I got bumped by Virginia Woolf’s niece this morning. Fetched the newspaper and carted it up to bed with my coffee. Opened up the obituaries page, expecting to see my piece on Canadian Aboriginal activist Lillian McGregor, but instead discovered that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, had died in France, age 93.
I learned a creepy detail from her biography: She ended up marrying her father’s former lover, David (Bunny) Garnett, who once peered at the newborn Angelica, admired her 2-day-old beauty, and vowed to wed her.
“Its beauty is the remarkable thing…I think of marrying it. When she is 20 I shall be 46–will it be scandalous?”
Angelica moved into Hilton Hall, Cambridgeshire, Bunny’s home, in 1942 and had four daughters: Amarylis, Henrietta, Fanny and Nerissa. The marriage lasted 25 years.
After my coffee and a quick read of this obituary I up-and-dressed as per usual but never effectively regained a toe-hold onto my day: I was Bloomerburyized and knew there was no escape. I plucked from my shelf Woolf’s diaries and read passages about Vanessa’s daughter’s birth on Christmas day, 1918.
“Has [Angelica] got a lovely down at the back of her neck. Shall we all be allowed to kiss her?”
The baby remained without a name for several weeks; the two sisters pondered possibilities, including Venetia, Sabina, and Euphronosyne.
“I don’t like Claudia–pompous and aristocratic,” Virginia wrote, “I like Susan–Suzannah suggests an old Negress on a Savannah–”
For awhile, she was called “Anonyma” by her odd and angular aunt in Richmond.
And so I surrendered my day to books, scattered in tiny mounds beside me on the living room couch, letting the curtain beside me ride the breeze similar, I imagined, to Virginia’s gusts at her writing desk as she slid the pen forward and sipped her steeped tea, awaiting another disturbance from pesky servants.
I’m in the death business and this blog tells stories about the ends of lives and the bits between, but landing upon Angelica’s obituary this morning balled me up and tossed me high into the snare of a story about a birth nearly a century ago. I simply gave in and let my thoughts wander along with the Woolfs, Bells, Grants and others who periodically tempt me away.
Also, I’ve lately been working through a tattered old copy of The Years, and have wanted to describe some of what I’ve found in this early Woolf novel as well, clearly biographical, beginning with the death of Virginia and Vanessa’s mother. The sisters tended to the sickroom.
“When she came to the bedroom door with the jugs and glasses on the table outside, she paused. The sour-sweet smell of illness slightly sickened her. She could not force herself to go in. Through the little window at the end of the passage she could see flamingo-coloured curls of cloud lying on a pale-blue day.”
Bloomsbury has stolen from me a pale blue day of my own. No walk to the Don River with Heather this morning; no tea in the back garden; not even a satisfactory work day. Lost in their lives, for several hours, but not any longer. I’ll hammer the pages shut and catch up with my own life.
And then tomorrow morning, Lillian McGregor, another old woman with a fascinating pedigree, will get a chance to tell her story.