Growing Up Absurd

House of Cads: Growing Up Amid the Weirdness of Bloomsbury

Angelica Garnett's memoir of growing up amid the weirdness of Bloomsbury features the usual literary suspects, including Virginia Woolf, and not a few surprises.

04.10.14 9:45 AM ET

The term "Bloomsbury" is a loaded one. Referring to the literary group of which Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes were notable members, their unconventional approach to relationships, in addition to their contributions to art, literature, and politics, make for fun reading: Virginia Woolf's affair with Vita Sackville West (which inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando), the painter Dora Carrington's devotion to Lytton Strachey (despite him being a homosexual), and Virginia's sister Vanessa having a child with her friend and sometime lover Duncan Grant, despite the fact that she was married to Clive Bell.

That child, Angelica Garnett (nee Bell), was raised as Clive's child and was not informed of the identity of her biological father until she was 18. In 1975, after the death of both Vanessa and Duncan, Angelica was encouraged by a friend to write the story of her life. She produced her memoir Deceived with Kindness in 1984, after an undoubtedly painful writing process. The book, a revelation in the genre of memoir, is out of print.

Garnett approaches her autobiography with the stoicism of a psychotherapist. Though she has cause for melodrama, you will not find it in this book. Garnett is a talented writer—perhaps it runs in the family—and her descriptions of her idyllic childhood at Charleston (Vanessa's house in Sussex) and summers in France sound delightful. "Within a domestic framework, rhythmic and reassuring, we all had space and liberty to pursue our own interests, meeting at regular intervals in the dining room to be sociable and convivial." Her remembrances of the artist Roger Fry and her aunt Virginia Woolf are beautifully rendered. "Green is the color that comes to mind when I think of the house and garden, with its curling fig trees and level expanse of lawn overlooking the water-meadows. Green was Virginia's color; a green crystal pear stood always on the table in the sitting-room, symbol of her personality."

As a college student, I was lucky enough to visit Charleston on a tour of Virginia Woolf related sites. The charm of the house, much like the idea of Bloomsbury, is irresistible. But Garnett's account is proof that while the ideals of Bloomsbury are certainly appealing, they were not the best guides for childrearing. Following the death of Angelica's half-brother Julian in the Spanish Civil War, Vanessa finds the courage to tell Angelica that Duncan, not Clive, is her father. "Although Vanessa comforted herself with the pretence that I had two fathers, in reality—emotional reality, that is—I had none."

Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood (Oxford Paperbacks) by Angelica Garnett

Understandably desperate to escape Vanessa and looking for a stable father figure, Angelica is preyed upon by none other than Duncan's former lover, a much older man named David "Bunny" Garnett. "One day early in our relationship Bunny invited Duncan and myself for the week . . . as we drew up outside in the car, he turned round in his seat and surprised me with a long, sexy kiss, which Duncan in the back can hardly have avoided noticing." No one feels it necessary to tell Angelica that Bunny was once her father's lover. Only Virginia warns her gently not to marry him—and her protection is brutally extinguished shortly thereafter by her suicide. "Eventually I gave way to Bunny's insistence and lost my virginity, appropriately enough, in H.G. Wells's spare bedroom." As if this weren't shocking enough, Garnett went on to marry Bunny and to have four children with him.

Garnett's explanation of her marriage to Bunny and the fact that it lasted 25 years is that her maturation was stalled by the lies of her childhood, what she calls a "precarious paradise." Her children were a welcome distraction to that pain, and once they were grown, Garnett found herself "incapable of further development." In this day and age, when memoirs seem to grow on trees, Garnett's ability to color her experience, which seems so specific, into a more universal message about identity is truly remarkable.

We are all victims of childhoods, though, to be certain, some of us have it worse than others. Garnett, who died in 2012, writes that her investigation into her mother's motivations allowed her for the first time to see her as others saw her. In many ways, the writing of this memoir was Garnett's accomplishment as an adult and an individual—an act of impressive bravery—and it was published when she was 66.