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Julian Bell : From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War


Peter Stansky & William Abrahams


Stanford: University Press, 2012

Cloth. xi+314 pages. ISBN: 9780804774130. $45.00


Reviewed by Patricia Laurence

City University of New York




The Flight from Bloomsbury


There is a record of two lives in Peter Stansky’s new biography of Julian Bell, second generation of Bloomsbury: that of Julian Bell, and the other, Peter Stansky. Forty-five years ago, in an earlier telling, he and Willliam Abrahams, the distinguished editor, had published the lives of John Cornford and Julian Bell in Journey to the Frontier. That version of Bell’s life had “holes” in it and lacked the drama and revelations that Stansky infuses into this newer version that ends on the word, “happy.” Stansky presents a young Julian (son of Vanessa and Clive Bell and nephew of Virginia Woolf) who embodied the tensions of his generation—the conflict between the artistic and active life—who had the adventure, amours and life of action that he desired before his premature death at the age of twenty-nine as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War: “His life, though short,” concludes Stansky, “had been full, dramatic, and in many ways, happy.”   

Stansky and Abrahams’ earlier version of Julian’s life was guided by the question of why it was that young men of the Left like John Cornford and Bell, poets and sons of the intellectual elite, went to the Spanish Civil War. It ends with Julian’s death, looking “almost marble-like…very calm and peaceful….as if he had fallen asleep when very cold.” In the new version, Julian lives on in dialogue with Virginia Woolf who asks how to prevent war in Three Guineas, in shadow argument with Julian’s decision to go to war.         

Peter Stansky’s biography gives weight to the argument that Julian’s life, though it was short and not as accomplished as others in Bloomsbury, was significant. He was to be reckoned with—not only as an adventurous young man passionate about fighting fascism like many of his generation in the 1930s—but as a corrective to Bloomsbury’s narrowness of vision about what values count in a life. Though G.E. Moore’s philosophy of the “value of states of consciousness…the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” animated the Bloomsbury circle, Julian declared early that he doubted—unlike the powerful intellectual and artistic personalities of his aunt and uncle, Virginia and Leonard Woolf; his mother, Vanessa Bell, and her companion, Duncan Grant—that “he could ever be satisfied to do nothing but produce works of art, or even really nothing but lead a private life and producing works in the intervals” [244]. Moore’s was very much a private philosophy and Julian’s decision and life was motivated by an ethical impulse that moved him into public life. This engagement then not only brings him into conversation with Virginia Woolf, but his life, short and difficult in formation, also challenges the pacifism and political detachment of some of the Bloomsberries during a time of rising fascism.

The second plot of this biography is about Peter Stansky as he connects with his younger self and past relations, and becomes a more energetic biographer. We learn that Julian Bell's family and friends obscured the record of some of the most passionate moments of his life with Helen Soutar, Ling Shuhua, and Anthony Blunt, and that biographers are sometimes defenseless against a family’s decision to keep secrets. But we also learn that an earlier generation of biographers—perhaps too close to those in Cambridge and Bloomsbury culture—agreed to keep them. The motivation to go around another way when doors were closed was lacking. This was apparent in earlier accounts of Julian's life also when the family claimed Julian as part of the “governing class” of England as in the Memorial Volume edited by his brother, Quentin Bell, after his death in 1938. Both his death as a young man in the Spanish Civil War as well as Vanessa Bell's devastation (Virginia Woolf said she never fully recovered) protected him from scrutiny. 

Julian’s voice, however, is not the only one that lives on in this edition. Peter Stansky acknowledges that the narrative voice of the earlier volume is “more Billy’s than mine,” [William Abrahams died in 1998] and will remain part of it still. Stansky’s voice though is now amplified along with Bell’s life as he puts himself into the text with new things to say in the five central chapters, “A Bloomsbury Childhood,” “A Young Apostle,” “Searching,” “China,” and “Spain.”

In this later version, we hear more about Stanskys’ education in England, being mentored by Charles Morris when he was a student at King’s College, and whose wife, Helen (Soutar), he later discovers through letters and conversation, had been one of Julian’s early lovers. We learn of Stansky and Abrahams meeting with Anthony Blunt when writing the earlier version, not knowing then that Blunt, a fellow Apostle of Julian’s, had been his lover. The energy of the prose picks up in these sections, as Stansky’s connections with King’s, Cambridge and Bloomsbury enhance his pursuit of Julian’s life.

What more do we learn about Julian in the new version? In the first chapter, “Childhood,” there is now more emphasis on Julian’s very close, sometimes cloying, relationship with his mother, Vanessa Bell, the painter. Having access now to the weekly letters that Vanessa faithfully wrote to Julian in China—placed in the Tate Museum Library in the 1990s—Stansky reveals more about Julian’s dependence upon his mother, “the most satisfying human relationship I have.” And his honesty as he confides his risky erotic relationship with Ling Shuhua, the writer and painter, and wife of the dean who hired him at Wuhan University, a dean who would “lose face” because of the discovered scandal... And we learn more of his year in Paris before King’s College, living with the Pinaults near Boulevard Montparnasse. His father, Clive Bell, art critic and Francophile, wanted his son to experience the continent, and arranged for Julian to spend the year. He attended lectures at the Sorbonne and acquired his knowledge and life-long love of French culture and literature, particularly Maupassant, and acquaintance with Left-wing causes in conversation with Pinault, “one of the nicest human beings I ever knew.”

Stansky also presents a more sensual Julian, offering fuller information on his lovers that he was unaware of or unable to reveal in the earlier version. He expands the chapter on “China,” describing Julian’s teaching as well as his cultural and erotic adventures during his year and a half there, 1935-1937. In this section, Stansky graciously expresses gratitude for my work on this aspect of Julian’s life in my book, Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China. Given this information and new materials at the New York Public Library, Stansky more fully describes China, where Julian was known as a “poet,” as a preparation for his venture in Spain. He details the consequences of Julian’s love life with Ling Shuhua, aspects of which had not been revealed to him by Ann Olivier Bell and Quentin Bell when he and Abrahams wrote the first version. He explains that in his earlier telling, she could only be referred to as “K.” “This usage was followed,” Stansky explains, “following that of the Memorial Book,” containing essays by and about Julian Bell published by his family a year after his death. Stansky also employs Julian’s sensitive letters to Lettice Ramsay in his new version, and we hear Julian confiding in 1934 before his departure that “my own feeling about China is that it’s about all I’m fit for now: a genteel form of suicide” [182]. But it all turns out better than expected for though Julian is “by nature,” as he says, “polygamous,” he meets a culturally refined, charming and talented woman whom he can compare to his mother. In addition, he leads an outdoor life of hunting, shooting and sailing, cultivated in him by Clive Bell, when a “half-tame” boy in Charleston. “It is essential,” he writes to Lettice Ramsay, “that I should shoot, or I may become a don…The truth of the matter is that I want to enjoy life” [192].

Stansky astutely, honestly and sympathetically presents a new portrait of Julian Bell, psychologically and emotionally shadowed by his eminent family and their friends in perhaps the most important intellectual circle in twentieth-century England. We might judge Julian as a “half-tame,” entitled and spoiled child of Charleston, but Stansky places him in his generation and in history relieving him of the Bloomsbury context. The position of family friends like Duncan Grant and David Garnett, who were pacifists and conscientious objectors working on Wissett Farm near to Charleston during World War I would lose their moral suasion in the 30s during the rise of Fascism in Europe, particularly Spain. Julian would join others in his generation in his passion to lead a life of action and Bloomsbury would take a turn into history with him.


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