- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004


By Cressida Connolly

Ecco, $25.95, 317 pages, illus.


Oh the tawdry tedium of the bohemian life, with its self-satisfied assurance that every transgression of custom and mores is bold, lovely, and — every single time — yes, original.

We know from the memoirs of such insiders as Angelica Garnett and from countless authoritative studies that even in that most rarefied, intellectually and emotionally well-equipped set of bohemian iconoclasts, the Bloomsbury group, life wasn’t without its trials and pains, that there were indeed costs for flouting society’s rules and norms.

But in “The Rare and the Beautiful: The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters,” you have all the angst and damage, all the rutting and betraying, without even the impressive principles, character and intellectual endowments of the Bloomsbury folk and what they contributed to literature, art and society in general.

There is no one like Virginia Woolf or Maynard Keynes in the Garman story, not even anyone on a par with Lytton Strachey or E.M. Forster. The Garman muses and their acolytes — with the possible exception of the Anglo-American sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein — might be said to have boxed above their weight class in the sphere of artistic accomplishment, even if they were world-class champions in the sphere of artistic temperament.

The daughters of an eccentric Victorian doctor and his long-suffering wife, the Garman girls grew up in the bleak surroundings of the West Midlands’ Black Country of England. Understandably, these spirited young women could not wait to escape their fog-shrouded, factory-smoke-polluted native heath to launch themselves, one after the other, onto the London scene replete with artists and bohemians of all stripes.

The third daughter, Kathleen, snagged what would turn out to be the family’s biggest catch, Epstein, but from there on it was downhill all the way. The eldest sister, Mary, married the talented but self-destructive South African poet Roy Campbell. She soon cuckolded her wastrel husband by embarking on a passionate affair with the lesbian vamp Vita Sackville-West. While it would take decades (and three illegitimate children) for Kathleen finally to marry Epstein, Mary Campbell’s marriage — despite the infidelities and suffering on both sides — lasted more than 30 years until Roy’s death in 1957.

A younger sister, Lorna, bested her sisters by bagging not one but two artists, the writer Laurie Lee and the painter Lucian Freud; she also had the distinction of being the heartbreaker with her long-suffering husband and anguished lovers alike.

Lee and Freud each went on to marry a niece of Lorna’s. There is some reason, this book tells us, to believe that Lucian Freud’s prowess at breaking hearts for the rest of his life arose from a determination never again to be in the position he had found himself in with Lorna: loving more than he was loved.

There were four other sisters, too, but their victims — with the possible and probably apocryphal exception of T.E. Lawrence — are too insignificant and their stories too hackneyed to merit much attention here. There were a couple of brothers as well, the communist Douglas, who was the lover for a time of the fabulously wealthy art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and the cowboy Mavin, neither much more appealing than the distaff side of the family and certainly less colorful.

Although Cressida Connolly writes “The Rare and the Beautiful” with the assumption that these femmes fatales are fascinating and in some way admirable, her book cannot help leading the reader to think otherwise. If the story of Margaret Epstein, Kathleen’s rival and a wife clearly determined to hang on to her husband at all costs, is not a cautionary tale to clinging wives and importunate mistresses alike, I don’t know what is.

Margaret’s bag of tricks included shooting (and permanently scarring) Kathleen in the shoulder and encouraging a seemingly endless collection of would-be inamoratas who she hoped would replace her much-feared rival as her husband’s model, muse, inspiration, lover — well, you get the idea.

Epstein took full advantage of all these lovelies, sculpted them, made love to them and impregnated quite a few of them. (Margaret ended up bringing up one of their children as her own.)

But none of them displaced Kathleen as lover and muse-in-chief, and over the years she gave birth to three of Epstein’s children, who did not bear his name but whom he privately acknowledged as his. Two of these hapless creatures died young and tragically, one by outright suicide and the other in an incident so bizarre and puzzling that it is hard to conclude whether it too was suicide or something even worse.

Eventually, Margaret died and Kathleen got to be Lady Epstein, but her marriage only lasted for a few years before she became the great man’s widow and legatee. As such, she seems to have demonstrated a mix of crookery (making unauthorized castings of some of her husband’s bronzes) and philanthropy (donating a huge collection of his work to the Israel Museum).

“The Rare and the Beautiful” is an odd piece of work. The first nonfiction book by the daughter of the late, great critic Cyril Connolly, it is oddly disjointed and at times naive.

Roy and Mary Campbell flee the Spanish Civil War at its outset (they had by this time renounced their wild ways, had converted to Roman Catholicism and were strong Nationalist sympathizers). One sentence on, it’s three years later, and Roy is enlisting in a regiment at the outbreak of World War II. A few words on, he is being posted to East Africa in 1943.

Readers may indeed wonder what they were doing in the years between, but they won’t find out from Miss Connolly’s text. Footnotes provide ancillary and often fascinating amplifications at the bottom of the page, but source notes for the chapters are limited to lists of those interviewed and of articles and books. As to specifically where individual quotes and insights come from, the reader is left unenlightened.

Most serious of all is the bifurcated quality of Miss Connolly’s judgment. She thinks she has a good story here and wants to tell it. Yet so much of what she recounts is appalling: the suicides, the mayhem, children uneducated and running wild; cold, neglectful mothers; harsh, demanding, uncaring fathers; joy at the expense of others’ misery. Does Miss Connolly realize what she is giving us here, or is she too caught up in admiration for these appalling people to recognize what monsters they must have been?

As it is, this is a depressing if occasionally interesting book. If only Miss Connolly had imbued it with more moral clarity, it might have been, despite its flaws in style and structure, a devastating cautionary tale.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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