On Sunday I went to a talk at Oxford’s wonderful Albion Beatnik bookshop (sells new and secondhand; the new is delightfully arranged by decade of publication, and they do a good line in reprint publishers) – for they had Henrietta Garnett coming as a guest. Henrietta Garnett is related to more or less everyone in Bloomsbury. It took me a bit of time to disentangle the family tree, but she is the daughter of David Garnett (author of wonderful Lady Into Fox) and Angelica Garnett (author of wonderful Deceived with Kindness). Both her parents on my 50 Books You Must Read list – what an accolade! Of course, she also thus has Vanessa Bell as grandmother; Virginia Woolf as great-aunt; Leonard Woolf as great-uncle. I got a bit confused, but the Stracheys (Lytton; Julia; Dorothy) all figured in there somewhere. And, as if that weren’t enough, Henrietta married one of the Partridge clan, throwing Frances Partridge into the mix (and thus my friend Will, who is great-nephew, or something like that.)
It’s all a bit dizzy, isn’t it? Possibly most wonderfully, it is she who appeared in one of my favourite paintings: The Artist’s Daughter. (Thinking about it… she is the artist’s granddaughter, so I’m not sure who got the wrong end of the stick here…)
I was sat waiting, having struck up a conversation with the person next to me (more on that later) when Henrietta entered… dancing to the 1920s flapper music playing in the background. This rather set the tone – Henrietta is nothing if not eccentric.
Her talk was mostly reminiscences – often amusing; always emphatic – of life growing up in Bloomsbury. There wasn’t a huge amount of new material, but of course it was a wonderful delight to hear it from one who knows it first-hand. It was just as well that Henrietta didn’t have *too* much to say, as she spoke incredibly slowly, and very dramatically – wrenching her glasses from her face for the many points of emphasis, and fixing the audience with a vivid, wild stare each time. This woman was born to perform. “It… was… perhaps… a… very… unusual… childhood…, but… … … I… appreciated… it,” she said wisely, “However… if… I… had… had… a… different… childhood… … …. I daresay I would have appreciated that too.” (Sorry, I got tired of typing dots!)
Her manner of performance was exactly what I’d want from one of the last people who knew the Bloomsbury group intimately. But – there was perhaps a kernel, at the centre, of a girl who had always had to strive for attention? Or perhaps such things seep into one along with a love of creativity and (as she emphasised) words.
There was no need for her to strive for attention with this crowd – we all loved her. I must confess that a one-on-one conversation would petrify me, but sitting (as I ought) in the audience, it was an experience I am delighted to have had.
It also gave me the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the very lovely Beth, who blogs at From the Desk of Bee Drunken. I was chatting to Liz (from my book group, who was with me and had been at school with Henrietta) and mentioned Persephone – which grabbed Beth’s attention. Kindred spirits were we immediately (do pop over and read her write-up of the event) and got chatting nineteen-to-the-dozen about many topics – chiefly Jane Austen, and books in general. It was so special to meet Beth like that – and she took the wonderful photo of Henrietta which is up above (I’d brought my camera, and handed it over to Beth who took a much better one than I did!)
All in all, a lovely time.