Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Maybe her sister Vanessa Bell. These two remarkable women ,the heart of the legendary Bloomsbury group have been described as being “close, loving and rivalrous.” Elsewhere referred to as “more like twins than sisters”. In many ways it is ironic that they took their husbands names. While Bell was calm, reasonable and understated her more famous sister was witty, tangential and outspoken. Virginia’s breakdowns were a feature throughout her life and ‘Nessa was in constant fear of another dark cloud descending on her sister. Its Leonard Woolf’s greatest achievement that he kept his wife productive so long.
In the present exhibition at the perfectly formed Dulwich Gallery ,Vanessa Bell is given the honour recently awarded to fellow Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington . In it there are three portraits of her sister two without faces. Now I am no Freud….
But however close they were,and they were, there was a problem with husband Clive Bell. He is of course always considered a bit of a fellow traveller to the great Bloomsbury caravan. Maybe, always a womaniser(snob,anti Semite etc), Vanessa had turned him down twice and when the sons appeared in 1908 and 1910 Clive turned his attentions to Virginia. And she replied. Its was a saucy, potentially erotic courtship but it is no surprise given Virginia attitude to heterosexual sex that it was never consummated. Her marriage was probably similar. It was one of the few Bloomsbury triangles that did not become active. But no less potent for that.
The damage was done. Virginia wrote,”My affair with Clive and Nessa wounded me more than anything else has ever done.” Although there was always a tension,they remained close,their famous Sussex homes only a few miles apart .Virginia felt “We see through the same eyes,only our spectacles are different.”
Nessa went on to have famous affairs with the largely gay Duncan Grant and Roger Fry at the same time as keeping an active friendship with Bell. Vanessa’s marriage survived and she had the even more famous lesbian affair with Vita Sackville West. She wrote to her lover
“I told Nessa of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. But do you really like going to bed with women, she said, taking her change. And how do you do it.” Nessa was not alone in the Bloomsbury set of having an incomprehension of lesbians. All the gay men(they referred to themselves as buggers) were also incredulous. Queen Victoria was not alone, what was good for the gander was not good for the goose.
As for the Dulwich show? A good excuse to have charming lunch with two university(not uni!)friends, Barbara and Marshall. But Bell,if she wasn’t Bloomsbury, would we care? Just possibly given the interest in female artists. But Bloomsbury is important and influential, I wasn’t told who my father was until I was forty. Vanessa told her daughter when she was 17.