Dreaming On The Verge Of Strife: Julian Bell And Rupert Brooke

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Frances Darwin Cornford

Written after her first meeting with the poet, Frances Cornford’s pithy verse, On Rupert Brooke, was to prove eerily prophetic. Within a decade, Brooke would be dead after contracting septicemia on his way to Gallipoli. Cornford’s words could just as easily have been written about Julian Bell, another young Cambridge poet, whose life would also be cut short as a consequence of war. Bell was fascinated by Brooke, whom he greatly admired, and believed that they both shared a similar outlook towards war and duty, one that his Bloomsbury elders could not understand.

From an early age Bell had heard tales of the fabled Brooke from members of his family who had known Brooke at Cambridge. Bell also went up to the same University’s King’s College, where Brooke’s presence haunted the aged stone walls, its corridors and staircases seemingly reverberating with anecdotes about his legendary charm and beauty. Although Brooke would eventually become a Fellow of King’s, this was a feat that eluded Bell despite two attempts. Similarly in his lifetime, Brooke was an acclaimed poet whose reputation was only enhanced by his death, Bell however never came close to achieving comparable fame, and today his work remains largely unknown.

Just as Brooke had spent the last few years of his life abroad, travelling to America, Canada and the South Seas, as described in his Letters from America, published posthumously in 1916, Bell left for China in 1935 after he was offered a Professorship at Wuhan University. Teaching English literature to his Chinese students, Bell held Brooke up as a perfect example of what he believed to be a quintessentially English poet.

Remarking in a letter to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, he declared Brooke to be ‘the most remarkable human being I’ve ever heard of,’ but whilst he could not help but notice the obvious similarities between himself and the war poet, he acknowledged that he had not been blessed with ‘all his gifts’ nor had he enjoyed ‘that sort of brilliant career.’

Bell’s upbringing, coupled with the overwhelmingly pacifist nature of Bloomsbury, led him to adopt his family and Bloomsbury’s attitudes towards war until the early 1930s. By that time, the tumultuous political situation at home and abroad meant that he was starting to question Bloomsbury’s belief in the supremacy of discourse over direct action as the best means of providing a solution to the problems that besieged Britain and Europe. Brooke himself had been deeply dismayed by the pacifism of his former Bloomsbury friends after the outbreak of the First World War, and this sentiment pervaded much of his subsequent poetry. In contrast Brooke openly embraced the declaration of war, from the belief that it would usher in the excitement that he felt was essential to young men, something that had been absent from his life thus far. In an essay that appeared in The New Statesman and Nation entitled An Unusual Young Man, Brooke wrote with characteristic nonchalance, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.’ Continue reading

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

Bloomsbury’s Lost Poet: Julian Bell In Madrid

North of Madrid, between the city and the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, lies the Cementerio de Fuencarral. The cemetery was built to bury the fallen of the Battle of Jarama, which began on 6th February 1937, exactly 76 years before my visit. After the Nationalists declared victory in April 1939, Franco disinterred those who had died at Jarama and disturbed the graves of many International Brigades’ members buried there during the course of the Spanish Civil War.

Although the entire cemetery was not demolished and the initial walls still stand, the Republican burial plots were removed and the original remains ending up dumped in an unmarked mass grave. A large plaque honouring the International Brigades was also destroyed. The sheer brutality that brought the cemetery into being and governed its early years is now hard to imagine; but its history has not been forgotten. An annual service is held to commemorate the fallen of Jarama, and a new plaque dedicated to the International Brigades was unveiled in 2009.   

2009 Plaque

The 2009 Plaque

The purpose of my visit to Fuencarral was the vain hope of finding the grave of Julian Bell, son of the painter Vanessa Bell and the art critic Clive Bell, and the nephew of Virginia Woolf. Bell had left for Spain in June 1937 only months after his return from China, where he had spent nearly two years teaching English at Wu-Han University. After two failed attempts to gain a Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge (his alma mater) Bell turned his attentions abroad in the hope of achieving the recognition that had eluded him at home. He had enjoyed minor success as a poet and writer, but without the level of acclaim he desired or, because of his Bloomsbury connections, expected. Continue reading