Frances Partridge: The Biography by Anne Chisholm - review by Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding

Last of the Bloomsberries

Frances Partridge: The Biography


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 416pp £25 order from our bookshop

Anne Chisholm’s greatest rival, while writing this biography, has been her own subject. Frances Partridge, a second-generation member of Bloomsbury, began publishing her own writings in her late seventies. These took the form of memoirs and extracts from her diaries, starting with A Pacifist’s War. The appeal of her writing lay not in confessional revelation but in her unflagging, acute and often humorous powers of observation. A steady intelligence played over everything, questioning and reflecting on the deep pleasure she obtained from nature, conversation, friends, reading and music. One recurrent theme was her belief in the importance of sanity. Gradually her readership broadened, especially after the publication of Hanging On, which laid bare the difficulties she experienced in the aftermath of her husband’s death. For many, the appeal now lay, among other things, in the honesty with which she confronted the vicissitudes of life and unbearable grief. There was something fortifying in her wry insistence on the need to face reality and to pursue reason. Towards the end of her long life, critics began comparing her diaries with those of James Lees-Milne and Anthony Powell. And though she always remained very modest about her writing, she had nevertheless slipped into the pantheon as one of the outstanding diarists of the twentieth century.

She was born in 1900, the youngest of six children. Her father, William Marshall, was an architect and her mother a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. Among her earliest memories, as a child growing up in London’s Bedford Square, was how, when the horses pulling the buses up

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