Vanessa Bell, artist, sister of Virginia Woolf, wife of Clive Bell and lover of Duncan Grant, is one of the most fascinating and modern figures of the Bloomsbury set, but unlike most of them she rarely put pen to writing paper. When she did, she was witty and illuminating about their early lives. The eldest of the Stephen family, she grew up with Virginia in Victorian gloom at Hyde Park Gate and later blossomed in bohemian style in Bloomsbury. From the twenties to the forties she lived and painted at Charleston Farmhouse like a heroine of the sixties and seventies, at the centre of a colourful world of family, friends, artists and intellectuals. Sketches in Pen and Ink is a unique collection of largely unpublished memoirs - most of them written to be read at meetings of the Memoir club, in which Vanessa writes with wit and charm about herself, her childhood, her remarkable family and friends, her moving relationship with Roger Fry, and her art. Her daughter, Angelica Garnett, has written a vivid and personal introduction which adds considerably to our understanding of this extraordinary woman and artist.
If the glut of recent books on the subject is any indication, interest in Bloomsbury has hardly abated, and with recent movies such as Orlando or Mrs. Dalloway, it may have increased. This loose collection of seven short essays represents the surviving memoirs of Vanessa Bell, the "Queen Bee" of that famous group. An introduction by her daughter, Angelica Garnett, gives us a little background on the author and a lot in the way of an apology: because these essays were originally written for the Memoir Club, which consisted of close friends, Bell had to choose her words carefully. Her reserve shows. Bell strips out the interesting details of her life and leaves only the familiar outline. She virtually ignores her husband, Clive Bell, and her lover, Duncan Grant, and turns her affair with Roger Fry into something passionless. Bell even manages to make life at Bloomsbury sound dull. The reader longs for something personal, but these vignettes fail to emotionally engage the outside reader--perhaps because they were written for friends already intimately familiar with the details. A fairly disappointing collection with a slightly misleading subtitle: only half of the essays are about the Bloomsbury Group. The attempt in the concluding essay to elevate Bell's stature beyond that of a minor artist is unconvincing. This is another addition to the groaning bookshelves of devoted Bloomsberries but not beyond. 14 b&w illustrations.