The Amazon of Bloomsbury – Shannon Savvas

(A re-imagining of the Byzantine mores of Vanessa Belland her set and their infliction upon her daughter Angelica Garnett née Bell by way of Duncan Grant)

Charleston Farm, East Sussex

Christmas Day Night, 1918

Today the child decided to be born. Before breakfast!! I cannot believe it. Our first Christmas since the end of the beastly war. Our first Christmas after four long, dull years of Lutheran sensibilities out of consideration for “the people” and their sacrifices. I should have been downstairs presiding over the feast of food and festivities I’d planned; festivities almost Roman Catholic in their excess. How delicious. But the child almost ruined everything but for my darling Virginia. Thank heavens, she oversaw the morning hunt and orchestrated the later dinner and party. Judging by the glee and shrieks rising from downstairs which punctuated my beastly labour, I suppose it was in the end, only my Christmas the baby ruined.

It wasn’t a difficult birth. I suppose I must be pleased that it is a girl and not another boy. My friends tell me daughters are so much more fun. I doubt it but I do believe they are cleaner and more reasonable than boys. Small mercies. Lennox is a Gorgon-faced Godsend, even though she demanded the Devil’s dues to return to service for this one. I suppose it was her form of retribution because we let her go so abruptly once Quentin and Julian were both away at boarding school. How could I have foreseen the spectre of another child? But whatever Duncan agreed to pay her, it is worth every penny to not have the onerous duty of tending to a crying, hungry baby day and night. I informed Lennox the day she moved back into her rooms that I refuse to be a heifer to this child. She has engaged a wet nurse who will arrive the day after Boxing Day.

Clive suggested we call the child Angelica, after all, he said it is on this day the angels brought good news. I suppose this baby is good news, but for whom, I am not certain. Not for me. Now the boys are at the Quakers’ school in Reading, a baby is not what I need. Clive has promised to take her under her wing. He is such a good man and will be more of a father to Angelica than Duncan could ever know how to be, so the least he deserves is to give her a name. God knows Duncan is too distracted and really, he has become such a bore. I do not always wish for his company.

Clive has barely been in. He has spent the day entertaining Duncan and Bunny. They came down yesterday and will stay until Boxing Day. With little consideration for me or this baby, the three of them have indulged in an inordinate number of raucous toasts ever since they returned from the hunt. I could hear their noise all the way up here, but I suspect they were celebrating the end of the war and their enforced exile from London as “conscientious objectors” more than the birth of Christ or Duncan’s girlie as Bunny called her. She is merely a timely excuse.

Later, Bunny popped up to see the baby, champagne in one hand, a filthy White Owl cigar in the other. He blew smoke across her little face which enjoined a stern cluck of disapproval from Nanny Lennox. But when has disapproval ever deterred him? He oohed and he aahed, towering over the child’s crib, a swath of Christmas ivy around his neck, a travesty of a merry fairy godmother.

Oh joy, he declared. She is delicious. Good enough to eat with a crème anglaise and strawberries. If she is as lovely when she’s twenty, let’s see, good Lord, I shall be only forty-six — I think I will marry her. Will it be scandalous, Vanessa?

Yes, it would. However, I kept silent. Sometimes Bunny is as insufferable as he is amusing. I accepted a glass of champagne and we toasted the absurdity of the idea.

Lennox has taken the child. The visitors have gone, the men retired. Finally, I have some peace.

* * *

Christmas Day, 1932

I don’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed with Virginia. She has gifted Angelica the outrageous sum of one hundred pounds annually to purchase clothes. Who in their right mind would bestow such funds on a fourteen-year-old? Dear as my sister is to me, Virginia has not been in her right mind for some time. I am worried. I told her she has been highly irresponsible but she dismissed my objections. She implied my allowing Angelica to travel on the Continent, unaccompanied but for Lennox, was more irresponsible, but both Clive and Duncan backed me up that for the purposes of education Angelica’s sojourn in Rome was far more valuable than that ghastly school in Essex.

* * *

Sissinghurst, Kent

Sunday Afternoon, 15th August 1937

Vita has invited us down for the week. A relief to leave London. I cannot bear anymore condolences on the loss of my darling Julian. It is a welcome distraction to be with Vita and Harold who has a quiet and thoughtful way about him that is quite calming. Between my grief and the talk of Oswald Mosley and his band of thugs and the menace of an increasingly strutting Germany, I have felt lost in a deep well of sadness. Still, I thank God every day for our Royal Family and the sanity and sensibility of British politics. Stuffy as society may be, it is a blessing that we are more obsessed with the marriage of the American divorcee Mrs Simpson to the Duke of Windsor, than with the rantings of that nasty little man Mr. Hitler in Berlin.

Angelica and I motored down with Virginia and Leonard on Thursday. Clive arrived with Duncan in tow yesterday morning. Bunny and his wife Rachael – I cannot bring myself to call her Ray (how vulgar, how gauche) no matter how often she insists I do – arrived by train this afternoon. Rachael is to my eyes much more interesting than when I last saw her; she has lost much weight and her face is drawn, tight and of a curious hue. I might ask her to sit for me in the autumn.

Angelica, who has become quite temperamental and rebellious since she decided to become an actress – a grave misjudgment in my opinion, the child has neither looks, allure nor talent of any description – was extremely beastly to Bunny and made cruel fun of Duncan at lunch. I thought enough. Time the child knew the truth. I took her for a walk in Vita’s wonderful white garden and explained that Duncan is her father not Clive. I tried to ameliorate the situation by telling her that in many ways she was lucky to have two fathers, not one. She spat back that in reality she felt she had none. Her performance was worthy of Isadora. I waited until she had calmed and run out of her diva tears before instructing her to not discuss this further with anyone. Especially Clive’s father who must not be made aware of Duncan’s role in her genesis as William has almost certainly bequeathed what he believes to be his granddaughter, a sum of money in the event of his death. Practical girl, she saw the sense. Well, she should. A woman’s life and fortune are precarious and only someone foolish would unnecessarily risk any upheaval. I have instructed her to make her excuses and not attend the party tonight. It seems only prudent.

* * *

Monday 16th August 1937

I am appalled. Angelica, despite my advice, not only attended the party, but dressed a little too provocatively for an eighteen-year-old girl. She certainly drank more champagne than was advisable. Laughed too loudly and danced with unseemly abandon. I asked Clive to tell her to stop, but he said let her have her fun, that if she was a little wild as he put it, perhaps it was because she still grieved the loss of Julian and has been forbidden to make a “pilgrimage” as she called it to Brunete in Spain. That debacle shows no sign of abating and it would be madness not to say pointless for her to undertake such a trip. Still, Clive is right. However, I felt I needed to address her outrageous behaviour.

When I spoke to her, she threatened to be indiscrete regarding her true paternity and ruin the evening in front of everybody, including several notables and minor Royals. After a while, she calmed and I left well alone. The child has always been willful and I can live with her irregular behaviour. What I found most distressing was watching her flirt shamelessly with Bunny last night, in the presence of Rachael who was visibly embarrassed and hurt. With Julian gone, there is no one to temper her. Perhaps Quentin can take her to tea when we get back to London and have a word. She might be more prepared to listen to her brother than her mother.

* * *

Charleston Farm, East Sussex

Christmas Day, 1938

Everyone has come for Christmas. Quentin has brought a young woman, Anne Popham for the holidays, they seem rather serious. I will get Clive to find out more about her family. Bunny and Rachael are here, but I fear her health has deteriorated. The last time I saw her was just over a year ago when she declined to sit for me. What is troublesome is that Angelica and Bunny carry on in a way that is wholly inappropriate and raises my concerns. I remember his drunken prediction about marrying her despite his being in a liaison with her father. And how can I tell her that this man was her father’s lover? It mattered not a jot until now. There is something quite wrong with this relationship. Not least that they are being quite disgraceful in front of his poor, sick wife. Perhaps I or Duncan should speak with him. Warn him off. Or do I leave them to have a fling, however distasteful? Perhaps an older man will help settle her. Let her get her rebelliousness out of her system and then she can move on and hopefully meet, marry someone more suitable.

I have just spoken with Virginia. She assures me my daughter will tire of that rusty, surly old dog with his amorous ways and his primitive mind. Typical Virginia – she has the most vivid and apt way of putting a matter. I hope she is right. She knows all sorts of interesting young men, closer in age and class to Angelica and has promised to send them Angelica’s way after the holidays.

* * *

Christmas Day, 1942

It is done. And I must be gracious and welcoming. Bunny might believe he has pulled off a coup, perhaps exacted a small revenge on Duncan, but I find it disgusting. An affair was one thing, but this marriage is partly my own fault. If I had found the courage, had informed Angelica about her intended husband’s history and more specifically his proclivities, namely that Bunny had not simply propositioned me (thankfully I rejected him – would he be so petty to marry her out of spite?) but had conducted a liaison with her father, might she have called off the marriage? In a note of sordid glee, she informed me she lost her virginity to Bunny while staying with the novelist Mr. H.G. Wells in Sussex. It is quite abhorrent to me that Bunny Garnett, fifty years old, has married my daughter, a mere twenty-four years old. The poor deluded girl is giddy with her new status and independence. They have moved to his place in Cambridgeshire, so it is somewhat of a blessing that I shall see less of her and her husband whom she refuses to call Bunny – he’s not a pet, Mama, she said – rather she insists on calling him Darling David. Quite nauseating.

It was all very well being tolerant when Darling David’s excesses were amusing, scandalous and delicious in equal measure, but when it is one’s own daughter sucked into the insobriety of others’ sexual mores, one finds one is forced to re-examine one’s own opinions – and admit to one’s culpability. I, we, created and glorified this sordid seeking of sensation and acceptance of breaking taboos.

It is not difficult to conjure a list of muckrakers hoping to be the first to inform Angelica of her husband’s dalliance with her father, enjoying the anticipation of her dismay. Then how gleeful will she be, I ask, if somebody tells her, as they surely will be keen to do, about not-so-darling David’s torrid relationships with both male and female intimates of our circle and beyond (more than I care to name!)? They will do so all the while claiming moral outrage but seeking revenge or social superiority over our eccentric little family, spreading the dirt and depravity so deep that it will be Angelica, an innocent, who is shamed and not her Darling David who has tainted everybody he has known. Including me.

I know this milieu; indeed, I have dabbled in it myself but that gives me advantage. I shall make it my mission to use whatever means, practical, immoral, sexual or sentimental, I will call in all debts owed whatever their nature, financial, patronage, discretionary – bearing in mind the large repository of secrets entrusted to me which I am quite prepared to use as leverage to ensure no one disillusions Angelica.

Let my silly daughter have her illusion of a great love affair. Better that than laying this family bare to ridicule and judgement heaped upon our name. But I confess, I am tired. Tired of these men; Bunny and his predilection for young flesh of any persuasion, our George and Gerald who took me and Virginia for sport, and Lytton and Roger and Leonard and all their ilk who offer praise and speak of equal artistic worth yet ensure we are crimped by social, marital and maternal expectations.

And if I must wield the librys to slay the switchblade tongues or lay down with husbands, wives, or fathers to ensure their silence, so be it. But given the inbred snobbery of our venal and socially ambitious times, I doubt nothing more than invitations to our dinner parties and readings and gallery openings together with promises of attendances at their parties will be suffice.

My daughter needs to be protected.

I will be her Amazon.

A New Zealand writer who divides her heart and life between Cyprus, England and New Zealand. Winner: Reflex Fiction (Winter 2017); Cuirt New Writing Prize (Galway, Ireland) (March 2019); Flash500 (Summer 2019). Runner up, shortlisted, longlisted, commended and published here and there.

Image via Pixabay

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