Looking back on 20 years of the Charleston Festival

Canvas Issue 24

20 Stellar Years: Virginia Nicholson in conversation with Olivier Bell

Even if they don’t know her, Charleston Festival regulars will have seen her there. White hair swept back in a bun, and quietly colourful with a string of beads, she sits in the auditorium taking her audience duties seriously: attentive, intelligent, appreciative. Between events, seated with a glass of wine and a sandwich in the book tent, she’s often surrounded by festival-goers almost as eager to shake her hand and engage her in chat as they are to snatch a word with the famous speakers – the Salman Rushdies, Doris Lessings and Andrew Marrs signing their books for the eager queue at the next table. Olivier Bell is a fixture at the Charleston Festival, and for twenty years now she’s never missed one.

That’s because, of course, my mother’s an inseparable part of Charleston itself – its uncrowned Queen one might almost say. Daughter-in-law of Vanessa Bell (whose son Quentin she married), and editor of the Virginia Woolf Diaries, her role in the formation and growth of the Charleston Trust was from the start based on profound knowledge of Bloomsbury and a hands-on commitment to everything Charleston stands for. The Festival has always been masterminded by Diana Reich; ‘I was never involved,’ Olivier says. The first one was on such a modest scale that there was hardly much she could have objected to. The Berlin Wall had fallen the year before, and about 30 people gathered in the Outer Studio (now the café) over three days to hear talks reflecting on the end of the Cold War, with Bloomsbury Looks East. But even then the line-up was stellar – Robert Skidelsky on Keynes’s views of Russia, Denis Healey on the Woolfs and their politics, Peter Levi on Pasternak.

It was judged a success, so much so that it was decided to repeat the experiment the following year, when Diana persuaded Patrick Garland to produce and direct the first of his now legendary Gala events, with Alan Bennett reading Your Faithful Possum – the letters of T.S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf. A pattern of high quality events began to be set. Those in the know earmarked the May dates in their diary, and over the next couple of years the Festival began its gradual expansion. It soon outgrew the studio and moved over the road into the ‘barn’ – now the Trust’s offices and visitor centre. When that overflowed the best solution seemed to be a 150-seater marquee in the orchard. Soon after, the goodwill of the South-Eastern Electricity Board secured the laying of an electricity cable to the Festival site, allowing the programme to improve and expand to its present capacity – an audience of 350, seated in a segmented tent with foyer area, bookshop, and an area dedicated to technological back-up. ‘We’re so efficient now; I couldn’t have imagined it twenty years ago,’ says Olivier. ‘Occasionally I slightly regret that we’ve lost the sense of amateurishness so characteristic of the old Charleston – but the benefits are undeniable.’

Olivier is keen to emphasise the ability of Charleston, and what it stands for, to attract influential political luminaries to its Festival – ‘Over the years we’ve had Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, Roy Hattersley, Denis Healey … all of them important people who were influenced by Bloomsbury.’ She’s awed, like so many of us, by the range of talent that comes to Charleston: ‘Corin Redgrave did the most wonderful performance of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol … And the Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova, reading Lydia Lopokova’s letters to Maynard Keynes, was absolutely marvellous. She got Lydia absolutely right – even to the accent. And I loved hearing Juliet Stevenson read from Irène Nemirovsky – she reads so beautifully …’. Like everyone else lucky enough to have been there, Olivier has sat mesmerised by the performances at the Gala evenings. ‘I remember how moved Quentin was by hearing Sam West and Patricia Hodge read from the correspondence between his brother Julian and Vanessa …’; though surely most memorable has been Dame Eileen Atkins’s extraordinary one-woman show A Room of One’s Own, which came to Charleston after playing to spellbound audiences in both London and New York.

But Olivier is not star-struck. ‘I gave my Patti Smith tickets to my son because I had no idea who she was – but later Patti herself turned up at my house with her guitarist who was a charming boy, and then we had a cup of tea and she sang me one or two of her songs. She turned out to be a lovely person – very serious and intelligent.’ She has fewer illusions when describing her encounter with the late, great Sir Harold Pinter in 2001. They were introduced in the kitchen (aka the Green Room): ‘I felt I should make conversation. I had heard that one of his plays had been running in Paris, so I asked him, had they done it in French or English?’ Pinter’s rather brusque rejoinder – ‘In France they speak French, you know’ – quite deflated her, and she wished afterwards she had reminded him of Michel St Denis, Bloomsbury’s favourite theatre director, whose Compagnie de Quinze performed French-language productions to educated London audiences in the 1930s. None of the above prevented Olivier’s appreciation of what must surely be one of the most memorable occasions in twenty years of the Charleston Festival: Pinter’s virtuoso one-man performance of Celebration.

Accepting an invitation to talk at Charleston, to be faced with Olivier’s encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Bloomsbury, must sometimes feel to those on the receiving end as if they are trespassing on hallowed territory. She’s never been famed for flattery. Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Hours (his novel based partly on Virginia Woolf’s life, later filmed with Nicole Kidman in the lead) took it in good part when Olivier corrected him on his fiction: ‘In the novel he had Virginia sending the servant Nellie up to Harrods to buy crystallised ginger for the Bell children’s tea, and there was no need for that – she could have got it in Richmond; and anyway they didn’t have it for tea. It’s a sweet, not a biscuit, and I told him so. Some offences remain unforgiven, however. In 2000 Germaine Greer was invited to the Festival. Some years earlier Greer had used a newspaper review of Nigel Nicolson’s Letters of Virginia Woolf as an opportunity to lambast both Nicolson and the Bells publicly for – as she saw it – cashing in on their relatives. Olivier had cooked lunch for Greer and taken time to share Vanessa Bell reminiscences with her; she was vexed by the so-called review, and boycotted Greer’s Charleston appearance. ‘I didn’t like her after that; I thought she was disgraceful.’

Which makes her appreciation of genuine scholarship and truth-telling all the more admirable. Hilary Spurling came to the Festival in 2005 to talk about her biography of Matisse alongside Angelica Garnett – who had known the artist. ‘Hilary’s explanation of his rather inhibited character was illuminating. Angelica, like Quentin, saw him as formal and reserved, but Hilary’s explanation was that the Strachey women – Dorothy and Janie – inhibited him; alone with his old friend Simon Bussy he felt at ease.’ Similarly, when Miranda Carter came to the Festival in 2002 to talk about her biography of Anthony Blunt, Olivier, who had studied under the now infamous art historian at the Courtauld in the 1930s, was unprepared for Carter’s disclosures about his sex life. ‘I was rather shocked by what Miranda revealed. Of course I knew he was a homosexual, but I didn’t know quite how promiscuous he was.’

Equally unsuspected was the realisation – a year or two after her appearance at the 1995 Festival – that Dame Iris Murdoch was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. She had been diagnosed that year as suffering from the early stages; but at the time she simply seemed more than usually eccentric. Olivier had been a keen admirer of Murdoch’s writing in the 1950s, and was eager to hear her talk. Seated beside Murdoch’s old friend Frances Partridge, Olivier was puzzled by the writer’s inability to answer some of the questions put to her by the audience. ‘John Bayley had to answer for her. Frances and I wondered what the matter was. Nobody knew. Of course later we understood …’

Thus far, Olivier has declined to appear on the platform herself, though most of her family have had their turns in the limelight. In 1996 her husband Quentin Bell gave his last interview in a ‘Face-to-Face’-style encounter with Jeremy Isaacs. ‘It was shortly before he died, and at that time he had a colostomy bag, and I had to hide it, so I made him wear a very good navy blue artist’s smock. I think people thought it rather eccentric, but actually he looked charming! And he was completely on the ball … Isaacs’ last question to him was: ‘Who do you think was the most important of the Bloomsbury group?’ – Of course everyone expected Quentin to give the obvious answer: ‘Virginia Woolf’ – but he confounded them all with his rather clever and modest response: ‘I’m not sufficient of an economist to know.’ The implication was that Keynes was probably of greater significance.

It can be disconcerting to be aware that Olivier’s critical gaze is upon one from the auditorium, as I have reason to know. So does my brother Julian Bell, whose scintillating conversation with artist Paula Rego in 2002 nevertheless remains for her one of the high spots. ‘With a couple of exceptions I do think we have perhaps been rather short on covering the visual arts. We’ve had Ernst Gombrich, Patrick Heron, we’ve had Matthew Sturgis on Sickert and Jenny Uglow on Hogarth. And architecture comes up: Daniel Liebeskind, Colin St John Wilson, Rosemary Hill on Pugin. But until recently it’s not been very easy to show pictures. Lantern slides proved invisible, but now we have two proper screens so we can show pictures much better.’ Another artist whose visit to Charleston remains indelibly printed on Olivier’s memory is that of her old friend Roger de Grey. ‘There was a terrible wind and the whole tent flapped about… I think he feared it was about to blow down, and he was just hanging onto the table for dear life.’

The Festival has fostered many friendships for Olivier. Dame Eileen Atkins is one; in 2008 when Olivier had a stroke, she came to visit her in her cottage in Firle. Lynne Truss is often to be found in the group gathered around Olivier’s chair in the foyer tent. Hermione Lee and Victoria Glendinning – both Festival regulars – always make a point of spending time with Olivier, whose scholarship over the years has contributed so importantly to their achievements as biographers. Frances Spalding is another old friend who will be back in the spare bedroom at Firle this year, though these days Olivier is less keen than she once was to offer billets to visiting speakers. ‘I had Benjamin Whitrow to stay in 1999 when he was performing with Makarova – the poor man could hardly speak, he had such bad laryngitis, so I didn’t see much of him. I gave him a few aspirins and a drink and he went to bed.’ A couple of years later Diana Reich suggested to Olivier that she might like to have Susan Sontag to stay. ‘I said I was too frightened of her. Well, now that one reads her diaries and so forth I think I was right – she was very frightening. I wouldn’t have minded meeting her, but I think she would have been far too intimidating to have as a guest!’

But the social side of the Festival fulfills Olivier’s perennial appetite for fun. ‘The atmosphere in the tent and the bookshop is always very lively. People are excited by what goes on here. What I like, year by year, is not just seeing the same old friends coming back, but also seeing a great many new ones too – all sorts of people’. Olivier has always been a party girl, and is often among the last to leave the post-Event gatherings in the kitchen. There a convivial crowd which might include such illustrious individuals as Simon Schama, Sarah Waters, Charles Saumarez Smith and Sir Christopher Ondaatje rub shoulders (literally – it can get very crowded) with Garnetts, Nicolsons, Bells and an assortment of Charleston staff good-humouredly uncorking bottles of red and wondering when they’ll get to bed.

‘The staff and volunteers are amazing … the smallest things seem to get attended to: checking tickets, sorting out seat reservations, dealing with the technology, servicing the tea tent, parking the cars. And Diana too – how she manages to mount such amazing programmes year after year, interspersing the popular with the highbrow – is beyond me.’

With generous sponsorship, the Festival continues to innovate. Three years ago Diana Reich set up the Charleston Debate in collaboration with IQ2. Workshops flourish alongside the main events. Film and writing for children now feature. Olivier Bell is one of many who get a thrill of anticipation each year when the programme brochure comes through her letterbox. ‘I think it’s just splendid. I don’t go to as many events as I once did, but I wouldn’t miss it. I do think there is something about its association with Bloomsbury that attracts people, and so they keep coming back.’

And on a fine May evening, with dusk falling and the cows lowing, the magic never fails. The house lights are lit from within, the garden is bursting with a tangle of columbines and blue geraniums. At such times Charleston seems more haunted than ever by spirits from the past. Unique to the Charleston Festival is the sense, for audience and speakers alike, that they are associated with the ghostly presence of perhaps the most creative coterie in the history of the twentieth century.

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