An Interview with Quentin Bell

Antonio Bivar and Quentin Bell at Charleston farmhouse, Sussex, England, 1993. Photo by Sue Sullins.

On October 20, 1996, the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, one of the three largest papers in Brazil, published an interview of Quentin Bell conducted by Antonio Bivar. Bivar is a freelance journalist and the first (and so far only) Brazilian member of The International Virginia Woolf Society.

Bivar's friendship with Bell and his wife Olivier began in 1993 when he first attended the Charleston Summer School, which he has attended several times subsequently. The Bells were immediately taken by this man who describes himself as an "autodidata" who was first a playwright, then a journalist and a writer, and now is a university lecturer on topics ranging from the Beat Generation to Camille Claudel. On conveying to Bivar the news of Quentin's death in December 1996, Olivier wrote, "your enthusiastic friendship was a source of great pleasure to him always--and to me, and I thank you for it."

The interview, which was translated into Portuguese, is presented below in the original English in which it was conducted by mail. The first topic of discussion is Bell's 1995 memoir Elders and Betters, published in the U.S. as Bloomsbury Recalled.

Bivar: When, exactly, did you start to write Elders and Betters? How was your discipline in the process of writing?

Bell: I can't say exactly: About five years ago, I began to write an autobiography. No discipline.

Bivar: What do you think of having to change the title for the American Edition? Bloomsbury Recalled--was it you who chose it?

Bell: Advice of my American publisher, who I trust.

Bivar: In the beginning of the book you wrote: "There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought that it would be agreeable to write my own life. After three failures I have changed my mind." Well, in portraying your elders and betters your presence in the book is permanent and leaves in the reader the wish for more of you. Your biography must be written someday. Of the biographers on Bloomsbury who, if you had to, would you choose at the ideal biographer to embrace the task?

Bell: I have asked Andrew McNeillie to write it.

Bivar: What for you is more agreeable: to paint, to sculpt, to potter, to criticize art, to be a professor or to write? Which one is harder?

Bell: To write, sculpt, pot, paint, profess (teach), criticise, in that order. I have tried to write art criticism but I am not good at it. I have tried dictating to a machine while potting, but it did not work very well.

Bivar: There are episodes of your life and of your development so delicious to read in the book, episodes not only related to your living with your elders and betters but with others as well: the servants (in the kitchen, "The Click," for instance), the nurses, the tutors, the teachers (in France, Monsieur Pinault, one example), etc. But, as for the servants, you show to us readers that you've learned a lot from them during the years of your growing. This is one of the sympathies of your splendid book. I would ask, if it were not already clear, clarissimo, in the book, did they have something to do with the formation of your political personae? Specially the servants?

Bell: Our "treasure," Grace Higgens (nee Germany), was a charming character and I got to know her well when I was a boy (she was six years older than me), but this and meeting with other servants was not politically educational, except in the case of Blanche, who was an Irish rebel. Pinault was different: a teacher who taught me a great deal about France and socialism. But my most important teachers were my brother and my uncle Leonard Woolf. I also learnt a lot from workers and unemployed men in Stoke on Trent.

Bivar: Bloomsbury was generally considered francophile and rationalist. You, at a very early stage of your life, didn't believe in Noah's Ark, neither in God. Have you ever had any experience, I mean a supernatural experience, that may have affected your most rigid point of view? Have you ever, in any moment of your life, believed in magic? If yes, when?

Bell: No, I have never believed in magic or any other religion.

Bivar: What's your opinion about the films of Bloomsbury books, lives and acquaintances--Orlando, Tom and Viv, Carrington (all of them already screened in the cinemas in Brazil)? Years ago I watched in video To the Lighthouse, made by, if I'm not wrong, Channel 4 (or was it BBC?), starring Rosemary Harris in the role of Mrs. Ramsay, a very beautiful and sensitive film. Have you seen it? Do you think it deserves a relaunching for a wider audience, now that there's a wave?

Bell: I can't get about much now, my legs won't carry me, so have not seen Carrington, Tom and Viv, nor Orlando. I have seen scraps of TV films dealing with people I knew--Vita S-W, Harold Nicolson (unrecognisable), VW (Eileen Atkins' A Room--good). I did see To the Lighthouse at a private screening for Charleston long ago; it was then shown on the BBC I think. I did not think very highly of it at the time, but others did.

Bivar: Do you watch TV? What sort of programs? Do you read the papers? Which ones?

Bell: I watch the news, and sometimes other programmes--documentaries, adaptations--Trolloppe, Dickens, George Eliot, but not Jane Austen who I prefer to read. We take The Guardian, the Independent, the Observer.

Bivar: Have you travelled a lot? Not only to Europe (the Continent) but to distant places? Where have you been? Which places have inspired you? Of the places where you've never been which made you dream about them?

Bell: I have been to the United States, China, and Egypt; the U.S. is interesting, but the pleasantest places to visit are France, Spain (Catalonia), and Italy.

Bivar: In The Voyage Out, the first of Virginia Woolf's novels, the scenery, when the ship arrives, is South America. For the Brazilian reader, the place where the action finally takes place is geographically in the North of Brazil near the Amazon. Well, in your biography of your aunt Virginia, I remember (I've read it twice) of her childhood and the family holidays in St. Ives, of Virginia watching ships passing by and imagining them going to Brazil (among other places). In the Penguin edition of The Voyage Out, the commentator says that there's no doubt that the place is Brazil. Was Virginia a dreamer, I mean, did she have dreams of sailing away?

Bell: Virginia Woolf's notions concerning Latin America were grotesque; she had a friend, Victoria Ocampo, from Buenos Aires, who had to explain to her that the Argentine was not a great forest with alligators, butterflies as big as vultures, and natives pursued by pumas. The English-speaking colony of The Voyage Out existed no where but in her imagination.

Bivar: Do you have any idea why no one in the Bloomsbury Group ever visited Brazil? Even the United States seems to have been "avoided." Why?

Bell: In Bloomsbury a few people went to Russia, Finland, Germany and Austria, but most stuck to France, Italy and Spain; they liked to go where they knew the language. Clive Bell and Keynes went fairly frequently to the U.S.A. To the rest it was sufficient to meet some Americans in London, many in Paris.

Bivar: A question that I've always wanted to ask you: Why--and I've read practically fifty percent of all of Virginia's published writings--why she never cites Oscar Wilde?

Bell: I don't know.

Bivar: What's your opinion of the Virginia Woolf Society in the United States? Don't you think that there's an insistence in forcing an nonexistent lesbian side to Virginia? Nigel Nicolson (in the talk he gave us in Sissinghurst Castle during the Charleston International Summer School in 1993), he told us that on the contrary to his mother, Vita, who was a lesbian, Virginia wasn't, and, said Nigel, Virginia had lesbian physical experience with just one woman, and a very short experience, and that was with his mother. "No doubt about that," Mr. Nicolson said.

Bell: There are some highly intelligent Woolf scholars in the United States, and some who write with passion about her know practically nothing. The lesbian and militant feminist side is vocal, passionate and silly.

Bivar: About Elders and Betters, in the jacket of the American edition Nigel Nicolson says: "He [Quentin Bell] confesses that he found it difficult to write about people whom he knew so well, but nobody has described them better, and his book never suffers from discretion." If you were to be more indiscreet whom would you pin up more in the open?

Bell: Myself.

Bivar: Elders and Betters is a lesson of life and love. Of the Bloomsbury eminents, Maynard Keynes comes out as one of the most influential in the author's formation years. In the chapter dedicated to him one of the most charming episodes is when Maynard is at the same time courting Lydia Lopokova and educating Quentin Bell. You wrote: "Every Saturday afternoon he hired a Daimler and a chauffeur and took us--me and Lydia--to see the sights of London: the Tower, Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court, St. Paul's, and on one occasion the Hogarth Press at Richmond. He felt that I should be educated. Certainly I was entertained, but I think that he had another motive; he wanted, without appearing to do so, to educate Lydia. They were soon to be married [. . .]." Then, in the last page of the book (before the Index) and closing the Appendix II, commenting on Lord Keynes' comportmental change that came with the years, and commenting on the Memoir Club meeting in 1938, his earlier beliefs making you find his later beliefs deplorable--the earlier, the immoralist, and the latter, the fascist, the reactionary. For the reader of Elders and Betters it is very touching when you conclude: "Politically Maynard's earlier beliefs make me feel his later beliefs deplorable. But the survival of the young Maynard allows us to forgive the old one and to continue to love him." Facing the amoralism that has taken the planet now that we are reaching the millenium what would Maynard think of it, of the consequences of this amoralism? And the future of capitalism, in the 21st century?

Bell: I expect the old Maynard would deplore it. The young Maynard might have enjoyed the prospect.

Bivar: And you? What do you think of politics today? Being a political person practically since your childhood, how do you see Conservative, Liberal and Labour today? What do you think of Tony Blair (for instance)?

Bell: The Conservatives seem to me venal, stupid and inefficient. The Liberal party would do well to join or form a coalition with Labour. I don't altogether like Mr. Blair, but will vote for him.

Bivar: When did you first meet Olivier? Where? Have you ever "fought" with her? Of your three children, Virginia, Cressida and Julian--which is the older, and the second and the third? How many grandchildren do you have? And, Olivier, being such a marvellous person, why is she so determined in being low-profile?

Bell: I first saw Olivier when Walter Sickert gave a lecture to the Euston Road School in 1938. [I didn't see him--but did during the war at a discussion meeting at Claude Rogers' house. --AOB.] Saw her again in Venice in about 1946 and borrowed money from her when I had been robbed; got to know and love and marry her 1950-52. We have had our fights (not many); no one hurt. Our children in this order: Julian, Virginia, Cressida; six grandchildren, three each from Julian and Virginia. Yes, marvellous person, her low profile part of the marvel.

Bivar:  Thank you very much.

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