Life in Squares

Produced by Ecosse Films in association with Tiger Aspect and commissioned by the BBC
Written by Amanda Coe
Shown on BBC2

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson 21/8/2015

The final episode of this three part mini-series about the Bloomsbury Group has gone out but there is still time to catch up. This is a love story: beautiful to look at, physically gripping and emotionally intense, set at the pivotal time between the Victorian age and Modernity. The Bloomsburys were notorious in the early decades of the Twentieth Century: pacifists at a time of Empire; advocates of tolerance for homosexuality when it was a criminal offence and supporters of polyamorous relationships long before the hippies thought of it. The press caricatured them - such was their anti-Establishment stand - though the garish tabloid view did obscure their other ideas, discussed at informal gatherings at Gordon Square: the home of the Stephen family. Novelists Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, biographer Lytton Strachey and economist Maynard Keynes were some of the main people involved.

With so much going on it is obvious that Life in Squares could be Downton Abbey-big but it isn’t. The focus narrows down to one member of the group: Vanessa Bell, and the Bloomsbury creed: love, loyalty (as opposed to sexual fidelity), friendship, pacifism, sexual freedom, feminism, freedom of thought, rationality and honesty is examined with regard to Vanessa’s relationships with her sister, Virginia Woolf and with fellow-artist and friend, Duncan Grant. Whilst accepting that this is necessary in a mini-series, one can’t help but regret what is not developed or left out. Why did we meet Vita Sackville-West only briefly? Why, when Leonard Woolf had founded the important Hogarth Press did we only see him as Virginia’s carer? And wasn’t anyone going to explain Keynesian economics? Well, no, of course not.

Spanning the years 1905 – 1939, Life in Squares is a love story more than it is a chronicle of the cultural times. In fact, economic, political and cultural matters, not to mention the upheaval of the Great War, hardly figure at all. What we have is an enclosed world – something which the next Bloomsbury generation will condemn – in which the emotional dance movements play themselves out.

So Vanessa it is, mainly, but there are omissions here too. At one point she maintains that Duncan Grant is the greatest painter of his generation and Virginia Woolf reminds her sister that she also had aspirations to be great. Vanessa does not relinquish those aspirations but the programme does nothing to assess her artistic status, except in terms of her partnership with Grant.

The omissions are not my only reservation about the series. I absolutely hate it when the actors are changed because the character has aged. Not only did you have to keep an eye on who was bedding who, but also who everybody was. It was distracting - surely this puzzlement could have been avoided through the art of makeup? The whole annoyance was amplified when the narrative also switched between present, future and past. The first example comes at the end of episode one when we are whisked forward to a garden conversation about Virginia, Vita and hats. There are two such confusing fast-forwardings in episode two and a more accessible flash-back in episode three. I had to watch the thing three times to figure it all out and I suppose this is a measure of how successfully the series held my attention, in spite of that. But it really won’t do.

Notwithstanding the limitations and production decisions, how successfully does Life in Squares explore elements of the Bloomsbury position? I think it achieves a balance. The title evokes a feeling of containment; of inclusion/exclusion, at the same time referencing the fact that the Stephen family: Vanessa, Virginia and their two brothers, live in Gordon Square. A Bloomsbury square is an urban arrangement of terraces that face one another across a green space, with their backs facing the rest of the world. It’s as if everyone in the square is sitting at a gigantic table. Charleston, the country home, is seen as physically isolated and there are several scenes where the gathered company is sitting at a table. This inward-facing motif is emphasised time and time again, with the use of glass and mirrors, with the feeling of dimly lit claustrophobia and through the incestuous gossipiness. External life is filtered out by net curtains, the only feeling of spaciousness coming from the occasional vistas of the Downs, rendered threatening in episode three by foreboding aeroplanes.

The cloistered nature of the Bloomsbury Group is strongly criticised by Vanessa’s son Julian, who is off to drive an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. He and his half-sister Angelica provide the balancing critique of Vanessa and by implication, Bloomsbury. Vanessa is blamed for being insular, for having her head in the sand, for believing she can live cocooned by beauty in a haven of free love and tolerance. This is simply not enough for Julian when there is fascism to defeat but he does espouse the pacifist ideals and will not be a combatant.

At one point Vanessa has a challenging rhetorical question thrown at her: “Aren’t you famously committed to honesty?” She is being accused of hypocrisy. The paramount importance of honesty has been upheld throughout; all the more culpable then, are the failures in honesty, the worst being the failure to tell her third child, Angelica who her real father is, until she is seventeen. Why have the grown-ups not foreseen that this large omission in truth-telling will cause confusion, disillusionment and unhappiness?

Yet Vanessa has the self-awareness to admit that things are sometimes a shambles. The question is, does the belief in love’s best intentions, and in the intrinsic goodness in things get you off the hook when you have lied - by omission - to your daughter?

What, then, of love and freedom? Whilst upholding the ideal of freedom, both Vanessa and Virginia do the conventional thing and get married, though their marriages are not conventional. Clive and Vanessa openly have lovers but when Vanessa has a daughter, Angelica, with Duncan Grant, she is regarded as Clive Bell’s child, although the whole circle know that this is not true. Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf is portrayed as sexually unfulfilling and stereotypically that of semi-invalid and carer. Virginia also has had an intense but non-sexual relationship with Clive Bell which is secret and which, once discovered, is not dealt with by the sisters.

These anomalies are well presented. How are they explained? By human nature – by things sometimes being a mess – certainly, but I think the answer lies in an early scene in which the sisters are seen at a Thursday soiree, serving refreshments whilst the young men discuss Byron. Perhaps it wasn’t always like this but this is what is in the production. The girls might have thrown their corsets to the wind but the shadow of Victoria – personified in the bombazine-clad Aunt – remains. The expectation, in both girls, is to be married and this is juxtaposed against freedom. The production implies that Vanessa marries because she needs sex; why not just have an affair? It seems that the freedom to be unconventional must be within the convention of marriage. Within this acceptable domestic mode, Vanessa is free to have relationships in the same way that her husband is and Virginia has the support of an incisive thinker and publisher to become a successful writer and to have an affair with Vita Sackville-West.

That Vanessa somehow succeeds in combining life as an artist, a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend and a lover in a fairly harmonious way: honouring the freedom of others and fighting her own battle between rationality and emotionality, is acknowledged by her sister and even, grudgingly, by her husband Clive: “How well you manage things”. But it is not so much in the juggling within her marriage that she is remarkable as in the way that she has also sustained a loving relationship with an openly homosexual man, and accommodated his lovers within their lives. That this is sometimes excruciating for her is evident from her forlorn physical longing for him which manifested in the birth of their daughter.

The nature of the relationship between Vanessa and Duncan is encapsulated in the painting they do together, in the harmony of their work relationship and in the “rightness” of their painting in the church, where Vanessa has made the baby Jesus look like Duncan, suggesting that she has taken the role of the “accommodating” Joseph in their ”left-handed marriage”.

Within the limitations of the allocated time, this production does a good job in examining the remarkable tensions in Vanessa Bell’s life, the themes being enhanced through high profile actors and production techniques such as the use of variously angled reflections, and scenes framed by doorways from the interior to the exterior, and the references to the life style through the placement of the paintings. There are a lot of beds and bodies and the coupling is ordinary and non-furtive. The Bloomsburys tried not to be solemn or judgmental or discriminatory when it came to orifices. The most erotic scene is the one where Duncan is stroking paint on Vanessa’s body for a fancy dress party. The experience is seen through her emotions, as she looks at his body whilst he does the task so carefully. We learn at the party that her nipples are also painted and knowing this, and seeing Duncan openly kissing Bunny, is somehow heart-breaking.

Equally memorable is the convulsive physicality of the scene where Virginia is vomiting after an overdose, or the tranquil, light-filled room where the corpse of beautiful Thoby Stephen lies, or the part where Angelica is stomping off in anger, her mother struggling to catch up with her, physically and emotionally. The production does not idealise the conditions of living at Charleston or the suffering of its people. Vanessa admits that things are often a mess and her self-knowledge is very straight. She has no self-pity; acknowledges that she has chosen the life she has; is only sad.

With the stated reservations I applaud this production as a celebration of Vanessa Bell: a woman who was acknowledged as remarkable by the people in her life, sometimes grudgingly; sometimes with generous admiration. She was a flawed human being; knew she was; did her best. Life in Squares is worth watching as an unconventional love story and a celebration of a life chosen with as much honesty and open-mindedness as was humanly possible at the time. As a critique of the Bloomsbury ideal it gives a balanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of the group, as evidenced in Vanessa’s experiences and decisions.

But for the sake of the sanity of the viewer, the actors should wear name badges.

I’ll end with what Virginia Nicholson, Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter, had to say about Life in Squares:

“The idea of the Bloomsbury Group gets a mixed response and my slight concern is that the drama will play into a perception that they were self-indulgent, bed-hopping poseurs, whereas in fact they were a group of people who between them changed the cultural face of Britain.”

“What it manages in the end, by following their relationships and what they wanted, is quite moving: for me particularly, of course, because I am looking at my grandmother, whom I remember well. They have brought out her conflicts and her difficulties on screen, and it is compelling.”

“Their ideas were way ahead of their time, but then that’s not so dramatic. So I would say, even after this series goes out, television has yet to show what the Bloomsbury Group really was. They were not just people who jumped into bed with each other. Many of our modern ideas about art, economics, history, sexuality and feminism come from them.”

“What I would say to interested viewers is visit Charleston and find out more. They wanted to change the world and I know from my childhood times at Charleston just how liberating they were.”

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