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Obituaries

Angelica Garnett, 93; writer grew up in Bloomsbury set

ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images/file 2009

In her memoir, Angelica Garnett wrote of the luminous orbit around her mother, Vanessa Bell, a sister of Virginia Woolf. The milieu’s only real transgression was being ordinary.

NEW YORK - Angelica Garnett - the last direct link to the Bloomsbury set, whose memoir of growing up amid its potent brew of sex, secrets, artistry, and renown is notable for offering a child’s-eye view of that darkly charmed circle - died May 4 in the south of France. She was 93.

Her death was announced on the website of the Charleston Trust, the organization she helped found to preserve the Sussex farmhouse, known as Charleston, that was the country retreat of the Bloomsbury group and in which she had been born and reared.

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Mrs. Garnett had long acknowledged that she could not completely shake its hold on her, despite having lived in France for many years.

Published in 1985, her memoir, “Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood,’’ describes the luminous orbit around her mother, the painter Vanessa Bell, a sister of Virginia Woolf. It was a self-reflexive, self-congratulatory milieu in which art was all, sex was the coin of the realm, and the only real transgression was the unpardonable sin of being ordinary.

For the young Garnett, who grew up in a household that often included her mother, her presumed father, and her actual father under one amicable roof, the threads binding the principals - who loved whom, who seduced whom, who married whom, who fathered whom - formed not so much a densely woven tapestry as a Gordian knot.

‘My dream of the perfect father - unrealized - possessed me, and has done so for the rest of my life. My marriage was but a continuation of it and almost engulfed me.’

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It was in an attempt to unravel this knot in middle age that she began work on her memoir, which Newsweek called “a work of moving honesty and thoughtful, refined prose.’’

In it, Mrs. Garnett depicts the exquisite blend of Victorian libertinism and Victorian repression that defined the Bloomsbury ethos: She was not told that she was illegitimate, for instance, until she was nearly grown.

She also recounts her marriage to a man twice her age - he, too, was part of her parents’ circle - who had been her biological father’s lover, a fact of which no one had dared inform her.

Her husband, David Garnett, would write a novella, “Aspects of Love’’ (1955), that was more than loosely based on their singular family constellation. The book was later adapted into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened on Broadway in 1990 and ran for nearly a year.

Angelica Bell was born at Charleston on Christmas Day 1918 - a date, her mother told her, that only affirmed her specialness. For years she believed her father to be Vanessa’s husband, the art critic Clive Bell. He was the father of her two older brothers (in reality her half-brothers): Julian Bell, a poet who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and Quentin Bell, a renowned art historian who died in 1996.

Angelica’s actual father was Duncan Grant, a gay painter whose brief liaison with Vanessa - he continued to live platonically with the Bells - had resulted in her birth.

In keeping with Vanessa Bell’s preference for aesthetic sensibility over cold, hard fact, Angelica received little formal education. Her real school was Charleston, which glowed with art by Vanessa Bell and Grant and swirled with heady conversation among a group that included the biographer Lytton Strachey and the economist John Maynard Keynes, both frequent visitors, and, until her suicide in 1941, Virginia Woolf.

As a young woman, Angelica briefly studied drama in London but abandoned it, concluding that she was not good enough. She became a painter, like her mother, and had a measure of success but no renown.

When Angelica was 17, her mother had taken her aside and divulged her true parentage. Fearful that further discussion would disrupt their durable if unconventional household, Vanessa Bell told her not to raise the subject with either Clive Bell (who knew the truth but preferred to ignore it) or Grant (who was fond of Angelica, but disinclined to assume a fatherly role).

“My dream of the perfect father - unrealized - possessed me, and has done so for the rest of my life,’’ Mrs. Garnett wrote in her memoir. “My marriage was but a continuation of it and almost engulfed me.’’

In 1942, at 23, she married David Garnett, then nearly 50. A writer and publisher, he was the son of Constance Garnett, a well-known translator of Russian literature.

(In a fittingly Bloomsbury rite of passage, David Garnett deflowered Angelica in H.G. Wells’s spare bedroom.)

Their marriage, which produced four daughters, was not a happy one. Mrs. Garnett eventually deduced the relationship between her husband and her birth father, realizing that David Garnett had married her as a way of maintaining a hold over Grant, whom he still loved, and Vanessa Bell, whom he had tried to seduce, only to be rebuffed.

Mrs. Garnett left her husband after more than a quarter-century of marriage. Vanessa Bell died in 1961; after Grant’s death in 1978, Mrs. Garnett, her children grown and gone, looked in the mirror and saw, as she wrote, “a vagueness, almost a hole, where I myself should have been.’’

She began her memoir, she wrote, “to describe my own ghosts, and, in doing so, to exorcise them.’’ Her other books include a volume of autobiographical fiction, “The Unspoken Truth’’ (2010).

Two of Mrs. Garnett’s four daughters died before her. The others, Henrietta and Frances, survive her.

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