I know virtually nothing about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Aspects of Love, except for the song Love Changes Everything, which was on a CD we used to play in the car during long journeys. I certainly didn’t know that the musical was based on a book, still less that said book was a product of the Bloomsbury Group. When I stumbled across it by chance, I decided that I simply had to give it a go – though I can’t say that I enjoyed it. It’s a self-indulgent triumph of style over substance and, while it’s a quick read at fewer than 150 pages, it lingers in the mind for the wrong reasons: for its unpleasant aura of exploitation and emotional manipulation. It becomes even more sinister when you realise that it was inspired by events in Garnett’s own life.
Our protagonist Alexis is a fictional parallel for Garnett. We first meet him as a young man dreaming his life away in Paris, where he meets and falls in love with the actress Rose. Finding that she is between plays, with nowhere to stay, he impulsively invites her to join him at his uncle’s manor house in the French countryside. She says yes, this being the kind of book where gorgeous women agree to go off into the middle of nowhere with boys they’ve only just met, who clearly long to be relieved of their virginities (there’s a lot of male wish-fulfilment here). Cue a period of great contentment, playing house in the countryside, interrupted only by the unexpected arrival of the house’s owner, Sir George. Middle-aged, wealthy and widowed, George is also immediately captivated by the luminous Rose.
Two years later, Alexis returns to Paris to visit his uncle’s city flat, where he discovers that Rose has now become Sir George’s mistress. They are very happy together, although this doesn’t stop Rose sleeping with Alexis, running round town with him and being generally charming in George’s absence. But such a state of affairs can’t continue and Rose must make her choice. Her decision drives Alexis to an act of murderous rage (although, this being the kind of book it is, it’s only a flesh wound; though it does send Rose off to recuperate with Sir George, who is visiting his mistress in Italy. Do keep up!). The years pass and, as Alexis comes to terms with Rose’s choice, he strives to see her no longer as a lover but as a friend. Their relationship shifts still further when Rose gives birth to her daughter Jenny, a delightful child to whom Alexis becomes an uncle figure but who, as she grows up, holds out the possibility of becoming something else. But how can a man learn to love in all these different ways?
For obvious reasons, the book makes uncomfortable reading now. It feels deeply wrong to see a mother tacitly encouraging her former lover to indulge her daughter’s pre-adolescent crush on him. We are nowadays taught to be much stricter about the ages at which certain kinds of attachment are appropriate, especially when said attachment is between an adult and a young person. It isn’t only the hints of child exploitation that make this difficult to stomach, though. Garnett blithely creates a fantasy world in which his main characters happily drift through their tangled open relationship. No one seems to particularly care about anyone else’s well-being. The exception is, perhaps, Sir George, but he obviously isn’t as ‘sophisticated’ and ‘modern’ as Rose and Alexis. (He’s so charmingly old-fashioned, with his quaint monogamy). Plus, the final twist in Alexis’s romantic journey is just ridiculous (spoiler: ‘I’ve never met you before! Let’s go to bed! My God, I’m now utterly in love with you! Let’s run away together!” How old are you, people? Don’t any of you need to earn money, or do anything constructive?).
Lest I upset anyone, I do know that some open relationships are said to work very well, and that their members are very happy. But this requires a level of communication and generosity which isn’t on view here. And I don’t think it was in Bloomsbury either. And I’m pretty sure such relationships work best when children aren’t part of them.
The remarkable thing is that real life was even more unsettling than fiction in this case. If we see Alexis as Garnett, then Jenny is Angelica Bell, born in 1918 as the illegitimate daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. In real life, Garnett was romantically involved not with Jenny’s mother, but with her father, Grant; and, in real life, he was the one who contemplated a future sexual relationship with his lover’s child. He wrote to Lytton Strachey, not long after Angelica’s birth, that, ‘Its beauty is the remarkable thing… I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?’ (Answer: YES! Maybe I’m irredeemably prudish but I find this reaction to a newborn child very disturbing.) And he did marry her, though not until after he’d married the artist Rachel (‘Ray’) Marshall, who died in 1940. Two years later, Garnett succeeded in marrying Angelica, with whom he’d been having an affair since 1938. She was 24; he was fifty. Poor Angelica. Her life was overshadowed with startling revelations: her father was not Clive Bell, but Grant; her husband was her father’s lover… She later wrote the memoir Deceived with Kindness about her childhood among the decadently immoral members of the Bloomsbury Group. I have it somewhere, and will have to dig it out, to get ‘Jenny’s’ side of the story. It isn’t usually necessary to understand much about an author’s biographical context when assessing one of his or her novels, but this is one case where I think it’s absolutely crucial.
I’m rather annoyed at David Garnett now, which is irritating because I want to read Lady into Fox and I don’t think I can do that just at the moment. I’ll have to leave it a few months until I’ve calmed down and can, once again, disassociate the author from his work. I don’t think I’m going to be bothering with the musical either.
P.S. And I can’t figure out which part of the story Love Changes Everything belongs to…