but to write about her experiences, including a memoir about her parents, The Eternal Moment, and a collection of thinly-veiled short stories about her youth, The Unspoken Truth: A Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories.. She would live in France for the remaining 30 years of her life.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives