Poisoned legacy of the Bloomsbury Set: How one woman is haunted by the tragic lives of her friends – the four dazzling sisters descended from those bohemian artists notorious for their sex lives
00:34 GMT, 23 May 2012
06:37 GMT, 23 May 2012
Bohemian: Amaryllis Garnett, pictured in Italy in 1958 aged 15
As I got off the bus on my first day at grammar school, I noticed an ancient dark-brown Rolls-Royce driving up. Behind the wheel was an arty-looking woman with a scarf tied round her head, wearing a wild, colourful, clashing mixture of gipsyish prints.
Beside her sat a fair-haired 11-year-old girl in a new school uniform. The woman was artist and writer Angelica Garnett, and the girl was Amaryllis, her eldest daughter.
Most of us young girls from Huntingdon had never seen a Rolls-Royce before, especially one driven by a woman. We giggled and stared at this highly unusual sight. Whoever was this descending in our midst
Angelica, who died on May 4 aged 93, was the niece of writer Virginia Woolf and the illegitimate daughter of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
They were all part of a collection of writers, painters and intellectuals called the Bloomsbury Set — now known almost more for their bohemian lifestyle than their art.
When Angelica was only a few days old, novelist David Garnett — 26 years her senior and her father's former gay lover — announced he would marry her one day.
Sure enough, 21 years later, he made her his second wife, and their relationship, which produced four daughters in three years, passed into gasp-making legend.
Those four daughters, all of whom I got to know well, seemed to be golden girls from a long line of famous forebears. Their upbringing was wildly unconventional, and they looked set for great things. Yet, as it turned out, their lives were marked by tragedy, disappointment, debilitating depression and unfulfilled ambitions.
They certainly never fitted in at Huntingdon Grammar School, the state co-ed in Cambridgeshire to which their parents sent them, and found it difficult to make friends.
But I found them fascinating and instead of ignoring them like most of the other pupils did, I decided to become their friend.
As such, I gained an early insight into this set of eccentrics who continue to exert a worldwide fascination. (Their country retreat, Charleston, in East Sussex, has become a heritage site and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.)
Back in 1955, when Amaryllis and I met as classmates and became friends, the Bloomsbury Group was unknown — at least to the general public. Even so, it was immediately apparent that Amaryllis was very unlike the rest of us, and not only because of her unusual name.
For one thing, her parents were accomplished and creative. One day our English teacher held up a book, Aspects Of Love. 'This novel is by Amaryllis's father, David Garnett,' he announced.
The rest of the class stared as Amaryllis squirmed with embarrassment, but she had to get used to it, as there was plenty more to come. In the school library, there was a row of big red books by Russian authors, all translated by Constance Garnett — Amaryllis's grandmother.
Constance, mother of David, translated no fewer than 80 volumes of Russian literature into English and her husband, publishers' reader Edward Garnett, discovered many authors of genius, including D. H. Lawrence.
For me, a girl from a working-class background where the people around me could barely read and write, to be friends with Amaryllis was a high privilege. She drew me into a literary, artistic and free-thinking milieu of a kind I could never have imagined.
Poisoned legacy: Virginia Woolf with artist and writer Angelica Garnett in 1932
Highly gifted at art and English, she was precociously well-read and spoke fluent French — the result of many holidays in France — and called her parents 'Angelica' and 'Bunny' (David Garnett's lifelong nickname).
Though initially shy and reserved, she had an anarchic streak, indulged by the teachers in deference to her famously unconventional family.
In our second year, she was joined by her younger sister, Henrietta — a very different character. She was dark-haired, flamboyant and sexy: very much like her grandfather, the handsome Duncan Grant. Again, she spoke fluent French and was gifted at art and literature.
The following year, two more Garnetts came, the twins Nerissa and Fanny — who were tomboys without a vestige of femininity. The minute they got home they'd change out of their school uniform into trousers, which — shock horror — they even wore to parties. Because they had each other, they had less need to make friends and kept much to themselves.
My mother thought the family was above me and warned I shouldn't expect our friendship to last. Like most people in the area, she was in awe of the Garnetts, who seemed ethereal; out of reach; a small tribe of exotic bohemians in a dull, flat, empty landscape.
Yet their world was one I longed to enter: they seemed magical people out of a Victorian fairy story.
The boys at school considered the girls completely beyond them and wouldn't even dare to speak to them.
One former pupil said: 'In Huntingdon High Street, to see the Garnett girls striding along with their flowing hair and layers of unusual clothes made a Saturday morning worthwhile.'
Author Liz Hodgkinson (left) at 14 in 1958 next to Henrietta, aged 13
Every issue of the school magazine was filled with the girls' artwork, stories, poems and philosophical musings. They took star roles in school plays, won poetry-reading competitions, played instruments in the school orchestra and seemed dazzlingly talented and self-assured in every artistic sphere.
Then, as we got older, Amaryllis, Henrietta, another friend, Vicky, and I bonded closely and did everything together as an inseparable foursome.
I remember Amaryllis once announcing, shockingly, that she was an atheist. This was at a time when everyone went to church on Sunday. Only slightly less shocking was the tight black jumper she wore, which I begged my mother to be allowed to copy.
Angelica — who had what we'd now call a boho-chic or grunge style, ungroomed, but stylish and colourful — often invited her daughters' friends over during the holidays, which meant I was able to see their home.
It was a revelation. Hilton Hall, in a village just outside St Ives, Cambridgeshire, was an early Georgian manor house set back from the road, and film-set arty inside.
There were no carpets, but dark-stained wooden floorboards and Aubusson and kilim rugs on the floor. Only the living room, stacked floor to ceiling with books, had a fitted carpet, which was pale green.
'I like to think I might have given a shot of earthy, working-class realism to the girls at the same time.'
Paintings were everywhere, mostly by Grant and Bell, of course, but there were also Renoirs, Matisses and Picassos. The huge stone-flagged kitchen had a dishwasher — the first I had ever seen — and contained unknown foods, at least to me, such as caviar and yoghurt. There were wine racks filled with French wine, and musical instruments everywhere.
There was a farm — where David kept a small herd of Jersey cows — outdoor swimming pool, dovehouse (where Angelica painted), orchard and sculptures by Stephen Tomlin, who became noted for his heads of Bloomsbury Set members such as Virginia Woolf. It was a magic garden, like nothing I'd seen before.
Confronted with this high culture, I knew I could never invite the Garnetts back to my bleak suburban home, which contained no literature or art of any kind.
Here was the ultimate contrast: the Garnetts, whose literary and artistic heritage went back centuries, and my own, where people concentrated on survival. Instead of going to Cambridge and translating Russian literature, my grandmother had gone out into service at 12.
Yet the Garnett girls and I became ever closer, bunking off school to go to exhibitions and art galleries and — the final touch of glamour — to hang out in Vanessa Bell's London flat.
We went on Ban the Bomb marches, where we sat next to philosopher Bertrand Russell — then aged about 90 and a huge icon for young people. He had been a close friend of David, who had sent his son Richard, from his first marriage, to Russell's progressive school, Beacon Hill. It seemed certain that with the Garnett girls' gifts and background, they would make a mark in the wider world. So did it come to pass
Amaryllis left our school at 16 to go to Cranborne Chase, an exclusive girls' boarding school. Her fees were paid by a rich American benefactor, who was an early Bloomsbury groupie. We stayed in touch, meeting up in the holidays, going to the cinema and punting on the River Cam. She then went to drama school and suddenly became very actressy, calling everybody 'darling' in best thespian style.
By then, Henrietta had a secret boyfriend in London: Burgo Partridge, ten years her senior and the only son of diarist Frances Partridge, the sister of David Garnett's first wife, Ray. So the threads of these Bloomsbury lives continued to entwine.
Artists' retreat: Charleston, near Lewes, Sussex, home of the Bloomsbury country set
Henrietta married, aged 17, in December 1962 — just as her parents' marriage was finally falling apart. I never witnessed any discord, but later learned David often went into shattering rages that involved the children. Angelica later wrote in her autobiography, Deceived With Kindness, that when she had four daughters under five she knew her marriage was a tragic, disastrous mistake.
Meanwhile, Henrietta gave birth to a daughter, Sophie, within a year of her own wedding.
Three weeks later, her husband dropped down dead in front of her after a heart attack. It took her several years, two more husbands, plus many boyfriends, to get back on track.
She spent those years as a wild gipsyish bohemian, leaving others to look after Sophie. Henrietta never had more children. She was the only one of the four girls to marry or reproduce.
In common with Angelica, she was never trained for any profession or expected to earn her own living.
There was certainly no expectation that she would knuckle down to work, because it was presumed that somehow others would provide. She could not come down to an ordinary level even though she was often frighteningly short of money as an adult.
Amaryllis duly became an actress and was championed by Harold Pinter, who found her a small part in his film of The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
Soon afterwards, her life disintegrated and she ended up living on a houseboat on the Thames, having become wildly extravagant with no visible means of support.
She drowned, aged 29, in a ghastly echo of her great-aunt Virginia Woolf's river suicide. Amaryllis's suicide was, it seemed, caused by a deep depression that her life appeared utterly pointless.
There had always been a streak of deep sadness. I remember her writing, aged 13, that she 'felt like a piece of old, discarded brocade; of no use to anybody'. Perhaps there was a genetic predisposition, but without the genius.
As for the tomboyish twins, their great artistic promise was never fulfilled, either.
Nerissa won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art, yet never found a niche. The last time I saw her, she had just left an alternative community in Scotland, where she had spent years living in a caravan, studying spiritual movements.
By then, her father's novel, Aspects Of Love, had been made into a hit musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and the three surviving girls found themselves rich.
But happiness still proved elusive. Nerissa died of a brain tumour in 2004, aged 57. Fanny became a farmer in France, fading out of the limelight by choice.
Only Henrietta found her feet. After years of nomadic wandering, she became an acclaimed biographer, and gives amusing, entertaining talks about her family.
Unsentimental about her heritage, she acknowledges that the tremendous gifts and privileges have been mixed with almost equal calamity. But the real tragedy of the Garnett girls is they could never live normal lives. How could they ever have ordinary jobs or make lasting relationships
They couldn't — and Angelica came to feel she'd betrayed her daughters, who were unable to find a place in the adult world.
But they greatly enhanced my teenage years, and I remain eternally grateful to Angelica's kindness in making me welcome at Hilton Hall.
I like to think I might have given a shot of earthy, working-class realism to the girls at the same time.
* Henrietta Garnett's biography of the pre-Raphaelite women, Wives And Stunners, will be published by Macmillan in August.