From Bloomsbury, that most sublime, real life "Masterpiece Theatre" of them all, comes a beautifully written memoir by Angelica Garnett, Virginia Woolf's niece and daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Garnett was born in 1918, when Vanessa was 39. Although there are vivid cameo portraits of the Woolfs, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and other Bloomsbury notables, the book focuses on Vanessa's character as it shaped the daily life and events of her circle from that time until her death in 1961.
It also centers on Garnett's complex feelings for her parents, particularly Vanessa, whom she perceived as both remarkable and smothering. For Garnett, writing the book was an attempt to acknowledge and resolve these emotions and proceed toward the independent maturity she feels her childhood and marriage retarded. Her reaction now to the pleasurable experience of spending time with Vanessa and Duncan as they painted in their studio, for example, serves as a metaphor for her deeper ambivalence about the effects of growing up in this atmosphere: "As in a hothouse I was both protected and stimulated, without a shadow of responsibility . . . I absorbed much . . . that I afterwards valued, aware that it was a privilege to have been there, but it was a little like giving a child strong alcohol -- I was drunk with the attention bestowed on me and the expectation so strongly projected that I should behave like a grown-up, while at the same time everyone was ready to give in to my slightest whim."
Garnett was 17 before she learned that Grant was her natural father, although he lived and traveled with Vanessa throughout these years. Instead, she grew up thinking that Clive Bell, who frequently shared the household with them as well, was her father. In the serpentine way in which Bloomsbury relationships intertwine and connect she married David (Bunny) Garnett, again without knowing that he had been Grant's lover and had been rejected by Vanessa as hers. As sensational as all of this sounds, it is treated quite matter-of-factly, except as the reticence and ambiguity clouded Garnett's emotional growth and prevented full and candid relationships with the people who should have been closest to her.
She was charmed and delighted by Duncan, but sees their relationship as "gentle, equable, and superficial," strikingly caught in this image of her meeting with him on his 93rd birthday: "He was very quiet and gentle, wearing his little knitted cap a l'orientale -- absolutely himself . . . Surprisingly alert, he remained personally uninvolved; he was affectionate, but I was mainly conscious of his exquisite good manners."
Her treatment of Vanessa is much fuller, certainly darker, although overall not unsympathetic. She delineates her character clearly. One can readily see the traits that might have been difficult in a mother -- Vanessa's tendency to indulge and protect her children, her strong prejudices, including those against formal education, her need to create a safe circle of close family and friends, her strong reserve. But she also enables us to understand the personal history, temperament and experiences that created those character traits and the context in which they existed. Nor is her portrait of Vanessa one-sided; her humor, sympathy, distinction and affection are clearly rendered.
Garnett develops Vanessa's character in a broader context of daily rituals, events and personalities which lends this very personal account a sense of proportion. For a slim book, it operates on many levels, embracing the intimacy of family relationships, impressions of Bloomsbury, and life for the British middle and upper-middle classes through the Second World War. Her writing combines the visual, sensuous qualities of a painting with narrative skill, understated wit and a sharp insight into character.
Garnett has the ability to re-create the vividness and immediacy of childhood from the perspective of maturity. Her description of the annual Christmas visit to Clive's parents' country home conveys not only her childish pleasure in the romantic trappings of Victoriana, but underlines the differences between Bloomsbury and the generation of their parents. The elder Bells' "house was a kind of petrified zoo. In the library a lamp stood on a tripod of hooves . . . and on the writing-table, furnished with the thickest of inlaid writing-papers, was an inkwell made from another, larger hoof, perhaps that of the moose in the hall . . . In the dining-room, pepper and salt were shaken out of a pair of silver owls, not of course stuffed and for that very reason more attractive." Needless to say, Vanessa was not happy there.
Although there are many such descriptions and anecdotes in "Deceived With Kindness," it never loses sight of its central character, Vanessa, or the strong emotions she evoked in her daughter. In many ways this is a brave and touching book because it is so honest about its purpose: "to describe my own ghosts, and, in doing so, to exorcise them." Yet it is neither self-pitying nor accusatory, and certainly not burdened with the psychological wallowing one might suspect of such a task. Rather, it would be difficult to imagine a more lucid, elegant rendering of the tensions embodied in a mother-daughter relationship.