Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Making Connections

"The Memoir Club" by Vanessa Bell
E.M. Forster sits on the far right
This painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London

In the novel Howards End, E.M. Forster famously advised us to "only connect." Right now I am making fascinating connections between two books, both of them related to E.M. Forster. One is Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster's first published novel. The other is Vanessa and Her Sister, an historical novel about Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. I dash from one to the other, connecting the dots.

First, Vanessa And Her Sister --

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar is about the relationship between the painter Vanessa Bell and her sister the writer Virginia Woolf. In 1905 when the novel opens they were known as the Stephen sisters. Because Virginia was a writer of novels, essays and short stories, it was in her nature to write a prodigious number of letters and keep a diary. Consequently, we know a great deal about her inner and outer life. Vanessa is harder to know. She was not a wordsmith like her sister; her means of expression was canvas and paint. Although her paintings can be seen and her published letters read, there is no diary to reveal her inner life. There is nothing to tell us how she felt when she had to deal with her emotionally unstable sister. Or if she felt overwhelmed by the burden of acting as mother to her three younger siblings -- Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian -- after the death of both parents. There is very little record of her thoughts about the circle of friends who would become known as the Bloomsbury Group or the modern art explosion that was happening in Paris. If only we had more of her words.

Priya Parmar has given them to us in her novel Vanessa And Her Sister. After doing meticulous research into Vanessa's life as well as those around her, she invented a diary for her, as well as a series of postcards, letters and telegrams. It is astonishingly effective. There is an authenticity about these invented documents that rings true, capturing the essence of Vanessa's personality. They illuminate the inner life of this woman who has been relatively unknown until now. She was the glue that held the two groups together, both family and friends. I am halfway through this wonderful book and am impressed with the authentic portrait the author has created.

It is in the story of the Bloomsbury friends that E.M. Forster makes several appearances. Here is a thumbnail sketch of how the Bloomsbury group was formed:

In 1904, after the deaths of both parents, Vanessa moved her family from their childhood home in Hyde Park Gate to the then bohemian neighborhood of Bloomsbury. It was here in the drawing room of their London townhouse that her brother Thoby's friends from Cambridge began to visit and soon established regular at home nights. This group included Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell and E.M. Forster. Vanessa and Virginia were the hostesses. Vanessa would eventually marry Clive Bell and Virginia would marry Leonard Woolf, one of the Cambridge friends who was working as a civil servant in India. Lytton would write to him planting the seed for a courtship of Virginia upon his return. Most of the men had been members of the Apostles, an elite, strictly by invitation, all-male debating society of the brightest young men at Cambridge. At 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, they would continue discussing life, art, and friendship.

Here is a scene of a typical Bloomsbury gathering from Vanessa's fictional diary in Vanessa And Her Sister:

"...the drawing room was freckled with several more of Thoby's Cambridge friends, looking the way I always imagined Thoby's rooms at Trinity must have looked, with the intellectual young men draped all over the furniture. Their talk rang out with their affectionate university names for each other: Goth, Mole, Strache, Saxe.
Lytton Strachey had curled farther into his chair and was looking endearingly rumpled, with his round spectacles perched low on his nose and his frizzy red beard even bushier than usual. He was scolding sweet-tempered Morgan Forster about his novel.
'That was indecently quick, Mole, Lytton said dramatically. 'You are meant to suffer, to pine, to ache, to burn. How is the work meant to be art if it arrives with no pain?'
This winter Morgan completed his first novel. It is to be published in the autumn. Everyone talks about writing a novel -- Lytton, Desmond, and of course Virginia -- but Morgan has actually done it."

The book was Where Angels Fear to Tread which is the second book I am reading. It is about a young English widow Lilia, who travels to Italy and falls in love with a handsome but penniless Italian. Her English in-laws are horrified and send Lilia's brother-in-law Phillip to put a stop to this romance and bring her home. By the time he arrives in Italy it is too late as the couple have already married. When a baby is born, the family wants it to be raised English. What follows is a collision of cultures which is at times very funny and also very moving. Forster pokes fun at the hypocrisy and snobbery of Edwardian England and writes lovingly of Italy. Here is another passage from Vanessa And Her Sister:

"'Mole, you have outdone us all!' Lytton said, pulling Morgan to him for a waltz. I stood and pushed the other dining chairs so they would not get knocked over. Round and round the table they went in small uneven ellipses. Maud fetched more place setting and brought back the soup tureen.
'Remarkable! Mastery of material! Keen insight! Mole! This is brilliant!' Thoby said, reading fragments aloud. Virginia, brittle and still, was silent.
'I don't like the title,' Morgan said, as Lytton released him from their dizzying waltz.
'You wanted Monteriano?' I asked. It was the fictitious name he had chosen to conjure the very real towered city of San Gimignano. I think it does capture the cadence and height of that hillside town.
'The Manchester Guardian called the title mawkish -- awful,' Morgan said fretfully, folding and unfolding his neat slim hands.
'Well, I think it is splendid,' Virginia said, unexpectedly. Thoby and I looked at each other, surprised. When Virginia says splendid, that is rarely what she means."

And so I learned that Monteriano, the fictitious Italian city at the center of Where Angels Fear To Tread, was based on San Gimignano. And that Forster wanted Monteriano to be the title of the book. I love connecting the dots. And there is more...

Last week I went to a fascinating lecture on Where Angels Fear To Tread. I learned so much about the book as well as Forster's life. Here are a few highlights:

Forster's great-aunt left him a generous sum of money which meant that Forster never had to get a job and was able to develop his writing skills. Lucky for us. Our lecturer described this bequest as the equivalent of a MacArthur genius grant. Forster's leisure time allowed him to travel to Italy and hence the idea for the book was formed. Its original title was "Monteriano," but a friend advised him to switch it to Where Angels Fear To Tread, which comes from a quote by Alexander Pope: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Good choice since it sounds so much more intriguing. And this book, as our lecturer reminded us, is a story of fools rushing in.

We had a great discussion of Where Angels Fear To Tread, looking at its social satire as well as its moral complexity. We talked about the juxtaposition of two societies: England and Italy. And how Phillip changes from one part of the book to another. He begins as a romantic, retreats into his Englishness, and then comes to embrace the charms of Italy. Our opinion of Gino, Lilia's Italian husband, also changes by the end of the book. At first we suspect his motives for marrying Lilia, but by the book's end we come to admire him. Nothing is black or white in Forster's books; they are filled with complicated characters and psychological depth. I left the lecture with a greater understanding of why Forster's Bloomsbury friends would be so impressed with his accomplishment. Where Angels Fear To Tread would be considered a magnificent first novel for any writer.

I love taking a literary journey from one book to another and learning something new. In this case, E.M. Forster was the common denominator. What a difference a title can make!


  1. I hope you enjoy Vanessa and her sister as much as I did, I thought it was a very good book.
    I enjoyed reading your post, you always make such amazing connections and give such good insights, and not just in a post about connections!

    Kind regards,

    1. Bettina, thank you so much! I am almost done with the book and really enjoying it.

  2. I love this post - so fascinating. I'm curious how the author came up with what she thought would be an accurate diary for Vanessa Bell? Do you know more about that? Her painting don't really reflect much about her inner life either.

    1. She did meticulous research and because there is a biography of Vanessa, as well as biographies or memoirs of most of the other members of the Bloomsbury group, there is a lot of information. They all wrote about Vanessa, especially Virginia, Clive Bell, Quentin Bell, and others. If you read some of these biographies, memoirs, published letters and diaries by her family and friends, you start to get a very good idea of what she was like. I would recommend Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf and The Letters of Virginia Woolf.
      xx Sunday

    2. My spelling and grammar are atrocious at 5am. You really should give lectures on The Bloomsbury Group, your passion is not only interesting, but totally infectious. I'd sign up right away.

  3. DID YOU ever TEACH this STUFF?
    YOU SHOULD!!!!!!!

  4. Dear Contessa, I was an English teacher, but never taught this topic. I also wrote book reviews for several different publications for years. I got hooked on this group when a friend gave me the first volume of The Letters of Virginia Woolf and I went on to read all six of them. Their books and art have been a passion of mine for a long time!
    xx Sunday

  5. I do love the artistry of Vanessa Bell. For further reading about E. M. Forster, you might like the recently published "Arctic Summer" by Damon Galgut. Excellent book. About Forster's time spent in India, which all the while became the impetus for "A Passage to India."

    1. JudyMac, thanks so much for the great suggestion. I haven't heard of this book and am off to check it out right now!