Thursday, 13 August 2015

BBC's Life in Squares

Did you watch the miniseries Life in Squares on BBC? It was introduced as a three-part drama about the relationship between English painter Vanessa Bell and her sister, writer Virginia Woolf. To me it felt more like the story of Vanessa and artist Duncan Grant's relationship. Not that I'm complaining, I thoroughly enjoyed the series and its beautiful set design and costumes. Actress Phoebe Fox plays the younger Vanessa and Eve Best the older. I hadn't seen Fox in anything before and was very impressed with her performance; she fit well into my idea of Vanessa. James Norton is memorable in the role of younger Duncan (I first saw him as Tommy in Happy Valley) and so is Rupert Penry-Jones in that of the older. In fact, the entire cast is wonderful, an assembly of fine British actors who give great performances and bring to life on screen the famous avant-garde Bloomsbury group and its bohemian lifestyle, with the help of screenwriter Amanda Coe and Swedish director Simon Kaijser.

The series is still available on the BBC iPlayer but will soon be released on DVD. If you haven't already watched it I have to warn you about the first episode. A lot of material is crammed into it - love affairs and deaths - that will make much more sense to those already familiar with the individuals of the Bloomsbury circle. It's my personal opinion that there should have been four episodes instead of three to better introduce the characters. In episode 2 the storytelling becomes much more flowing and easier to follow.

Maybe it's a cliché to call the lifestyle of the Bloomsbury group bohemian, as I did above, but the mise en scène certainly is. Think paintings, art supplies, desks, books, letters, etc. During the World War I, Vanessa Bell set up a home in the Charleston House in Sussex, where the main part of the Life in Squares takes place. You will find beautiful images of its artistic interiors on the website of House & Garden.

For me the timing of the series is interesting because in the beginning of this summer I picked up Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which I tend to read in summertime. During the reading I started thinking about the sisters, watched The Hours (2002) for the hundredth time, and pre-ordered the paperback edition of Vanessa Bell by Frances Spalding. I realised my focus had always been on Virginia and her story, and I didn't know enough about Vanessa. The series has now given me a better idea and I'm even more eager to receive the biography in the mail.

The World of Interiors, September 2014, p. 146

I have what I can only call a longstanding infatuation with Virginia Woolf. I cannot remember when it started, and I cannot remember which of her work I read first. So much has been written about her life and if you are interested in her story I can recommend the book Moments Of Being: Autobiographical Writings. Then there is her nephew Quentin Bell's (son of Vanessa and Clive Bell) biography about her life from the year 1912 to 1941, Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Her husband Leonard Woolf edited her diaries and published them after her death (see A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf).

After watching Life in Squares I'm eager to go a little Bloomsbury-group crazy. I'm looking forward to reading the aforementioned biography of Vanessa Bell and then I would love to watch again Carrington (1995), starring two of my favourites, Emma Thompson as Dora Carrington and Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey (see trailer). There is a film in the making by Dutch director Sacha Polak called Vita & Virginia, about Virginia's relationship with Vita Sackville-West. More to look forward to!

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