Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey, those modern secular equivalents to Heloise and Abelard, are famous for their complicated relationship, which ended tragically. And, yes, it did indeed involve the Bloomsbury habit of living, at least part of the time, in squares and loving in triangles; the subsidiary cast includes Ralph Partridge, Gerald Brenan and Frances Marshall (later Partridge), to name just a few. But in the National Portrait Gallery you can find a painting by Carrington that silences opprobrium. It portrays Strachey in bed, leaning back against pillows plumped up against an iron bedstead. He is bespectacled and his long fingers hold a large book close to his face. The book casts a shadow on the wall behind, which runs close to the bed – there is no escape from the quiet, intense intimacy here conveyed. The painting breathes a kind of concentration similar to that which accompanies the act of reading. This is the man whose life Carrington likened in her diary to that of the hens: ‘Meals dividing up the day, books read in the morning, siesta, walk to Pangbourne, more books. A French lesson with me, perhaps dinner. Reading aloud. Bed and hot water bottles, and every day the same apparently. But inside, what a variety, and what fantastic doings … He is kind and sympathetic, intolerant, prejudiced to a degree sometimes. Obstinate and with a grandeur and aloofness I’ve never met before. But everything very sudden, like a bird flashes across the sky on a walk.’ Some years later, looking back on their life together, much of which had been spent in the small library room where Strachey shared his passion for books, she told him: ‘You give me a standard of sensible behaviour which makes it much easier to be reasonable.’ Being reasonable, however, cost her much.
There is something deeply admirable about the new selection of Carrington’s letters Anne Chisholm has edited, even if readers may quibble with a few things at the start. Many of the letters are lightly and often humorously illustrated. Some examples are included in the book but in the