Paul Levy is a Strachey Trustee and co-executor of Lytton Strachey’s literary estate. He is the author of Moore: G.E.Moore and the Cambridge Apostles and edited Lytton Strachey: The Really Interesting Question and (with Michael Holroyd) The Shorter Strachey. He has also written and edited several books on food and wine including The Penguin Book of Food and Drink.
Paul Levy discusses his interest in and passion for the Bloomsbury Group and Lytton Strachey, one of the key figures in the cultural life of twentieth century Britain.
How did you first get interested in Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury Group?
I learned about Strachey from Saul Bellow, who was fascinated by Bloomsbury (see Mr Sammler’s Planet); I was his first (and only) undergraduate student when he came to the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 60s. In the Swinging London of 1964 I was a student in the philosophy department of University College London, located across Gordon Square from the house in which Lytton had lived. Soon after I met Michael Holroyd, the author of the biography of Lytton Strachey.
Did you know anyone in the Bloomsbury Group?
In the summer of 1968 I spent a weekend in Dorset with Rachel and David Cecil. One of my fellow houseguests was Frances Partridge. We became friends and remained on close and affectionate terms until her death, aged 103, in 2004; until only a year or two before that, I took her to the opera once a month or so, and she came to stay with us in the country at least twice a year. My children thought of her as an extra (and exotic) bonus granny. Frances introduced me to Leonard Woolf, to Duncan Grant (whom I met fairly often at Charleston, and who called on us once or twice and came to my wedding party in 1977), to Bunny and Angelica Garnett and their children. We also became close friends of Quentin and Olivier Bell and stayed with them often. Another friend was Nigel Nicolson and we stayed at with him at Sissinghurst and he with us in Oxford. Barbara Strachey became a good friend during her retirement in Oxford. And of course I knew Alix Strachey well.
The publication of Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey was an extraordinary event - do you remember what you thought of it at the time?
Yes, I read it in the American edition as it came out in the late 60s, and I felt just as liberated as everyone else. Two of my tutors and a friend at Harvard were gay, but it still had to be hidden, even in the late 60s; and I remember that their friends and students felt almost as oppressed by the burden of secrecy as they did themselves. It was crazy that homosexuality was stigmatised when there was a sexual revolution going on; but it simply could not be talked about – it really was the nameless love. Michael’s book actually contributed to changing the climate about homosexuality, in America as here in Britain.
We now know that Lytton Strachey and his friends had what might be called atypical attitudes to relationships and sex. Does this new book cover this?
Lytton was almost officially gay, though he had heterosexual relationships as well. He was actually embarrassed at the idea that his friends would find out that he had been having sex with Carrington, and went to pains to cover it up. All this only a few years after the Oscar Wilde case! Incidentally, he also fancied Katherine Mansfield.
How did you become involved in the letters of Lytton Strachey?
In 1972, as Alix Strachey had no children, she decided to leave all the Strachey family papers that had descended to her from her husband James (the Freudian psychoanalyst who was Lytton’s younger brother) to a charity, and to make Michael Holroyd and me trustees and the literary executors of the estate. Michael’s appointment was obvious – mine was because I had been using the papers extensively for my book on G. E. Moore, and was the only person at that time who really knew where they all were. (I edited a selection of unpublished pieces by Lytton, The Really Interesting Question, published that year.) Michael was originally going to edit the letters himself, but by the time he’d finished his biographies of Augustus John, George Bernard Shaw, and his huge revision of the life of Lytton, he decided he’d had enough of bearded men and, with the approval and scrutiny of our co-Trustees, handed the project over to me
Where did all the letters come from?
Except for the letters that had already been cashed in (as it were – but that is another story) and sold to American institutions, a good many of them were kept in her unheated, mouse-inhabited part of her house near Marlow that Alix Strachey called 'the studio wilderness.' There I found bundles of letters Michael had conscientiously restored to the condition in which he found them, tied up in legal red tape and yellowing sheets of The Times. Some of the letters were endangered, not by rodents, but by relatives of Lytton’s correspondents. In particular, James Strachey had feared some people had an interest in seeing that Maynard Keynes’s letters never became public. So he microfilmed everything. (Microfilm is hell to use – ask my wife, who did that bit of the research.)
Are there any scandalous revelations in this new book?
There are. As a result of the publication of these letters, we will have to modify our idea of Bloomsbury and what the Cambridge Apostles called 'the Higher Sodomy.' It was less cosy than we used to think. Michael Holroyd had read, but failed to notice these aspects of the letters in which these new facts are revealed – but so had my wife and I. It was only when I came actually to annotate the letters and prepare them for publication that I realised what we’d all overlooked for so many years.
Do you have a favourite book or painting by a member of the group?
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, for it was this book Saul Bellow used to introduce the young me to the Bloomsbury Group – and of course its difficult narrative constructs word portraits of several of them, particularly Lytton. Carrington at her best was a considerable painter (the portrait of Lytton at the National Portrait Gallery, the mountains of Yegen at Tate Britain, both of which were bequeathed to them by Frances and used to hang on the pink walls of her Bloomsbury-in-Belgrave-Square flat), but I really prefer her as an illustrator. The fine, exquisitely controlled line of the drawings that punctuate and decorate her letters to Lytton makes them small treasures.
The film Carrington was well reviewed - was it true to life?
In some respects. Jonathan Pryce was physically convincing as Lytton, certainly. I like to think that the film was hatched at my kitchen table, a very long time ago, when Michael Holroyd and the writer and director, Christopher Hampton, had lunch with me to look at some of Lytton’s papers. Though I had nothing to do with the making of the film, I did intercede to persuade Frances Partridge to have tea with Emma Thompson, who played Carrington in the film. And I took Frances to a private screening preview. She said that the quantity of sex in the film was too much, and that she didn’t think it was quite true to represent Carrington as a sexpot. But we both enjoyed the crazy scenes of dancing on the lawn at Garsington, which I had taken her to revisit.
Are you the same Paul Levy who edited the Penguin Book of Food and Drink?
Yes, I’ve had a double identity since 1977, when I first wrote an article on food for Harper’s & Queen that turned into The Official Foodie Handbook, which I wrote with Ann Barr. I was food and wine editor of The Observer until the early 90s, and I am still the wine writer for YOU Magazine, The Mail on Sunday.
Have you any plans for a new book after editing Lytton Strachey’s letters or are you going to have a well-earned breather?
I’ve already started a new book. I’ve been working for about fifteen years as an arts journalist, mostly for the Wall Street Journal, writing about the visual arts, music, theatre and books. Opera is my greatest passion and I’m undertaking a Wagner-athon, trying to attend all of the abnormally large number of performances all over the world of “The Ring” that are being staged since I went to Adelaide last November, until the new Bayreuth Ring in 2006. It will be part sublime music-theatre and part scary travel.