Success and scandal in a sibling saga

Bombay to Bloomsbury
April 22, 2005

June Purvis follows the eccentric lives and fortunes of a famous Victorian family on their journey into the modern world

The spindly Pippa Strachey, who died in 1968, had been so indifferent to food that she would cut a pea into four pieces and eat each piece separately. Such behaviour was not particularly unusual in the upper middle-class Strachey family, known for their thin angular bodies, high-pitched voices, intelligence, powerful spectacles and eccentricities.

Barbara Caine has spent ten years researching this extraordinary tribe across two generations, from the mid-19th century to Pippa's death. In taking such a broad time span, she introduces an array of interesting characters, raising questions about modernity and the ways in which the younger members developed new ideas and differing ways of life.

The story begins with the marriage of Richard Strachey to Jane Grant in India, in 1859. Richard, an administrator in that country, played a key part in building its irrigation system and railways. Although Jane spent far less time there, she felt closely connected to India, relishing the importance of the Strachey contribution to the society of the Raj. She also developed an interest in feminism, being fired with enthusiasm by John Stuart Mill's 1857 parliamentary speech in support of women's suffrage. But her imperial outlook restricted her gaze: she never saw any connection between her feminist concerns and the problems of Indian women.

The intelligent Jane, conscious of her own educational deficiencies, decided on a course of self-improvement that rubbed off on the ten surviving children -Elinor, Dick, Dorothy, Ralph, Pippa, Oliver, the curiously named Pernel (a girl), Lytton, Marjorie and James. They grew up to be, like their mother, "passionately intellectual", observed Leonard Woolf, "most of them with very quick minds and lively imaginations. Their chief recreation was conversation and they adored conversational speculation which usually led to argument." Crossword puzzles were also a popular pastime.

Jane made no secret of the fact that she considered her two youngest sons, Lytton and James, the most talented of her offspring; they were also her favourites. The noisy, bumptious Marjorie, sandwiched between these two boys, was often neglected. She was the family clown, the exhibitionist, who liked to perform party pieces nude, even making nursery rhymes appear obscene. In contrast, Pippa, the easy-going middle daughter, was close to her mother and established herself as a pivotal member of the family early on. Yet unlike her sisters, Pippa attended school for just two terms, always a deep regret to her in later life.

While the elder sons followed their father in service to India, four of the younger children went to university, but not Dorothy or Pippa. Pernel studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, eventually becoming the principal there. The gifted, erudite, witty Lytton, on the other hand, a student at Trinity College, found his intellectual stimulus among his friends and in discussion groups where he explored new approaches to sexuality, especially homosexuality. He began to reject the ideals of duty, earnestness and self-sacrifice that were so central to the lives of his parents while still retaining the imperial values with which he had been reared.

Only four of the ten siblings married. While the marriages of the elder Strachey children followed the pattern of their parents, the others show a gradual breakdown of mid-Victorian marital expectations. James, a homosexual in adolescence, lived openly with the trouser-wearing, crop-haired Alix Sargent-Florence before they wed, and both opted for extramarital affairs. The couple both qualified as psychoanalysts but James became the more prominent, also translating the works of Freud. Oliver, a code-breaker in both world wars, divorced his first wife, Ruby, refusing her access to their daughter, Julia. Many years later, Julia heard her mother's side of the story - that Oliver was promiscuous and had infected her with a sexually transmitted disease; furthermore, he had wanted her to engage in sex sessions with other couples.

Oliver's second wife was the feminist Ray Costelloe, a woman of independent means with extensive connections within Anglo-American intellectual circles. It was a marriage of convenience rather than love; they often lived apart. Ray was the only one of the Strachey wives who combined a significant career - as a feminist writer and activist - with children. Her emotional life centred on her two children and on Pippa, by then a brilliant organiser for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

The two worked in the suffrage movement and then in the field of women's employment during and after the First World War.

Ray was in love with Pippa, and after Jane Strachey's death, asked her to move in with her. But the unmarried, self-deprecating Pippa refused to do so. During the last years of her mother's life, she had become the head of the family, helping her siblings in times of crisis, organising the family finances, determining everyone's inheritance.

The dutiful Pippa was a selfless sister too to Lytton, whose influential Eminent Victorians erased heroism from the story of four famous figures. He shared a house with Dora Carrington, an art student, to whom he was not married, an arrangement of which his mother strongly disapproved. Neither Jane nor Pippa knew, of course, about Lytton's, mostly unhappy, homosexual relationships. The paradox was that although Lytton saw himself as a "modern" man, pushing out the boundaries of propriety, exploring ideas with the Bloomsbury set, he held conservative ideas about women. He could be unkind and exploitative to the loyal Pippa, whose relationship to the modern world was much more complex.

Caine deftly explores the lives of her subjects, detailing their various contributions to literature, psychoanalysis and alternative lifestyles, as well as the winning of the parliamentary vote for women. But her thematic approach, with each chapter examining aspects of the life cycle of each individual, from childhood through adulthood to old age and death, brings a number of repetitions. This is a minor quibble, however, in an engrossing book that will be of interest not just to historians but also to the intelligent general reader.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

Bombay to Bloomsbury: Biography of the Strachey Family

Author - Barbara Caine
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 488
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 925034 0

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