That Bloomsbury Voice

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could hear the voice of Boswell, or of Mme de Lieven. Or if we had recordings of the voices of Hume, Gibbon and Macaulay? Or, to enter the realm of the possible, of Lytton Strachey, who wrote about the others in Portraits in Miniature. Indeed, Strachey's recording might be the most interesting of the bunch, because all who knew him have remarked on his remarkable speaking voice, which rose from a deep bass to a tinkling soprano, only to swoop again to the lower timbre. I think I understand what is meant by this, because I had an Uncle Louis whose voice played this trick. It was completely undependable in its pitch, and not in his control; even in his old age, it sounded like an adolescent boy's voice that had not quite broken or changed. But in addition to this, Strachey had a family vocal tic of accenting the unexpected syllable, and of strange inflection. 

This last was infectious, and in my own lifetime I've known several people close to Lytton, such as the late Frances Partridge, David "Bunny" Garnett, Duncan Grant, and Lytton's sister-in-law, Alix Strachey, and fringe Bloomsberries such as Lord and Lady David Cecil, who seemed to have  caught aspects of the voice, either from Lytton himself, or from Marjorie or Pippa Strachey. 
I so wish there was a recording of Lytton's speech. I am the editor of his letters (and with Michael Holroyd, Lytton's literary executor), and knowing what they would have sounded like read aloud by their author would have been a scholarly help (for the occasional crux - that sort of thing), as well as a treat. Sadly, no one ever thought of doing this - or if anyone did consider it, no one succeeded in convincing Lytton to speak into a recording machine. 
Happily, many of his friends did just that. The British Library has now released a new 2-CD compilation in its series "The Spoken Word," called simply "The Bloomsbury Group." ( ; to order: ) 
 The clips are taken from a variety of sources, mostly from the BBC, and include what claims to be the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf (though I listened to one many years in 1968 at the Houghton Library at Harvard, and my - of course, unreliable - memory of it is different).  I listed to these discs the first time in Norfolk in the company of the current Desmond MacCarthy, and of Laura Cecil, both grandchildren of Desmond and Mollie MacCarthy (who coined the plural "Bloomsberries." Desmond sounded like any educated, upper-class Edwardian. The surprise was that Maynard Keynes did not, but had a really distinctive, velvety purr underlying the Old Etonian/Oxbridge vowels - cut glass, but with bevelled edges.
To those whose voices I knew well (or at least heard in conversation more than once)  - Quentin Bell, David Cecil, E.M. Forster, Angelica Garnett, David Garnett, Duncan Grant, Nigel Nicolson, Frances Partridge, Bertrand Russell, Dadie Rylands and Leonard Woolf - I find it hard to apply my own Bloomsbury-voice detector. It's difficult to be analytical when the sound of the voice stirs the memory and calls up someone's image.  Another reason for difficulty in saying which of these voices have the largest Bloomsbury quotient is that most of the recordings were made when their subjects were elderly - there are few youthfully strong voices on these discs. 
I'd say Clive Bell was low BQ, Vanessa, too. Marjorie Strachey gives few clues to the family idiolect; and Virginia Woolf is mainly notable for her baritone voice.
 Still, if you're doing a bit of Bloomsbury-detection, I recommend listening carefully to Quentin Bell, David Cecil and Maynard Keynes. As a bonus, Duncan Heyes, who writes the introduction to the accompanying pamphlet, and compiled the discs, imaginatively gives us the voices of Grace Higgins (whom I met), Nellie Boxhall, Lottie Hope and Louie Mayer, the first Duncan's cook at Charleston; the other three worked for Virginia and Leonard.  
All praise, then, for these recordings. But a big damnation for the idiotic British television executives from the 1950s until 2004, when Frances died (Angelica Garnett is still, gloriously, with us and lives in France). The Teledummies of that half-century did not much value the Bloomsbury Group - they were thought to be too "elitist," too intellectual - and all the rest. So history missed its chance to have any of these people filmed in their prime - or even in their old age. Would we forgive the people responsible, if they had the means, but neglected to film Hume, Gibbon or Macaulay?            

November 6, 2009 8:46 AM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on November 6, 2009 8:46 AM.

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