By the time he came to write Aspects of Love, David Garnett himself knew something about the defiance of convention. During the First World War, for instance, Garnett, was a conscientious objector, in the knowledge that contemporaries would feel he had “failed in a point of honour”, as he put it years later. And at the age of 48, he snubbed convention again by embarking on an affair with the 22-year-old Angelica Bell.
They married in 1942, arousing a descant of disapproval. “A most astonishing piece of news”, wrote Angelica’s aunt, Virginia Woolf in her diary entry for 6th May, 1940. “Angelica, in love, passionately, with someone old enough to be her father.” Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the qualities which Garnett most admired in his friend Maynard Keynes was what he called his “casual indifference to the conventions”. Not surprising, then, that Aspects of Love is dedicated to Angelica.
But indeed there was never anything conventional about Garnett’s life. He was born into a family for whom literature itself was an aspect of love. His father, Edward Garnett, was a distinguished reader for the publisher Jonathan Cape (Lawrence and Conrad, among others, owed their early success to Garnett’s vigilant advocacy) and his mother, Constance, was one of the most remarkable women of her age, a brilliant translator of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Although Ford Madox Ford approached Constance Garnett when her son was only 17 and offered to teach him how to write (“send David to me for a few years, Connie, and I will teach him to write like Flaubert”), David decided to enter the Imperial College of Science in South Kensington, where he trained as a biologist. From 1920-1935 he wrote novels. His most successful was Lady Into Fox; his best-written Beany-Eye. Between 1930 and 1939 he wrote reviews and criticisms, mainly for the New Statesman, and in 1938 he edited the letters of T. E. Lawrence. It wasn’t until 1955 that he wrote another novel and this was Aspects of Love.
Garnett’s youth, like that of Alexis in Aspects of Love (the character was renamed Alex in the show), was a dreamy, impossible romance, one to which he would return again and again in later life – he produced three volumes of autobiography – living, in his sixties, like Sir George, somewhat “out of reach, in the past”. He was befriended by D. H. Lawrence, fathered by Conrad, sponsored by Ford, chided by Keynes. He knew everybody in the Bloomsbury Group, and everybody outside it, too. The novel explores the way in which romance, like youth itself, only becomes truly romantic when it is threatened with an ending, or when it seems tragically unattainable. You could say that the novel is a gloss on Somerset Maugham’s dictum that “the tragedy of life is not that men die, but that they cease to love” – except that Garnett extracted comedy from that tragedy.
Rose knows that her affair with Alexis at Sir George’s villa is a glorious romance only because it must end – what she calls, “an idyll for a fortnight”. Alexis, with his ripe idealism, fails to understand this, but soon learns. His relationship with Jenny is the very emblem of romance – he desires her, but cannot possess her, a part of the attraction of that desire coming from his knowledge that consummation of his desire is impossible with a 13-year-old girl. Despite this knowledge, we are always trying to grasp romance and hold on to it – that is why we fall in love. At the end of the novel, Garnett uses Sir George’s tending of a vineyard as a symbol of lost youth and the parade of romance: only when wine has grown old, and becomes a respectable vintage, can it be enjoyed.
But by then, it is no longer young, and its first bloom has failed. “Don’t drink it too young”, warns Rose. And Sir George replies with the eternal complaint on the old “if I don’t drink it when I can, I may not drink it at all”. Theatre is the ultimate romance; the velvet curtains are drawn apart to reveal a world of heightened realities and enlarged pleasures, but we know that those curtains must softly enclose that world at the end, killing its bliss. “What strange art is this, that transposes reality?” wonders Alexis, as he watches Rose in the theatre. Garnett’s novel examines the way in which the impossible romance of life overlaps with the impossible romance of the theatre, and warns of the danger when the two romances blur into one – when life becomes pure theatre.
The problem with Alexis is that he fails to distinguish between the two – they become for him one romance in which he has, naturally, the lead role, even as Rose insists, in Paris, that “I detest scenes and theatricalities”. Alexis forces her to choose between romantic roles – “Manon or Cressida?” – and as he stands in front of her waving a gun, he thinks that “she had never looked so splendid on the stage.” It takes 10 years, and the rest of the novel, to teach Alexis that life’s stage is rather more tedious. For Garnett, the libertine, life until he died at the age of 89 was full of curiosity and exploration. He had fallen in love with France at an early age and spent the last decade of his life living there in a cottage on the Lot.
He loved good food and wine and it is worth noting that whenever there is a crisis of passion in Aspects of Love, the problem is usually resolved by food being produced and described in hedonistic detail. Even George’s funeral is an occasion to indulge in everything Garnett most enjoyed himself. By this time, the characters have explored most aspects of love and the novel ends with Giulietta quoting what must have been the dictum of both George Dillingham and David Garnett.
“Set down the wine and the dice,
and perish the thought of tomorrow”
James Wood, from the original production programme