‘A Pacifist’s War’ is the rather oxymoronic title of the book containing the diaries written by Frances Partridge between 1939 and 1945, the period of the Second World War. I saw the book on sale, and remembering that the author had some kind of connection with the Bloomsbury Group, with which I was fascinated at one time, I bought it. The Bloomsbury Group of writers and intellectuals who lived in London and its surrounding countryside in the first half of the 20th century included Lytton Strachey, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot, and many others. From what I could remember, Frances Partridge had something to do with them, and I was not wrong.
Ralph Partridge was Lytton Strachey’s lover and companion for some time, but was himself in love with Dora Carrington (known as ‘Carrington’), the painter who was in love with Lytton and devoted her life to him. With Lytton’s encouragement, Ralph married Carrington, though she made it clear she wasn’t in love with him, and they lived some kind of menage a trois at Lytton’s house, Ham Spray, in the Lincolnshire countryside. At a later stage Ralph met and fell in love with Frances (then Marshall), while Carrington fell in love and had an affair with Ralph’s best friend, Gerald Brenan. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? But they all seemed to take it pretty much in their bohemian stride.
After Lytton’s death from stomach cancer in 1932 and Carrington’s subsequent suicide, Ralph and Frances were married and even had a son. They continued living at Ham Spray and during the period of the war they continued with their rural life there. Lytton Strachey had been a pacifist before the First World War, and Ralph had become one as a result of his experiences fighting as a soldier in that war. Frances had her own well-developed pacifist ideology.
Even with the advantage of hindsight I still cannot understand how anyone could adhere to the principle of pacifism when Hitler was threatening to dominate and subjugate the whole of Europe, and later also included England in his nefarious plans. The two world wars were the results of very different circumstances, and although the Versailles Treaty, which ended the first one, had a lot to do with the eruption of the second, Hitler’s rampant racism and anti-Semitism should surely have been enough to shake anyone’s adherence to principles that may have once had some justification but did not do so any more.
And so, all through the war, Frances and Ralph, together with their little boy, Burgo, continued to conduct their lives as if there was no war, no wholesale bombing of London and other parts of England, no troop movements, no casualties, no disruption of almost every aspect of life. Granted, they did accept evacuees from London, and grew their own vegetables, so that they were less affected by the food shortages and rationing than others. They both also went up to London from time to time and were apalled by the destruction they saw, but this did not serve to change their views, and as late as in 1943 Ralph appeared before a Tribunal for Conscientous Objectors and restated his ‘firm belief in the sanctity of human life and the brotherhood of man.’
If one hadn’t known that these were intelligent people (as indicated by their work and writing) one could have thought that they were really very stupid, or at the very least, misguided. I can’t decide if it’s just part of the British sang froid or a diminishing of the human spirit that allows Frances to write in April 1945 that she is horrified by the reports she reads in the newspaper about what went on in the concentration and in the next paragraph, on the same day, that she, Ralph and Burgo had a nice picnic and ate hard-boiled eggs by a stream.
It seems that there are some things that I will never understand.