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Gerald Brenan, Ralph Partridge and Dora Carrington

John Simkin

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On the outbreak of the First World War Gerald Brenan was commissioned into the 5th Battalion Gloucester Regiment and served on the Western Front at Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme. While in the army he met Ralph Partridge, and the two men became great friends. A brave soldier, he won the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre during the war.

In 1919 Brenan decided to move to Spain and rented a little house in the village of Yegen in the Alpujarras district of the province of Granada. According to his biographer: "Here he began life in his adopted country, devoting himself to reading, walking immense distances in the mountains, and writing quantities of long and brilliant letters."

Brenan made regular visits to England. His friend, Ralph Partridge worked for Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. Partridge was soon an accepted member of the Bloomsbury Group. Brenan also joined the group that also included Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Dora Carrington, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy and Arthur Waley.

Another member, Frances Marshall, later recalled in her autobiography, Memories (1981): "They were not a group, but a number of very different individuals, who shared certain attitudes to life, and happened to be friends or lovers. To say they were unconventional suggests deliberate flouting of rules; it was rather that they were quite uninterested in conventions, but passionately in ideas. Generally speaking they were left-wing, atheists, pacifists in the First World War, lovers of the arts and travel, avid readers, Francophiles. Apart from the various occupations such as writing, painting, economics, which they pursued with dedication, what they enjoyed most was talk - talk of every description, from the most abstract to the most hilariously ribald and profane."

Dora Carrington set up home with Lytton Strachey at Mill House, Tidmarsh, in Berkshire. This became one of the main centres for the Bloomsbury Group. In 1918 Ralph Partridge began an affair with both Carrington and Strachey. According to his biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum, they created: "A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Strachey's relation to Carrington was partly paternal; he gave her a literary education while she painted and managed the household. Ralph Partridge... became indispensable to both Strachey, who fell in love with him, and Carrington."

Ralph Partridge married Dora Carrington in 1921. Dora wrote to Lytton Strachey on her honeymoon: "So now I shall never tell you I do care again. It goes after today somewhere deep down inside me, and I'll not resurrect it to hurt either you or Ralph. Never again. He knows I'm not in love with him... I cried last night to think of a savage cynical fate which had made it impossible for my love ever to be used by you. You never knew, or never will know the very big and devastating love I had for you ... I shall be with you in two weeks, how lovely that will be. And this summer we shall all be very happy together."

In 1924 Partridge and Strachey bought Ham Spray House in Ham, Wiltshire, where a studio was made for Carrington and a library for Strachey. Julia Strachey, who visited her at Ham Spray House, recalls: "From a distance she (Carrington) looked a young creature, innocent and a little awkward, dressed in very odd frocks such as one would see in some quaint picture-book; but if one came closer and talked to her, one soon saw age scored around her eyes - and something, surely, a bit worse than that - a sort of illness, bodily or mental. She had darkly bruised, hallowed, almost battered sockets."

Brenan was a regular visitor to Ham Spray House when he was in England. Frances Marshall later recalled: "Gerald Brenan, a great friend of Ralph's from the war, and here it was that Gerald and Carrington - who had met before, and indulged in a light flirtation - finally fell in love. The feeling was deep on Gerald's side, and they had a good deal in common; but Ralph was quite unsuspicious, merely delighted that they were getting on so well together, and unaware of their secret meetings and love-making."

His biographer has argued: "His love affair with Dora Carrington was far the most serious in his life, producing as it did an enormous two-way correspondence, some ecstasy, and considerable unhappiness on both sides. Otherwise he was obsessed by sex, and inhibited by fears of impotence. A stream of prostitutes, hippies, and peasant girls occupied his agitated thoughts and feelings and directed his travels."


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