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

A Splendour Of Miscellaneous Spirits: Bloomsbury And Venice

From Shakespeare to Byron and Henry James, Venice has long been a muse for writers and artists alike. By the early twentieth century, Venice had become a highly popular tourist destination, and, as Evangeline Holland has pointed out in her guide to Edwardian England, the British upper and upper-middle classes, particularly those with artistic leanings, flocked there in their droves.

Above: A silent film about Venice (1920s) 

The Bloomsbury group were far from immune to the allure of Venice and drew similarities between the watery city and Cambridge, where St. John’s had its very own Bridge of Sighs and the punts glided over the river Cam as gondolas did through the narrow canals of Venice.

Virginia Woolf was to visit Venice on three occasions. The first one was with her family in 1904, shortly after the death of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her move to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury with her brother Thoby and sister Vanessa. Virginia had been quite overwhelmed by Venice, initially, writing to her friend Violet Dickinson in April 1904 that, ‘There was never such an amusing and beautiful place.’ However, the city was experiencing significant overcrowding; she began to find this oppressive, and, as Jane Dunn has claimed, Virginia started to feel as if she were a caged bird by the end of their trip. Thoby Stephen, however, (who would later contract typhoid and tragically die on another family holiday to Greece in 1906) was captivated by the aesthetic charms of Venice, writing to Clive Bell (whom Vanessa would eventually marry in 1907), ‘Until a man has been there he has no more right to speak of painting than a man who has read neither Sophocles or Shakespeare to criticize literature.’

Vanessa too found Venice to be a source of great artistic inspiration for her paintings, and it was there that she first encountered the work of Tintoretto, whose work she deeply admired, and who would remain one of her favourite painters. Indeed, it is not hard to see why the Bloomsbury artists, including Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, were so drawn to and frequently painted scenes of Venice, as for them, the city itself was a living and breathing work of art. The influence of Venetian culture can also be seen at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and David Garnett, along with Vanessa and Clive Bell’s sons, Julian and Quentin, moved to in 1916, and which remained Vanessa’s home for the rest of her life. The house’s interior is covered in artworks by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and paintings and their rich colours reflect the murals and colourful displays found inside many traditional Venetian homes.  Continue reading

That Detestable Place: Virginia Woolf And Cambridge

‘That detestable place,’ as she referred to Cambridge, remained a lifelong source of resentment for Virginia Woolf. Despite telling the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, ‘I hate Cambridge, and bitterly though I’ve suffered from it, I still respect it,’ she was never able to reconcile herself to her own exclusion from the University and, as she saw it, the continuing injustices it insisted upon committing against its female students. Yet her resentment was not without foundation.

During the 19th Century, two women’s colleges had been established, Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1871, but women were not admitted as full members of the University. Furthermore, although they had been granted the right to sit Tripos exams in 1881, and were offered University certificates on passing, they were unable to accept the titles of degrees. In fact, many female students even felt that their presence was not welcomed by the University and at times, both faculty and male undergraduates could be openly hostile to it. One Newnham student even claimed that, when women walked, male students sometimes followed them and mockingly ‘clumped and stamped in time with each of their steps.’ 

In her memoirs, Frances Partridge (née Marshall), who went up to Newnham in 1918 (and would eventually become affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group through her marriage to Ralph Partridge) remembered the enforcement of rules which she considered outmoded and traditionalist. Partridge recalled how she had cunningly bypassed the strict college rules requiring Newnham students to have chaperones, ‘by inventing an imaginary duenna called Mrs Kenyon, whose services I called on quite often.’ However, Patridge noted that, ‘there was gunpowder in the air, and it finally exploded at a meeting between students and dons, convened to consider the question of chaperonage, when a brave girl stood up and asked why it was that an exception was made for those girls rich enough to have a sitting-room as well as a bedroom. In a dead silence she enquired: “Is this because it is thought that the sight of the beds in our bed-sitting-rooms would be too much of a temptation?” This occasion, if not this actual remark, sounded the death knell of chaperones. After this we met the men freely, played tennis with them went punting and on picnics, and above all danced with them.’ Continue reading