After four hours of reading mostly unpublished letters from Vanessa Bell to her sister Virginia Woolf today, I felt sad.
The letters — and there are 371 of them dating from 1910 to 1940 in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection – are full of details about living arrangements, house guests, child rearing, artistic endeavors and personality conflicts.
But the thing that stuck out to me today — which is well off my research topic of the Bloomsbury pacifists — was how much Vanessa had to juggle. And that made me sad.
The letters written during the World War I years, which was also the period of time in which she had young children at home, had the biggest impact on me. In them, I saw how much she did to keep so many balls in the air at once.
Vanessa kept the household running smoothly, doing her best to economize on household expenses such as coal and foodstuffs and to work around such challenges as war rationing and exiting servants. She kept the men in her life, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant and David “Bunny” Garnett, happy and productive, and she helped Grant and Garnett obtain conscientious objector status. She raised three children, instructing at least two of them in French and music, along with the similarly aged children of friends.
To me, several of the most poignant letters were written shortly before Christmas 1918, after the Armistice but before Vanessa gave birth to her third child and only daughter, Angelica. Those letters, obviously written hastily, with last-minute thoughts scribbled up the margin and across the top of the page, were full of instructions to Virginia about the children.
Virginia had generously agreed to care for Vanessa’s two eldest, Julian and Quentin, when she gave birth to her third child. And Vanessa was frantic to convey her gratitude, as well as her advice – about using nightlights and administering bromide and promising to ship additional clean clothing for the boys after their arrival.
While writing the last of the letters, on Christmas Eve, Vanessa went into labor. Angelica was born on Christmas Day.
Even then, there was no real rest for Vanessa. For she had guests. Garnett was at Charleston Farmhouse on the day of the birth, and Maynard Keynes was a houseguest as well.
More amazing than all this is that on top of the busy life as a wife and mother that Vanessa led, she produced art, wonderful art. How did she find the time and energy for it all?
All I can say is, she was a woman. And that is what women do. Isn’t it?
Read more about my time at the Berg for my NYPL Short-Term Research Fellowship: