When I was fourteen, I discovered my mother’s love letters to my father – faded blue aerogrammes inscribed with ramrod straight handwriting, filed chronologically in a two-ring binder in the bottom drawer of a rosewood davenport. Those letters explained why my mother, a young woman from a village in north Wales, packed her bags in 1968, and moved to a city in south India to marry a man she’d known for only six months. For years I returned to those letters. They were, I think, the reason I became a writer.
When I asked to see the letters of Vanessa Bell, I knew little of the Bloomsbury group and their unconventional relationships. I knew she was Virginia Woolf’s sister, and an artist in her own right, but it was only after reading an extract of a letter where she rejects a proposal of marriage to her future husband that I got properly intrigued. Turning a man down is never an easy thing to do: not now, not 100 years ago. And so it was with something of a morbid curiosity that I spent a few hours in the Tate archive room trawling through the innards of her life. “Dear Mr Bell,” she writes, in September 1902. “I hope you’re able to imagine the excitement and joy that your partridges have caused here, as I am quite unable to describe it.” Further correspondence shows more excitement about food: goose, grouse, pheasant – all “splendid topics of conversation”.
The paper is thick, rectangular, sturdy, black-bordered, and her handwriting is a spidery scrawl of black ink rushing across the page. Over the passage of time the letterhead changes from 22 Hyde Park Gate to 46 Gordon Square. The friendship develops quite innocuously, until abruptly, on 31 July 1906, she writes: “You have given me a very difficult thing to do… according to all rules, I am sure I ought simply to tell you to go to Germany and never think of me again.”
It is a self-deprecating ramble of a letter that ends in pencil in the waiting room of a dentist, but despite all the fumbling, the main thrust is clear: “If marriage were only a question of being good friends and of caring for things in the same way, I would say yes at once… but I suppose something more is wanted, which now, I don’t feel.”
Over the next few years more letters are exchanged, where he accuses her of “frigid politeness” and she promises not to act up to her “English heroine’s standard”. There are complaints of dull cousins visiting and various family illnesses, and a stubborn insistence on not wanting to “marry in the abstract”. And then, suddenly, there’s a breakthrough. Dear Mr Bell metamorphoses into My dearest Clive.
This is when I stop reading, for she has given herself, and I know the rest of the story. I know they will both take other lovers, that their oldest son will die in the Spanish Civil War, that she will have a daughter with Duncan Grant who will eventually marry her father’s ex-lover, David Garnett. I hold all this information like some distant, useless God, unable to reverse the peculiarities of their fate. But I also understand the palimpsest of time; how the real story often resides between the lines, in the silences; how the ghost voice of another person can fill in the gaps of a story without even speaking.
What remains are the letters. Vanessa Bell, standing on the threshold: oppressed by the past, looking to the future – her voice reaching us here in the twenty-first century. It is a thing we will never have with our modern means of communication. No one from the future is going to sit in an archive room trying to decode the secret architecture of our romances.
In my mother’s letters, she writes about children that haven’t been born – three of them – my brother, my sister and I. With words, she birthed us into existence before our time. This is the magic of letters: that they allow us to live on, even when our time has passed.