This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Pay a visit to the Charleston Literary Festival in East Sussex, wander for a while along the stately passageways of the country house where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant used once to ply their trade, linger for a moment or two in its neatly-tended garden beneath the clouds of buzzing insects and you can be pretty sure of bumping into Hermione Simper.
In her mid-eighties now, snowy-haired yet indefatigable, Hermione will be what she calls “making herself useful” — conducting a gaggle of visitors around the shrubbery, say, or confiding to a brace of respectful American academics one or two of the secrets of Vanessa’s palette.
And what exactly is Hermione’s connection with Charleston and its ancestral ghosts? Why should the gangs of foreign students and the PhD compilers hang so raptly on her every utterance?
She has vivid memories of “Auntie Virgie”
Well, as any cultural historian worth their salt can tell you, her mother was the celebrated Ariadne Simper (1903-1979), friend of Lytton Strachey, confidante of Virginia Woolf, lover (it is thought) of half-a-dozen book-world eminences, and the author of a surprisingly candid memoir, Ham Spray Confidential, of which one scandalised critic remarked that it “laid bare the world of the Bloomsbury Group as with a scalpel.”
Although Hermione rarely names names or dishes dirt with quite the enthusiasm that her mother did, then she too has her tales to tell. To be sure, she was only a child of three or four when Mrs Simper used to take her to the Woolfs’ tea parties, but she has the most vivid memories of “Auntie Virgie” putting her on her knee and asking if she wanted a meringue.
Neither are her recollections without a revisionist slant: “People say Virginia disliked children, but do you know I always found her absolutely sweet?” The silver threepenny bit with which Mrs Woolf presented her on one of these occasions survives, along with the sketch of an elephant supposedly drawn by Roger Fry.
The silver threepenny bit, “Uncle Lytton” and “Sweet Vanessa” all featured to great effect
Although the market for Bloomsbury reminiscences is not quite what it was, there is still a ready audience for this kind of thing. Indeed, some years ago Hermione produced her own volume of memoirs, Ariadne’s Daughter, in which the silver threepenny bit, “Uncle Lytton”, who in fact died four years before she was born, and “sweet Vanessa” all featured to great effect.
There was one unfortunate consequence of this publication, which was that several reviewers, combing through their copies of The Diary of Virginia Woolf, came across the passage from December 1939 recording the arrival of “that dreadful old bitch Ariadne Simper and some ghastly brat who vomited all over the lino.” Still, as Hermione reassures herself, many a literary reputation has been founded on far less sturdy foundations than these.
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