Butterfly Lovers: Julian Bell and Ling Shuhua

Having failed to achieve his desired career as a poet and writer, as well as two unsuccessful attempts to gain a King’s Fellowship, Julian Bell sought employment and adventure in the Far East, accepting a professorship at Wuhan University, China, in early 1935. In a letter to her sister, Bell’s mother, Vanessa, Virginia Woolf recalled his discovery of this acceptance, ‘was just sitting down to write to you last night when Julian came in to say that he has got the Chinese professorship…He seemed very excited, though also rather alarmed at the prospect…I suppose it’s a great chance.’ Bell was enthusiastic, but wary about travelling to China. Following a meeting with him shortly before his departure, in July 1935, Woolf recorded in her diary, ‘we talked – intimately, I mean about the past & our lives, for the first time. I’m very sorry he’s to go – that delightful, honest bubbly yet after all so sympathetic & trusty young man…he had always determined not to let his private life shackle him.’ Indeed, Bell’s complicated personal life had certainly shackled him in England, but in China it was to become more problematic that he could have ever imagined.

Shortly after his arrival at Wuhan, Bell met Ling Shuhua, a painter and writer as well as the wife of his dean, T. P. Chen. Their friendship quickly turned into a passionate affair, which has been explored by Patricia Laurence in her book, Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China with much of what Laurence uncovered about their relationship appearing in print in English the for the first time, along with previously unseen photographs of Bell and Shuhua.

Bell was instantly attracted to Shuhua, whom he called Sue, describing her to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, as ‘pure Old Bloomsbury – a Chinese Vanessa – no, that’s wrong, but I can feel as much at ease with her as any of you.’ However, Vanessa was wary about her son’s infatuation as Sue was married with a young daughter, and advised him, ‘Don’t fall in love with her if you can help it.’  Continue reading