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Sisters in scandal: New drama looks at the Bloomsbury set

As a BBC Two drama untangles the promiscuous lives of the notorious Bloomsbury set, Emily Hourican looks at the 'magnetic centre' of the group, the artist Vanessa Bell and her sibling Virginia Woolf.

Artist and critic Roger Fry called it "an almost ideal family, based as it is on adultery and mutual forbearance... a triumph of reasonableness over the conventions". He was talking of the idyllic-seeming life created by his former lover, modernist painter Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex, where she lived with Duncan Grant (formerly the lover of her brother Adrian), their daughter Angelica and Duncan's then-lover David 'Bunny' Garnett.

The farmhouse was a hub for the Bloomsbury set - described by Dorothy Parker as friends who "lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles" - which included economist John Maynard Keynes, writers Lytton Strachey, EM Forster and Rosamond Lehmann, art critic Clive Bell, and Roger Fry. Virginia and husband Leonard lived just a few miles down the road.

The group sprang into being just before the First World War and lasted until the outbreak of the Second and the death of Virginia Woolf in 1941. Their lives were a reaction against repressive Victorian conservatism, characterised by a determination to live in a way that was modern, dedicated to art, intellect and truth as they saw it. They were, of course, utterly scandalous in the eyes of their more staid contemporaries.

The men, except for Duncan Grant, knew each other from Cambridge, where they were members of the exclusive society, the Apostles, along with Vanessa and Virginia's brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen, who introduced them to the two girls. The Stephen girls - as they were at the time - were beautiful, unmarried, and longing to escape the stifling atmosphere of life at home with their father Sir Leslie Stephen, Victorian intellectual giant and author of The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Vanessa (below right) and Virginia (above right) were the daughters of his second marriage. First he married the writer William Makepeace Thackeray's daughter, Harriet, with whom he had one daughter. Then, after his wife's death, he married again, to a widow, Julia, who had four children, and together they had four more children, of whom Vanessa was the eldest.

Growing up, the families lived together in a very large, rather gloomy house in Hyde Park Gate, where Virginia and Vanessa began an entertaining weekly journal detailing the comings and goings and events of the household. However, there was much they couldn't put in the journal. Vanessa and Virginia would later accuse their two step-brothers, Gerald and George, roughly 10 years older, of sexual molestation. Virginia recalled how on holiday once at St Ives, Gerald lifted her onto a table and put his hand under her skirt. George may have been worse. He would apparently burst into Virginia's bedroom, throw himself down onto her bed, and take her in his arms.

Their mother died when Vanessa was 18, and two years later their elder step-sister also died, leaving Vanessa in charge of running the house. Those years, of waiting for life to begin, of feeling shut away from the world in dark echoey rooms, of speaking to their father through an ear trumpet as he became increasingly deaf, and entertaining his formidable friends, including Matthew Arnold and Henry James, while the boys engaged with the intellectual and creative world of Cambridge, made a profound impression on the two sisters. When their father died, in 1904, they were determined to get out and engage with life. They were also determined to stick together. "We still have each other," Virginia wrote at the time of her father's death, "Nessa and Thoby and Adrian and I, and when we are together, he and mother do not seem far off."

They moved house, to Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury, where the high-ceilinged, uncluttered white rooms were the perfect backdrop to their lofty intellectual conversations, and began to entertain their brothers' Cambridge friends. Until then, they had very little success socially, despite their arresting looks and undoubted intelligence. However, once they found their niche, this quickly changed and they became, together, the heart of the set.

They were both brilliant and beautiful, rivals as much as friends. Virginia was the more obviously brilliant, and Vanessa the more blatantly beautiful. Vanessa was also calmer, more solid-seeming, in comparison with Virginia's mercurial personality. However, Virginia's husband, Leonard, later recognised that beneath Vanessa's unruffled exterior lay "an extreme sensitivity, a nervous tension, which had some resemblance to the mental instability of Virginia". Virginia herself, on seeing the designs Vanessa created for her books with the Hogarth Press, said: "God made our brains upon the same lines, only leaving out two or three pieces in mine."

The Bloomsbury set was never as coherent as later legend would have had it, instead they were largely just a collection of friends who took their duties to each other seriously. EM Forster once said: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." They held similar views around ideals of pacifism, feminism and art, and fell in and out of love with each other, regardless of sex or marital status.

Vanessa, who Virginia described as handling life as if it were "a thing you could throw about", was by then painting seriously and resisted marriage at first, turning down Clive Bell's proposal twice, before grief at the death of her brother Thoby from typhoid fever caused her to change her mind. She married Bell in 1907 and had two sons in quick succession, Julian and Quentin, before the marriage lost passion and slid into friendship. "I see nothing of Nessa. I do not even sleep with her, the baby takes up all her time," Bell wrote after the birth of Julian. The transition happened apparently without much rancour, although Virginia's flirtation with Bell didn't help.

Vanessa then had an affair with Roger Fry, a decade older, who told her: "You have genius in your life as well as in your art, and both are rare things." He opened the Omega workshops, a kind of artists' co-operative where furniture, textiles and objects were made, and where Bell created screens, murals, rugs and decorated furniture, enjoying the social and co-operative spirit of the place.

However, the affair lasted only a few years, after which Vanessa fell deeply in love with artist Duncan Grant, who was bisexual, although more inclined towards men. As well as being Lytton Strachey's cousin, he was also for a time his lover, and that of JM Keynes, and Vanessa's brother Adrian. Vanessa chose not to care, not even when he fell in love with David Garnett, who moved with them to the farmhouse in Sussex where the two men, conscientious objectors, worked on the land throughout the First World War.

Duncan was beloved by all, known to be kind, compassionate and gentle. He was also honourable, by the lights of their unconventional arrangement, and told Vanessa about all his affairs. She knew that if she wanted to keep him, she had to accept them. However, she drew the line at taking David Garnett as her own lover, although he was keen. That, she decided, was a menage too far.

It may have been an unusual set-up, but it worked. Their many visitors described how happy everyone seemed, how calm and ordered the house, and how much in harmony they were with one another. The house was close enough to Virginia's that they could visit each other often, and the sisters carried on the habit of easy, gossipy intimacy they had always had together. When Virginia told Vanessa about the love affair with Vita Sackville West she was then engaged in, Vanessa was entirely unfazed.

Within the conventions of Bloomsbury, affairs, even homosexual ones, were no big deal, and honesty was everything. Theirs was a tangled, convoluted, unconventional web of emotional and sexual affiliations, which produced a great deal of excellent art, comment and literature, and was mostly conducted with civilised tolerance and generosity. But there is always fall-out, and in this case, Angelica, Vanessa's daughter with Duncan Grant, seems to have absorbed more than her fair share of it.

Angelica was born in 1918, and had an idyllic-seeming childhood in Charleston. However, she lacked friends her own age and was too much alone. She was also fiercely critical of the education she received, or lack thereof, believing that it had left her lazy and spoilt. Until she was 17, Angelica believed herself to have the same father as her two brothers - Clive Bell. Clive would visit at weekends, sometimes with his mistress, Mary Hutchinson, and was perfectly willing to accept the child as his, and to allow his rich father to settle an allowance on her, just as he had done with Julian and Quentin. So Angelica grew up believing that Duncan Grant was simply a family friend, until one day her mother took her aside and told her the truth.

"It was a fact which I had obscurely known for a long while," Angelica later said in her memoir Deceived with Kindness. Vanessa asked her not to discuss the matter with either Clive or Duncan, thus leaving Angelica entirely bereft. "Although Vanessa comforted herself with the pretence that I had two fathers," Angelica later wrote, "in reality... I had none." Vanessa herself wasn't prepared to discuss it either, beyond simply relaying the facts, and she never told Angelica that David Garnett had been Duncan's lover. This would lead to a dreadful situation some years later when Angelica insisted on marrying David. The determination to live the truth did not extend to telling it literally, and so Vanessa stayed quiet.

When she fell for Garnett, Angelica was barely out of her teens. He was nearly 30 years older, and then married, although his wife was dying. Creepiest of all, though, was that he had singled her out on the day she was born back in Sussex. "I think of marrying it," he wrote to Lytton Strachey. "When she is 20, I shall be 46 - will it be scandalous?"

Scandalous it certainly was, although Angelica didn't know exactly why until years after the marriage; "Nobody told me. I just had to work it out for myself." Attempts to dissuade her were oblique and circumspect. Virginia Woolf confided to her diary the hope that Angelica would "tire of that rusty, surly old dog with his amorous ways and his primitive mind", but she never gave Angelica the information that might have turned her off David.

Vanessa's later years were rather sad. Her son, Julian, died during the Spanish Civil War, aged just 29, and then four years later, in 1941, Virginia killed herself after her home was bombed. She wrote a note to her husband, Leonard, saying "we can't go through another of those terrible times", filled the pockets of her coat with stones, and walked into the river.

Although Vanessa did her best to continue the tradition of freedom and creativity at Charleston, their personal tragedies and the horror of the Second World War took much of the energy and conviction out of the remaining Bloomsbury group. Times were changing more rapidly than they could follow, and Vanessa's reputation as a painter fell away, superseded by a new, younger group of modernists. She died in 1961 and is buried in Sussex. Duncan stayed on in Charleston, where he was cared for by his lover, the poet Paul Roche, and after his death aged 93, buried beside Vanessa.

  • Life in Squares, 9pm, BBC2 on Monday

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