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.’ 

Not that Vanessa’s words were heeded, and in December 1935, Bell confessed to his mother, ‘I’ve not been to bed with her (Sue) yet, which always affects my judgement a lot.’ But he enthused about the prospect to Ramsey, ‘I can’t think what it will be like to go to bed with a real woman again –I’ve got so used to fantasy and chastity.’ A month later, his fantasy had become a reality, and, describing the physical side of his relationship with Sue in explicit detail, he revealed to Ramsey that she was ‘queerly unresponsive.’ He further admitted to his close friend, Edward Playfair, ‘tho’ we get on well enough in bed, I’m really very cold about her that way, and she’s too inexperienced to be really set on me.’

Despite this, one of the things that had so strongly attracted Bell to Sue was her aptitude as a writer, and he was incredibly supportive of her work, praising her talent to his family and friends. Bell even managed to get three of Sue’s stories published by the London Mercury in August 1936. As Patricia Laurence has noted, Bell not only helped Sue with the English translations of her work, he also encouraged her to write short stories, and her autobiography one day. Laurence has also highlighted the fact that Bell inspired Sue to boldly write about gender and sexuality – unheard of for Chinese women in the 1930s.

Cultural differences aside, Bell was alarmed at how Sue could often fly into jealous rages, often threatening suicide, as he confessed to his mother ‘I’m always rather frightened when people fall in love with me – aren’t you? If one’s not really in love oneself it’s rather overwhelming. And I don’t think I’m ever in love the way people like Sue are – with absolutely no reserves.’ Bell also confided in Ramsey, ‘I know with fiendish clearness that she’s really in love, and I can’t make any adequate response – perhaps never could, for it’s a prolonged intensity of feeling that seems to me outside anything in my own experience.’ Sympathetically, Ramsey replied, ‘your affair must be very difficult Julian. I wonder what will come of it.’

Though Bell wrote to Vanessa that Sue was ‘the most serious, important, and adult person I have ever been in love with’ he added that she was also ‘the most complicated.’ Regardless of the fact that Sue already had a husband, he realised ‘I don’t want to marry her permanently, I know, but I should like very much to live with her as long as I am here, and also to bring her back to England and show her everything  for a year, say.’ Confirming that he had no plans to wed, he reassured Vanessa, ‘it’s been made pretty clear between us that there’s no question of marriage’ and only days later, went as far as to say, ‘marriage would be a disaster.’ Perplexed by his feelings and Sue’s unpredictability, Bell told Vanessa, ‘It’s not being in love in any ordinary sense, but really is more like lunacy than is pleasant. It makes me feel extremely guilty and also frightfully tied and hampered: she’s not really my sort of person.’

As his romantic affairs had done in England, his turbulent relationship was causing Bell much stress and he complained to Ramsey, ‘I wish I was half as good at anything else as I am at handling emotional young women’ and told her, ‘I used to think I liked having people in love with me. But now I know better. It’s a silly business and worse: it makes one feel so completely inadequate.’ The Far East was proving to be a disappointing enterprise, as he told Ramsey in February 1936, just after his twenty-eighth birthday, ‘I thought China would be an adventure, but I can see it’s going to be a period of self-inspection and meditation – perhaps a good thing, but not what I wanted.’

‘Bar scandals, I’m back next year. But there may be scandals. I hope not’ Bell flippantly informed his friend Harold Barger in May 1936. Later that year, Bell’s affair with Sue was finally exposed after they were caught in a compromising position by a servant. With no option but to resign his post at Wuhan, Bell’s contract meant he had to stay for several more months and continued to snatch furtive moments with Sue, writing to Vanessa, ‘It’s a queer aftermath of a world here now – full of bits of other people’s lives. And such odd incidents as the present – to be flying to Shanghai to meet a Chinese mistress. Well, it’ll look well in an autobiography – and really one does get a certain thrill out of it.’

Sue was left distraught by the fallout from their affair, writing to Bell in December 1936, ‘I already hate everything in this world now’ but pleased with him, ‘Enjoy life as you can.’

To make matters even more complicated, during his final months in China, Bell began two more affairs, with Innes Jackson, an English woman who worked as a translator, and the Oxford-educated Liao Hongying, who would later marry the diplomat and writer, Derek Bryan. Bell’s biographer, Peter Stansky, has claimed that the two women (who were, and remained, close friends for the rest of their lives) knew nothing about the other’s relationship with Bell, but a bravado filled letter sent to Playfair, in which he bragged ‘I found myself making love to H.Y, (Hongying) then to Innes, and then to both at once!’ shows that this was not the case.

Julian Bell returned to England in March 1937.  Back home, he received an irate letter from T. P Chen, who reproachfully told him, ‘you repeatedly wrote to her, followed her, pursued her and persecuted her, not only without her consent, but against her wish. A cad would be a cad, and I had only myself to thank for believing there might be still some good in him.’ Evidently still wounded by his betrayal, Chen went on, ‘I am very much pained, but still more surprised by your conduct.’ Chen ended by writing, ‘I thought that whatever might be your moral principles in some matters, an Englishman still had to keep his word and to consider his honour. I did not know that in throwing overboard some moral principles, such as loyalty to one’s friends, you threw away all. No faith, no honour, no word to keep – nothing would prevent you to seek your selfish gratification.’

In England, however, Bell had allowed love to become upstaged by politics and was contemplating going to Spain to join the International Brigades, which he eventually did in June 1937. The political situation in China too was precarious. China had been involved in a Civil War since 1927 with on-going fighting between the Kuomintang, who were ruling party of the Republic of China, and the Communist Party. Japan also posed a threat as it has invaded Manchuria in 1931. The Second Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937, the same month Bell was killed in Spain.

The Sea Monster, a short story written by Sue only months after Bell’s death reveals the depth of her grief. Inspired by the mythical tales of her homeland, it told of a young boy who died by drowning and how, soon after the disaster, ‘a marvel came out of the sea.’ Yet this apparition was unworldly and ‘remained mysterious and incomprehensible. But some aged men explained that it was not a fish but an amphibious monster, the incarnation of the wandering soul of a human being whose death had been untimely.’ Sue continued to correspond with Bloomsbury and became a confidante to both Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. In 1947, Sue and T. P. Chen moved to London, and in 1953, Sue finally published her autobiography, Ancient Melodies. No mention at all was made of her relationship with Bell.

In 1999, the writer, Hong Ying, published K: The Art of Love, a fictionalised account of Julian Bell and Ling Shuhua’s affair. Offended by the graphic sexual scenes depicted by the book, Sue’s daughter attempted to have it banned, and in 2002, the author was charged with ‘defaming the dead,’ but an English version of the text was and remains readily available. The true story, however, is even more surprising, impassioned and captivating.

Selected Sources:

The Papers of Julian Heward Bell, King’s Collage Archive Centre, Cambridge.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume V, 193-1941 – Edited by Anne Olivier Bell (1985)

Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China – Patricia Laurence (1998)

Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War – Peter Stansky and William Abrahams (2012)