Henrietta Garnett Family Skeletons.
Knopf, 213 pages, $15.95
“Why, when October comes round,” Virginia Woolf famously complained in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “do the publishers always fail to supply us with a masterpiece?” Of the incompetent writers of her day, she went on to remark, “their sincerity is desperate, and their courage tremendous; it is only that they do not know which to use, a fork or their fingers.” One might wonder if Mrs. Woolf would be surprised today to observe how grimly durable her complaints have proved; they are certainly no less pertinent now, and may even be pointed, ironically, toward this first attempt at fiction by her own great-niece, Henrietta Garnett.
Family Skeletons has three settings, all isolated and all travelogue-beautiful: an estate in Ireland called Malabay, a vaguely Swiss mountain clinic, and an island. The book supplies slightly more characters than settings: all are either beautiful or charmingly eccentric. There is Catherine (beautiful), who has lived her seventeen years in wild innocence at Malabay with her horses and her uncle Pake (eccentric). There is her cousin Tara, ten years older than she. (“Tara was beautiful. He was not just good looking, but beautiful.”) Tara has a real zest for living; he tends to say things like “The parsley is perfection” and “I’ve had more lovers than you’ve had hot dinners.” He marries Catherine and then promptly gets himself drowned in the same lake where Catherine’s parents, Nellie and Terence, died in a sailing accident many years before. Tara’s friend Gerald, whose “good looks were not quite so obvious,” falls in love with Catherine and rescues her from the clinic where she has been recovering—not just from Tara’s death, but from an additional nuisance: political bullies from the town near Malabay have bombed the estate to pieces, killing Uncle Pake and destroying the only home she has known.
Gerald takes Catherine to his island, where he is writing the screenplay for his best-selling novel, which is based on Tara’s brief life. Pake’s wise old ex-wife, Poppy (eccentric), shows up randomly at the clinic and on the island, always armed with plenty of champagne, and says things like “Every time someone I love dies, part of me dies too.” On the island, Gerald coerces Catherine into becoming a writer (“In order for us to be together,” he tells her, “it’s essential that you should write”), and she presents him with a play which intuitively guesses at a secret—confirmed by Poppy—involving Catherine’s parents. It turns out that their sailing accident was actually both a suicide and a murder: Terence had killed his wife and himself because he could not bear the knowledge that Catherine is not his daughter but the child of the incestuous union between Nellie and her brother, Pake.
Catherine, who is not nearly as disturbed by this news as one would think, inexplicably decides to go off to Copenhagen to pursue her writing; Gerald leaves the island also, to shoot his movie. They promise to reunite at Gerald’s cottage (isolated, beautiful) near Oxford, and the book ends.
If this seems a spare, inadequate summary, it is because the novel is exactly this inadequate. It reaches for a tinkling, magical quality, like that of a finely crafted fable, full of swans, airy twilights, and champagne. But all this ethereality is merely a device that allows the author to divert her attention from the rigors of characterization, from working to make fictional people seem real. Henrietta Garnett’s heroes and heroines are not really characters at all; they are skeletal structures without muscles or blood or breath, and they move only according to their author’s all-too-obvious and none-too-skillful whim. Often in the novel Henrietta Garnett tells farts about her characters that would be better displayed through the book’s action, as in this bit of information about Gerald and Poppy: “They knew each other very well. Glance and gesture were as eloquent a means of communication as direct speech and cross reference.” When the characters are propelled into action by the author, they act with a quivering triviality, amid a few awkwardly chosen dress-up details.
There can be little doubt that the faults of this book—its preciosity, its clichés, its creaky characterizations—are by far more abundant than those found in the general run of first novels. Yet to be harsh about it is to be completely beside the point, for two reasons. First, I think it is likely that this book would not have been published if its author were not Henrietta Garnett. The name Garnett drags along behind it all the associations with Bloomsbury that the reading public continues to find irresistibly interesting, and it flirtatiously dares that public to look for hints of the real-life Bloomsbury story within the pages of this novel. Add to this the fact that the book’s dust-jacket painting was executed by Julian Bell (Quentin Bell’s son and Henrietta’s first cousin), give the book a suggestive title, and you have packaging which the publishers cannot but be pleased with, almost regardless of what is printed inside. One imagines that Gollancz (the novel’s British publishers) and Knopf might just as easily have wrapped kippers in a dust jacket printed with an Omega Workshop pattern, slapped a name like Strachey or Partridge on it, and put it in the bookstores with equal satisfaction.
Second, given Henrietta Garnett’s family history, it cannot have been easy for her to have written anything at all, and what she has managed to write is just about exactly what one would expect. She is the second of the four daughters of Angelica and David (“Bunny”) Garnett, one of the most famously absurd unions of this century. Angelica is the illegitimate daughter of the painter Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and her homosexual lover, Duncan Grant. Apparently Angelica was led to believe that Clive Bell was her real father until Vanessa finally told the girl the truth when she was seventeen. Bunny Garnett, a former lover of Duncan’s, announced upon Angelica’s birth that he intended to marry her, and twenty-two years later he actually did so, causing Vanessa and Duncan to cluck, ridiculously, like shocked Victorian aunts. Angelica has movingly recorded her bizarre childhood and marriage in a pain-filled memoir entitled Deceived With Kindness (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985). In it, she explains that she felt so smothered by the “monolithic” Vanessa, and was kept so ignorant of the goings-on both in Bloomsbury and in the world outside it, that she felt her only choices were to model herself after Vanessa and to succumb to the perverse attentions of Bunny.
It does not seem farfetched to conclude that Henrietta, seeing that everyone in her family painted or wrote or wrote about painting, felt compelled herself to write a novel, and one supposes that she was also encouraged to do so by the Bloomsbury-watchers who have made the history and lore of the Woolf-Bell-Strachey clique into something of a cottage industry. Writing this novel was clearly a brave enterprise for Henrietta, given the amount of attention lavished on the fiction of her great-aunt Virginia and on other members of the group. It was also a courageous act to try to invent a story able to spark anywhere near the kind of interest that her true family history has inspired for various biographers, historians, and amateur inquiring minds.
Courageous as Henrietta’s attempt was, though, it was almost certain to fail from the outset through the very nature of the author’s famous family name. What is this novel’s incest, drowning, murder, sadness, and isolation in comparison with the sexual irregularity, suicides, and theatricality of real-life Bloomsbury? It is no wonder that fictional Catherine digested the news of her unnatural birth without missing a beat; such information could not be especially shocking to Catherine’s inventor, who clearly had trouble instilling her characters with anything other than her own imperturbable attitude. A novel like Family Skeletons, in failing to command any degree of fascination, is at least in this way related to the artistic Bloomsbury enterprise as a whole: the way Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf, et alia lived their lives is much more interesting than any art they managed to produce. It is not at all surprising that Henrietta Garnett’s third-generation novel, like the results of inbreeding, is the fragile specimen that it is.
In her biography Vanessa Bell (Ticknor and Fields, 1983), Frances Spalding quotes the following recollection by Henrietta Garnett:
Amaryllis [her older sister] and I were sometimes allowed to stay up for dinner instead of being given an early supper. On these occasions we both paraded in extravagant and fantastic evening dress concocted from curtains, lengths of Omega cloth, Vanessa’s nightdresses, feathers, flowers and finery borrowed from her jewel boxes. Then we pretended that we were grand ladies .... We flirted outrageously with Duncan and with Clive. On one occasion we went so far as to have a double wedding. Amaryllis married Clive, I married Duncan .... Nessa officiated as high priestess. Then we all had tea.
This little reminiscence captures perfectly the dress-up quality of much that we read about Bloomsbury. The individuals involved seemed much of the time to be staging an elaborate play, making up their interacting roles as they went along. Whether or not this masquerade atmosphere actually existed—no doubt these individuals would strongly deny that it did—it exists overwhelmingly in Henrietta Garnett’s novel; in fact, the book may be said to be constructed almost entirely on feathers, flowers, finery, playacting, and buried ancestral secrets that thinly mimic the author’s own family skeletons. This attraction to the masquerade appears to be the only inheritance this daughter of Bloomsbury has received.
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