Henrietta Garnett was forty-one when her first and last novel, Family Skeletons, was published in 1986. She knew that her debut, a tragic gothic romance revolving around a complex constellation of family secrets, would face an unusual degree of public scrutiny: Henrietta was English literary royalty, the direct descendant of the Bloomsbury Group on both sides of her family tree. Her father was the novelist David “Bunny” Garnett, author of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize–winning Lady into Fox (1922), a book so highly regarded it was on the British high school syllabus when his daughter was a teenager in the late fifties and early sixties. Henrietta’s mother was Angelica Garnett, née Bell, daughter of Virginia Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. “I had been putting off trying to get anything published,” Henrietta confessed when an interviewer asked about her famous relations, “because I couldn’t help thinking that whatever I did it would never be as good as anything they’ve achieved.” Family Skeletons is a strange and singular creation: melodramatic in plot but elegant in tone, written in a cool and fluent prose that is utterly Henrietta’s own. The novel bears no resemblance to either Bunny’s or Woolf’s fiction; nevertheless, the story does contain more psychological traces of her family’s legacy—namely, of the uniquely disturbing personal dramas that shaped the lives of those who raised her and the public perception of the Bloomsbury Group.
Family Skeletons begins at Malabay, a grand old house in the wilds of Ireland. Our first glimpse of the rambling lakeside estate is early one summer morning: “The dew was heavy and glittered on every twig and leaf and blade of grass. The rain, so fine that it seemed to be suspended in the misty air, shone like the frail skein of a cobweb. The air was so moist, the leaves and grass so wet, the fish pond and the lake so scheming with reflections, that the division between land and sky seemed nebulous, amorphous and indistinct.” It’s a place that “gets into the blood” of those who live there. Ever since the death of her parents, seventeen-year-old Catherine has been raised at Malabay by her uncle Pake, a taciturn recluse still haunted by the torture he endured as a prisoner of war years earlier. Barring the household staff—Mick-The-Post and her cousin Tara, the only visitor Pake will allow—Catherine is completely shut off from the rest of the world. She measures out her days by riding her beloved horses, writing fanciful stories, and attending to the rather unconventional curriculum her uncle has devised for her education (translating the ancient Greeks features heavily). Given her naïveté, it comes as no surprise that she is in love with the handsome, older, and more world-wise Tara. That he returns her girlish affection is perhaps a tad less convincing, but it befits the almost mythic structures that organize this slightly off-kilter world. This incestuous undertone, which foreshadows certain revelations to come, is just one of a handful of nods to Wuthering Heights (1847). Although less headstrong than her nineteenth-century namesake, Henrietta’s Catherine is another skittish beauty, frequently compared to the animals she so adores. When Pake discovers that the cousins plan to marry, he explodes in a rage—but the lovers put this anger down to his general eccentricity and proceed regardless. Only three weeks after their wedding, in a traumatic reprise of her parents’ deaths by drowning years earlier, Tara is killed in a boating accident out on the lake. The teenage orphan, now a widow, is distraught; she lops off her hair, takes to her bed, and descends into a “wild and desperate misery.”
This is a novel in which events unfold with the simplicity and strangeness of a fairy tale, and the action takes place in a land that time seems to have forgotten. In the opening scene, Tara and Pake’s best friend, Gerald, a writer, are exiting a performance of The Cherry Orchard. This confirms only that we’re in the twentieth century; little evidence is given to further specify the novel’s time period. At the end of the novel’s first section, the great house is destroyed—and Pake killed—in a politically motivated bombing that is explained merely as a product of “these terrible times we live in”—and could just as easily be attributed to the Easter Rising of 1916 as to the Troubles of the seventies and eighties. It’s not until nearly halfway through the book—with the mention of a dishwasher—that we’re provided with the first real indication that the story is transpiring toward the end of the twentieth century. The rest of the novel takes place in two further near-fantastical, similarly remote settings that, like Malabay, are equal parts sanctuary and prison for Catherine: a sanatorium high in the mountains, where she receives treatment for a mental breakdown, and, finally, an idyllic, deserted island in balmy Mediterranean waters to which she’s taken to complete her recuperation.
The destruction of her ancestral home not only marks the end of Catherine’s innocence but also unleashes the corruption that lies buried at the heart of this family, setting in motion a series of events that will eventually culminate with the revelation of a terrible family secret. The second section opens a few years after the bombing of Malabay, at the mountain clinic. We learn that Gerald has processed his grief at losing his friend by writing a novel about Catherine, Tara, and himself—and that it’s sold very well, perhaps because he spiced the tale up with a love story between his and Tara’s fictional alters. But Catherine, working on a play about the same subject in her own attempt at catharsis, allows her characters to indulge in much more forbidden sexual entanglements. When she imagines an affair between her mother and her uncle, she inadvertently stumbles across the truth. (The siblings were “very close,” we were suggestively warned earlier in the book.) “Your play is evocative,” praises Pake’s ex-wife, Poppy, the only character who knows all the family skeletons: that Pake was Catherine’s father and that her parents’ deaths weren’t accidental—her father capsized the boat on purpose after discovering the truth about his wife’s infidelity. “Highly indiscreet,” Poppy says of Catherine’s play, “but that seems all the rage nowadays. I’m sure it’ll be a great success.”
Like Catherine, Henrietta herself married young—at seventeen—and her husband died suddenly just over a year later, leaving her a teenage widow with a newborn baby. Money wasn’t a problem, so she drifted around Europe, then England and Ireland, part of a glamorous, fast, bohemian crowd (“chequebook hippies,” as she later called them). Little is revealed in Family Skeletons about Catherine’s activities in the several years that pass between the destruction of Malabay and her arrival at the clinic, but a similar period of free love and heedless living is intimated. “I led a very wild kind of life after Tara died and Malabay got blown up,” Catherine later confesses to Gerald. “I dare say it was stupid, self-destructive. It’s easy to say that. There was nothing left, you see.” Henrietta and her older sister, Amaryllis, were both plagued by periodic bouts of depression. Henrietta attempted suicide in the late seventies by throwing herself off the roof of a London hotel. Amaryllis’s death by drowning—assumed to be suicide—also presumably inspired the multiple deaths in the story.
But Family Skeletons isn’t primarily autobiographical. The novel is the story of a lost child who has been brought up in a sheltered, almost magical realm in which all the usual social codes don’t apply; left ill-prepared by the adults in her life to face the realities of the world; and manipulated and misinformed by those closest to her. This isn’t Henrietta’s story—but it is her mother Angelica’s. Angelica’s own memoir—Deceived with Kindness (1984), published just two years before Family Skeletons—exposed all manner of real skeletons in the Bloomsbury Group’s closet and was—to borrow Poppy’s words—both highly indiscreet and a great success.
Angelica Bell was born at Charleston, the famous Sussex farmhouse where the Bloomsberries lived together, loved one another, and made their art. As Deceived with Kindness revealed to the public, it wasn’t until eighteen years later, in 1936, that Angelica learned that her biological father wasn’t the man who raised her—her mother Vanessa’s husband, the art critic Clive Bell—but the painter Duncan Grant, another Bloomsbury luminary and close family friend. Angelica remembers Vanessa breaking the news to her in an “endless, hot, and tiring” summer. “She hugged me close and spoke about love: underneath her sweetness of manner lay an embarrassment and lack of ease of which I was acutely aware, and which washed over my head like the waves of the sea,” Angelica writes, with the same degree of dramatic cliché that gilds her prose at the moments of intense emotional import throughout the book.
But, in her confession, Vanessa failed to reveal one important detail: at the time of Angelica’s conception, Duncan was also in a sexual relationship with their friend Bunny. The two men, then a couple and both conscientious objectors, had spent World War I working as laborers at Charleston, living there with Vanessa, Clive (though he was often absent, his and Vanessa’s relationship having already deteriorated), and their two sons, Angelica’s half brothers. This was the very same Bunny who, although twenty-six years her senior and already married, would, in only a few months’ time, begin the relentless sexual and romantic pursuit of the eighteen-year-old Angelica that would culminate, in 1942, with their marriage.
It wasn’t that Angelica’s parents and their circle of friends had deliberately kept Duncan and Bunny’s affair from her. She admits that it’s more likely that everyone just assumed she already knew about it—and this vagueness repeats itself in the narrative told in Deceived with Kindness: Angelica never explicitly pinpoints the moment at which she discovered that her husband and her father had once been lovers; she simply writes from a position of knowledge, looking back on her younger self. She was, she explains, certainly aware that her suitor had had myriad love affairs, though once he began wooing her he apparently kept the finer details of these prior conquests to himself—whether out of tact or deceitfulness, she leaves open to interpretation. Despite the Bloomsberries’ reputation of moral liberation, one of the more intriguing revelations of Deceived with Kindness is just how tight-lipped they were when it came to their sexual imbroglios; their modus operandi seems to have been to never apologize, never explain, and never, under any circumstances, kick up a fuss (this being hideously bourgeois behavior). After Vanessa’s admission, for example, mother and daughter never spoke of it again, nor was there any scene of either reconciliation or recrimination between biological father and child. Rather than gaining a second, real father, Angelica had simply lost another deficient one. “No one seemed capable of talking openly and naturally on the subject,” she writes: “Vanessa was in a state of apprehension and exaltation, and Duncan made no effort to introduce a more frank relationship. They gave the impression of children who, having done something irresponsible, hope to escape censure by becoming invisible.” Indeed, read through Angelica’s wide eyes, life at Charleston looks very much like the antics of overgrown children at play. Accordingly, this revelation about her paternity changed both everything and nothing. Angelica claims she “was filled with euphoria,” but outwardly she “hardly batted an eyelid.” In many ways, “being told the truth made the world seem less and not more real,” she explains. To all intents and purposes, life simply went on as before, in a pattern that would repeat itself. Even after Angelica and Bunny had become officially engaged, neither Vanessa, Duncan, nor even Clive saw fit to come clean about their thorny history, though Angelica is sure that her and Bunny’s relationship must have caused her mother and her father considerable pain: “Bunny was an intimate part of their past,” she writes, “and that he should step out of it and dare to claim their daughter as his wife seemed to them nightmarish, and utterly unjustifiable.”
Angelica admits that her vulnerability to deception was exacerbated by her naïveté, the blame for which, however, she also lays at her elders’ door. Although she was not literally sheltered in the same way as Henrietta’s Catherine, being “a child of Bloomsbury,” as she puts it, was its own form of sequestration. The group had carefully crafted their own exceptional ecosystem of permissiveness and creativity—an ivory tower that allowed them to block out much of reality. In the interviews she gave later in life, Angelica often described her childhood at Charleston as lonely; she was much younger than her older half brothers, and usually surrounded by adults. Once Bunny set his sights on her, Angelica was “putty in his hands.” She fell head over heels in love, only realizing much later that he had been a substitute for the father figure she’d always been deprived of. Bunny, she believes, had his own agenda: by marrying Angelica, he was punishing her mother for having, years earlier, been one of the few to spurn his amorous advances.
The lives of the Bloomsbury Group continue to fascinate readers everywhere—in part, I suspect, because their unusual and libertarian setup was made all the more intriguing by the addition of Angelica’s horror story. How could people who created such beauty, and who practiced such freedom of love and expression, also cause so much pain? Legends are never fixed, of course; they have an incredible ability to shape-shift—as Angelica’s memoir and Henrietta’s novel illustrate perfectly. Whereas Henrietta’s novel possesses a strange sense of timelessness that allows it to transcend the merely confessional, her mother’s memoir often lapses into an accusatory tone that mires her story in judgment, rather than opening the reader to the ambiguities and contradictions surrounding the Bloomsbury Group’s lives and art. Janet Malcolm, for example, writing in 1995, lambasted Angelica for reducing her pain and fury to a series of “streamlined truisms of the age of mental health.” Rather than serving as an authentic testament to experiences lived in another era, the book brings “the Bloomsbury legend into line with our blaming and self-pitying times.”
Like a princess in a fairy tale, locked in a tower, her fate sealed by the actions of others, Angelica presents herself as completely without agency, drawn into a toxic psychosexual drama that has been set in motion two decades earlier. (This isn’t entirely an exaggeration: “I think of marrying it,” Bunny wrote to Lytton Strachey, describing how beautiful Angelica was on the day she was born. “When she is twenty I shall be forty-six—will it be scandalous?”) Angelica’s tangled, incestuous story ticks every box on the most basic and perfunctory of Freudian checklists; in certain ways, the plot of Deceived with Kindness is even more theatrically gothic than her daughter’s fictionalized version of it.
As is apparent from the more playful, enchanted atmosphere created by Family Skeletons, Henrietta’s relationship to her family and its complicated history was more ambivalent than her mother’s. She spent many happy holidays at the Bloomsbury Group’s farmhouse as a child, being painted with attentive affection by her grandmother, Vanessa. As Henrietta declared in an interview, Charleston “had the most powerful identity of any place that I had known. It reeked of itself: of turpentine and toast, of apples, damp walls, and garden flowers. The atmosphere was one of liberty and order, and of a strength which came from its being a house in which the inhabitants were happy.”
But both Deceived with Kindness and Family Skeletons show us women finding their own voices, becoming mistresses of their own stories, and disentangling themselves from the narratives of the (far more well-known) characters around them—narratives in which both Angelica and Henrietta had previously played only supporting, passive roles. Taken together, the two books, mother’s and daughter’s, not only add depth and detail to our collective portrait of this small group of creatives but provide a fascinating case study of the effects, both painful and pleasurable, that can arise when facts and fictions are mixed up together—in life and in art.
Lucy Scholes is senior editor at McNally Editions.
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