Guardian Unlimited

Obituaries
 
Obituary

Frances Partridge

The last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Group, she found fulfilment as a writer through the recollection of her own life

Nigel Nicolson
Monday February 9, 2004
The Guardian


On her 30th birthday, when she was still Frances Marshall, she wrote in her diary: "I find grey hairs in my head but do not greatly care." In her 90s and beyond, when at last old age had eroded her beauty, she cared even less, because it was her capacity for friendship that mattered most to her - creating it, moulding it, developing it - a gift even greater than her skill at recording it, in the diaries which she began to publish at the age of 78.

Frances Partridge, who has died aged 103, was never a scintillating woman. That was not her style. She was intelligent and lively, emotionally well-balanced, and she lubricated conversation by her eager attentiveness, her sweetness of manner, her "niceness" in a competitive world where that very quality was suspect and the word taboo. "Frances is coming" was a phrase that alerted everyone to an evening or weekend which would be pleasanter than it would have been without her, and more productive too, for she would turn gossip into discussion, and almost alone in Bloomsbury was innocent of malice. Besides that, her dark looks were a joy to gaze upon, and Bloomsbury was by no means indifferent to looks.

Frances was born the sixth child of an architect, William Marshall, a dominating man who cut quite a figure in the upper-middle class of Edwardian society, and his wife Margaret; it was no wide gap that Frances had to cross before being accepted into the middle-circle of the Bloomsbury Group. It was Julia Strachey, a schoolfriend at Bedales, the progressive school in Hampshire, who introduced her, and, as she put it in her memoirs, "one Strachey led to another," until, via the English and moral sciences degree she took at Newnham College, Cambridge, she became an intimate of Lytton, Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge at Ham Spray, the house they shared in Wiltshire.

For six years from 1922 she worked in the bookshop near the British Museum owned and managed by David Garnett and Francis Birrell, where all Bloomsbury bought their books, and soon there were no Bloomsbury locales - Rodmell, Charleston, Tavistock Square, and above all, Ham Spray - where she was not welcomed.

Ralph Partridge married Dora Carrington in 1921, without much love on either side, mainly in order to keep intact their triangular relationship with Lytton Strachey. Their curious story has so often been told - and even filmed, in Carrington (1995), with Emma Thompson in the title role, and Alex Kingston as Frances - that it has ceased to be curious. Carrington fell in love with Ralph's closest friend Gerald Brenan, and Ralph soon came to love Frances Marshall with a mutual passion that could not be denied. They considered "infidelity" no crime unless it was accompanied by deception. So Frances and Ralph lived together in London, visiting Ham Spray at weekends.

In 1932 Lytton Strachey died there of stomach cancer, and Carrington shot herself two months later. Early in the next year Ralph and Frances married. They had one son, Burgo, who died aged 28 of a heart attack in 1963.

It was as happy a marriage as any which is recorded, and the record is Frances's own diary. Without histrionics, she conveys the pleasure which each took in the other's company, the pleasure of travelling together, of sharing the same table and bed, of discussing without staleness the great moral and political issues of the day. Both loved music (and dancing: they once actually came second in the national ballroom championship) and literature. Both were agnostic, both became committed pacifists, Ralph in consequence of his experiences in the first world war, Frances as early as nine years old when she watched boys battering each other at Bedales.

They lived at Ham Spray throughout the second world war. It was for them A Pacifist's War, as she titled her first book (1978), but they managed to reconcile their abomination of the conflict with providing an occasional refuge for those who were doing their best to win it. Whether it was the arrival of the pig-sticker or her rediscovery of the violin and chamber music, her vivid recall delighted a new generation of friends.

Ham Spray was their home till 1960, when Ralph Partridge died. Neither wished to achieve very much except to create their own brand of happiness and spread it to their friends. Together they did a vast amount of work to help Lytton Strachey edit the unexpurgated edition of the memoirs of the 19th-century political diarist Charles Greville, publishing it in eight volumes in 1938, and Ralph had worked for a time with the Woolfs as an assistant at the Hogarth Press.

However, it seems almost by accident that she discovered in her old age that she too had been a writer, and that the world might enjoy her diaries, sharpened for publication. After her wartime book came the memoirs entitled Memories (1981); Julia (1983), a life of Julia Strachey which was more an account of their relationship than a biography; Everything To Lose (1986), her diaries from 1945 to 1960, ending so movingly with the thump of Ralph's fatal heart attack upstairs; a slight book of family photographs, Friends In Focus (1987) - happy of course, if not exactly in focus; and five further volumes of diaries, concluding with Ups And Downs (2001), covering 1972-75.

She lived the rest of her life in London, unfailingly convivial as guest or hostess, finding it difficult to refuse any invitation. "I have been a Yes person all my life," she wrote in her memoirs, and in its concluding pages she wondered why writers have paid so little attention to friendship. "Sustaining, warming and endlessly refreshing, it should surely have had almost as many poems written to it as have been dedicated to love."

Her own life, and her books, have done much to fill the gap.

Frances Catherine Partridge, writer, born March 28 1900; died February 5 2004




Printable version | Send it to a friend | Save story

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004