Last week, NYPL Berg Collection librarian Rebecca Filner gave me the hot tip that I could find unpublished letters written by Vanessa Bell to Maynard Keynes at the Morgan Library & Museum. Today I went there to read them.
The routine at the Morgan is different than that at the Berg. At the Morgan, one is required to lock one’s personal items in a small locker, wash one’s hands, then read a full page of instructions about handling the rare materials before any are handed over. Then the materials come to you one slim folder at a time, after being checked and logged by the librarian. When you are ready for another, you let her know, and she picks up the current folder and brings a new one. As a reader, you never carry the materials.
At the Berg, one is brought as many as five folders at once and just expected to be careful. There is no hand washing procedure, and the librarian locks your purse in a bookcase after one has checked other items in the NYPL cloakroom. Sometimes I returned the materials to the librarian’s desk; other times she picked them up from me.
Today at the Morgan, I focused on letters written during World War I. About 17 of them connected to the Bloomsbury pacifists, the topic of my Short-Term Research Fellowship. But other tidbits included in these letters caught my eye as well. Here are a few of them:
- Vanessa gave her children haircuts and shaped the hair of one of her servants into what sounded like a stylish bob (May 1916).
- Vanessa complained that a vist from Ottoline Morrel was so taxing she couldn’t spend more than one weekend a year with her (August 1916).
- Both Vanessa and Clive asked Keynes to look over their investments and make suggestions for ways they could maximize their income (February 1918).
- Keynes invested in David “Bunny” Garnett’s bee keeping enterprise (February 1918).
- Wood was so scarce during the latter part of the war that Vanessa asked Keynes to save packing cases from a recent wine purchase for her to use as rabbit hutches (February 1918).
- Vanessa couldn’t imagine anything more hellish than Keynes’s upcoming three-day trip to America (October 1918).
The bit that popped out at me the most, though, was the contrast between Vanessa’s letters to her sister Virginia written shortly before the birth of her daughter Angelica on Christmas Day 1918 and those written to Keynes. The letters to Virginia were filled with a panicky rush of last-minute requests and instructions regarding the upcoming birth and the care of Vanessa’s two older children. Her letters to Keynes are measured and sedate, calculated to reassure him that all is well.
To Keynes, she writes that Duncan Grant (Angelica’s father, although Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell played that role for many years) is quite anxious to be useful around the house. She mentions that he has cut up wood for the fire and done other necessary chores, while agreeing to stay on until after the baby is born.
Vanessa also boasts that Grant is spoiling her. She says she spends the mornings in bed, is only allowed downstairs for lunch, then is kept quiet in the drawing room for the rest of the day. Best of all, she notes, Grant never lets on that this domestic pampering routine is the least bit boring.
I found it interesting the way Vanessa changed the tone and content of her letters, based upon her audience.
Read more about my time at the Berg for my NYPL Short-Term Research Fellowship:
- Day 1 at the Berg: Reunion with the lions, February 7, 2012
- Day 2 at the Berg: Tips from a librarian, February 8, 2012
- Day 3 at the Berg: Leads from the curator, February 9, 2012
- Day 4 at the Berg: Maternal concerns of Vanessa, February 10, 2012
- Day 5 at the Berg: Visit to an exhibition, February 12, 2012