Angelica Garnett, daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and niece of Virginia Woolf, died May 4 at the age of 93. Since then, a number of obituaries and tributes to her have been published — in mainstream publications and on personal blogs.
At least one of these obituaries, the one published in the New York Times, stirred up a heated discussion on the VWoolf Listserv. The online conversation about the piece went back and forth like a ping pong ball, with the major objection being the obit’s focus on the sex lives of Bloomsbury Group members.
Midway through the listserv discussion, one participant suggested that someone publish the cyberspace debate. So here it is:
I find myself hoping, as I read this spate of obituaries, that my own obituary might focus on my conception, the details of my “deflowering,” and the sexual relations of my parents and their friends–all with the intent of insinuating thinly veiled heteronormative judgements. Obituary as excuse for further Bloomsbury bashing.
– Brenda Helt
“Apparently Lytton Strachey’s ghost continued to join in the conversations at Charleston since there is no mention in the NYT of the fact that his death occurred in 1932. Woolf, however, seems to have vanished completely after ‘her suicide in 1941’:
‘Her real school was Charleston, which glowed with art by Vanessa and Grant and swirled with heady conversation among a group that included the biographer Lytton Strachey and the economist John Maynard Keynes, both frequent visitors, and, until her suicide in 1941, Virginia Woolf.’
“Keynes died a mere 5 years after Woolf in 1946. What was the point of mentioning Woolf’s death at all in this sentence, especially when there is no reference to Strachey’s passing 9 years prior to Woolf’s, except to sneak
in that word ‘suicide’?”
– Mark Scott
As soon as you see the term “Bloomsbury set” (rather than Group), you can anticipate this kind of thing.
– Mark Hussey
“I think it’s easy to be critical and cranky when ‘experts’ (& I am putting all of us who are on this list in that basket) weigh in on popular assessments of Bloomsbury, but I for one simply enjoyed reading the NYT article on Garnett despite phrases such as “self-congratulatory milieu.” To me what’s notable is that Bloomsbury is still on the pop culture radar–a good thing for those of us interested in the group!”
– Jane Marie Garrity
Well, pace Jane, but I really disagree that any attention is a “good thing.” This obit just demonstrates (yet again) how insignificant and lacking in effect scholarship is; that the media caricature of Bloomsbury (see Brenda Silver’s VW Icon, for example) persists has a political dimension—it easy to dismiss their radicalism if they are consistently presented as a some kind of 1970s California commune!
– Mark Hussey
“Why doesn’t “the list” should offer an edited/enhanced version of this whole thread to a public blog or publication….it’s too interesting to be privately confined. Chron of Higher Ed? Harper’s? NY Review?”
– Carol Desanti
Not that there is anything wrong with 1970s California communes.
– Linda Camarasana
“Shades of Mildred Edie Brady…”
Without taking up the lambasting of California communes by New Yorkers (albeit ones of English origin–ahem! ☺), I just want to point out that this particular obituary partakes of the 50s gossip column, using Angelica’s death as an excuse to further a normative and heteronormative agenda which Vanessa, Duncan, and Clive all devoted their lives and careers to oppose, and raised their children to do likewise. We learn very little of what Angelica herself did with her life and the “facts” about Angelica’s childhood and her marriage to David Garnett culled from Deceived with Kindness are often inaccurate. It’s surprising to see the NYT publish such a thing.
– Brenda Helt
“I will just say that despite all critiques we can easily make against this article, I learned something I didn’t know: David Garnett wrote a novella, _Aspects of Love_, that was based upon his life with Angelica Garnett, and this book was later adapted into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on Broadway. Who knew? That, to me, is a fun (and as someone researching Bloomsbury roman a clef, extremely useful) fact. Just take what’s interesting and look elsewhere for complicated academic analyses–or simply read what Garnett had to say about her own life!”
– Jane Marie Garrity
I don’t think that pointing out that it’s disingenuous and even disrespectful to use someone’s obituary to excoriate their parents and parents’ friends constitutes a “complicated academic analysis.” Having read what Angelica Garnett said about her own life (late in life, after her parents were dead, she’d been through a divorce and seen a psychologist who gave her a paradigm and a rhetoric for understanding her unhappiness as the result of having had a non-normative upbringing), but also read Duncan and Vanessa’s letters about their concerns over Angelica and Bunny’s relationship, I have to conclude that what she said about her own life is not unbiased. Memoirs are not, of course, where one can go for the pure undiluted truth. That particular one also had the unfortunate effect of bolstering conservatives engaged in Bloomsbury-bashing. Worse, though, the author of the article has misconstrued what Angelica wrote about her life (she did know David was her biological father’s lover long before she started a relationship with him, for example), so in taking what’s interesting, we might inadvertently be taking untruths and imbibing prejudice. It would be “interesting,” for example, if Angelica’s biological parents set her up to marry her father’s former lover, but quite the opposite is true. They were not tyrannical, forceful parents and Angelica was of age, but their letters divulge that they did everything they could to dissuade her—not because he’d been her father’s lover, but for the very reason Duncan and Bunny’s relationship didn’t last long: they thought he was selfish, so were concerned for her future happiness. (And guess what?!) So I think the article is laughably outdated in its idea of what constitutes scandal and yet is pernicious in its continuation of the Bloomsbury-bashing trend. Further, the academic analysis has not been overly complicated, just over-looked and disregarded.
– Brenda Helt
Has someone considered writing a letter of response to the nyt’s? I do think it’s important to respond to these perhaps lazy inaccuracies, which perpetuate all sorts of untruths. this way the academic research many of you devote your time and life to would be shared with an audience which may not have any idea what is discussed here.
– karen, common reader
“I think the same as you Karen. I know it´s impossible to respond to all Bloomsbury-bashing, but the obituary is disrespectful enough.”
yes, it is in the spirit of vw to respond to those we feel particularly passionate about. certainly the nyt is so widely read that it would be effective and another opportunity to educate, or in any case, to feel the satisfaction of presenting another perspective.– karen
A comment was also left by a reader named Sophie:
“A DVD was made in 2010 interviewing Angelica about her life and work. Directed by Paul O’Dell and produced by Christopher Mason. Its an excellent tribute. It lasts 45 mins + another there is another interview of 15 mins. For any further enquiries please contact me on Mob 07740 941734” (or at firstname.lastname@example.org).