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Posts Tagged ‘Angelica Garnett’

Angelica Garnett

Artist and writer Angelica Garnett, daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, was born at Charleston Farmhouse on Christmas Day 1918 and weighed in a shoebox on the kitchen scales. She spent the last 30 years of her life in Forcalquier, France, and she died May 4, 2012, in a French hospital after a short illness. She was 93.

Recent photo of Angelica Garnett

Read her obituary written by Frances Spalding and published in the Guardian on May 7 and the less friendly obituary published in the Telegraph the same day.

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Last week, NYPL Berg Collection librarian Rebecca Filner gave me the hot tip that I could find unpublished letters written by Vanessa Bell to Maynard Keynes at the Morgan Library & Museum.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:

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I love getting post from abroad. Everything about it is charming: the feel of the envelope, the look of the stamps, even the fact that “U.S.A.” is included in the address.

I never rip it right open. I usually hold the letter in my hands for a minute, thinking about the long distance it has come, the water it has crossed, the person on the other end who has taken the time to sit down and put pen to paper.

Sometimes I have to wait for the right moment before I can open it. I never want to read a letter from abroad when I am agitated or in a hurry or distracted by some mundane matter.

But when the moment is right, I settle down on my favorite sofa, the one where the late afternoon sun slants across my shoulder. In that calm and quiet spot, I carefully slit open the envelope. I sip the words slowly, letting them swish around in my mind. I savor their flavor and their meaning. I note their nuances and subtleties. I picture the person who wrote it and the place where he wrote.

A letter, an old-fashioned handwritten letter from abroad, is something I can tuck in my book and read again later. It is something I can take with me wherever I go. It is something I can save forever, tied up with others like it, bound together and stored in a drawer.

So where is the Virginia Woolf connection in all of this? Well, we all know she wrote and received lots of letters — volumes in fact. Five of them sit on my bookshelf.

But two other things have made me think about letters. The first was a note I received from Cecil Woolf, nephew of Leonard and Virginia, who wrote to say that he and his wife Jean Moorcroft Wilson had spent 12 days in South Africa, where they spoke at the University of Capetown. Cecil’s talk was titled “As I Remember Them: Virginia and Leonard Woolf.” His missive was dated Jan. 26, and I thought about the significance of that date as well.

Cecil Woolf

The second thing that made me think about letters was the much-discussed news that Angelica Garnett has published a new volume of short stories, The Unspoken Truth: A Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories. These stories are not letters. But Garnett has been quoted as saying that the stories are autobiographical, not invented, for the most part.

Those things led me to ponder the similarities between real life and fiction and the differences between real life stories and the lives we share via letters. Both are edited, either formally or informally. Both alter the realities of our daily lives. Both stay true to those realities.

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