Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Last-Year Travels: Charleston Literary Festival

As deftly demonstrated by Virginia Nicholson’s book Among the Bohemians, many of the aspects we consider part of contemporary life, whether it is informal dining, the way we educate our children or seeing the decoration of our homes as a reflection of our personalities, is thanks to the pioneering examples of the ‘bohemians’ of the early twentieth century. This lifestyle is encapsulated in Charleston, the Sussex home of the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, and a destination for many of the Bloomsbury set.

Back then, the house welcomed the likes of J.M. Keynes and E.M. Forster, but now, thankfully, it is preserved for the hoi polloi and you don’t need to be terribly clever or witty or vaguely bohemian to be allowed entry, simply to be able to pay the necessary fee.

No photos are allowed within the house but its decoration still looks startling today. In the dining room, the dark walls with sponged silver details were still too much for some of the visitors in our group (I rather liked them), while throughout the house, baths and bookcases alike had been further artistically enhanced with bright colours. Sometimes this was done using very unsophisticated daubs; sometimes to build a scene of such finesse that would hang pride of place in a gallery, if it weren’t still attached to a bed. All of those various pieces were a reminder that the artists weren’t creating these pieces to sell: they were simply creating for themselves and the way they wanted to live. Around the house were examples of the immensely desirable textiles Grant designed for the Omega workshops, and ceramic tea sets he had designed for Harrods, prompts that revealed that even the commercial had a place in bohemia.

We were told how cold the house was to live in and, as rain hurled down and lighting flashed outside, it was noticeable how dark it could be too, isolated here in the heart of the Sussex countryside. The twist is that they could only afford to choose to live this Spartan existence thanks to the money of Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell’s husband, who, with the onset of the Second World War, eventually moved into the house too. They were also supported in living their ideals by a host of servants, cooking, cleaning and maintaining the apparent beautiful abandon of the garden.

Charleston had been on my to-visit list probably since I first learnt about it as a student. The reason for finally making the non-so-testing pilgrimage was its literary festival. It’s a suitably inspiring setting for such a festival, and it was fun to speculate on the number of bohemian great and great-great grandchildren and nieces and nephews were in the audience. Rachel Cooke was speaking about Her Brilliant Career (which I reviewed back here), along with Ben Watt, discussing his beautiful book about his parents, Romany and Tom (and also on my list of books I’ve read this year), chaired by the historian David Kynaston, author of several impressive – in weight as well as content – books about Britain in the 1940s and 50s.

I had found reading Her Brilliant Career unexpectedly inspiring, and had pressed it on friends, hoping they would discover that aspect too. I was pleased to here this was part of Cooke’s intention in writing the book, to show younger generations what bold, determined and sometimes difficult women could achieve. It felt good to be reintroduced to this dynamic collection of women. Along with Ben Watt’s family story, it was a reminder just what a powerful influence the war was. It seems stupid to say something so obvious, but for these young people coming of age around the war, it proved to be a huge catalyst to push them to look for something different in their lives, whether a career, a family or simply escape.

I was reminded of this post during the questions. Cooke wrote her book as a researcher, someone who was born long after the fifties was over, looking to challenge some of the lazy assumptions about the decade that exist today. Because her findings didn’t always match up with the experiences of the audience, many of whom had lived through the decade, her conclusions were pulled part and shouted down (a rebuttal in itself of the idea that the 1950s produced a generation of meek and mild housewives). As one woman rhapsodized about the difference a grammar school education had given to her and her friends, Kynaston had to gently remind her that this experience was still only open to a tiny minority of the population. Judging by the reactions of this audience, passions run high when your own personal history is challenged by ‘History’, as it is written down in newspapers and books. I wonder how the original bohemians would find the many interpretations of their history that exist today, not least in the hundreds of visitors that come and troop around their home each year.

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