Friday, October 30, 2015

Played on Squares 5: Strachey

In this final episode of our investigation into chess in Bloomsbury (sparked by the BBC TV docudrama Life in Squares) we turn for our subject to a well-known name at the heart of the Bloomsbury project: Strachey. After earlier episodes examining men (John Neville Keynes, Roger Fry, and Leonard Woolf), this time it is refreshing to be able to ignore the seemingly inevitable Lytton and focus on a woman: his sister Marjorie (1882-1962 - but see comments box). As we follow her story we will encounter two more feisty female characters who are also of considerable interest, each in their own right.

Marjorie Colville Strachey is rather under-represented in Bloomsbury literature. The fullest account of her wandering, and maybe ultimately unfulfilled, life is given in Barbara Caine's remarkable in Bombay to Bloomsbury: A biography of the Strachey Family (2005), to which this blog is indebted. Yet, even Professor Caine omits all reference - bar one - to Marjorie's chess. If there is a Bloomsbury biography that merits further research it is Marjorie Strachey's: not because of any contributions to the public good, or works of genius, of which hers would count only as minor, but because she was a rich amalgam of talent, flamboyance, attention-seeking and vulnerability - and she played chess.          

Followers of the S&B Blog have already encountered Marjorie - probably, like me, without realising it. She was playing chess when we met her before, in the photograph below; and this picture is in fact the solitary chess reference in Barbara Caine's book, and even that passes without textual comment.

Marjorie and Lytton Strachey
Monk's House Album 1930s
Now held by Harvard University
On the previous occasion when we saw the photo, we had come down to Monk's House in Rodmell (about which we heard so much in the last episode) because of Lytton, famous for his radical biographies. We didn't give Marjorie a second thought. We didn't imagine that it was she who was the one who could really play. Now, on the S&B Chess Blog, her time has come. But not before going back a bit to someone else who we have also met before on the blog, someone who will point us toward Marjorie, and give us some interesting images on the way.

The start of this thread is Mary Sargant Florence (1858-1954), who was the mother of Marjorie's sister-in-law (which must make her Marjorie's aunt of some kind, I think). Mary née Sargant studied art at the Slade, then in Paris, exhibited a bit, and went to the States after she married American Henry Smythe Florence in 1888. They had two children before Henry tragically drowned in 1892. She returned to England, where, in the early 1900s, she was active in the Suffragette movement designing posters such as "What's sauce for the Gander is sauce for the Goose" and "Dare to be Free" - though whether it is the one below I'm not sure.
Suffrage Procession, October 7, 1911 [London].
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1890 - 1960. 
The point for today's episode is that Mary Sargant Florence painted this, around 1903:

Children at Chess 
Tate Gallery
The Tate catalogue says it shows her two children Alix, born in 1892, and the slightly older Philip born in 1890. It goes on: "A committed feminist, Sargant Florence brought up her children in an unconventional manner, encouraging their artistic talents." (In case you were wondering, we previously mentioned Mary Sargant Florence and her painting in a blog here; see Note 1 below for a photo of Mary herself, in her later years, with yet another chess painting in the background)

So, Alix was about 10 years old when she was captured above by her mother, and her next twenty years were to be full of amorous adventure (fuel for Bloombury gossip) during which she briefly, and unglamorously, worked for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press - Frances Partridge confirms this: "She was the only one of the many who worked...[there, for]...exactly one day". Alix apparently confided in Frances that "it was quite incredibly boring...I can't spend the rest of my life doing this...I told [Leonard and Virginia] so...They took it very well, I must say." (M p.79)

She also helped Leonard with research for his Empire and Commerce in Africa (1918). Virginia was haughtily underwhelmed when she had noticed Alix on her way to the London Library "to grope for facts, which L[eonard]'s eye finds a good deal quicker." (DVW Vol I p. 71). Virginia also amused herself at "the comedy of Alix and Bunny [Garnett]" having an affair (p. 106), and then at Alix's "Autumn campaign" in pursuit of James Strachey (p. 212) - in which she eventually prevailed. James was Lytton's brother and became a psychoanalyst; he and Alix studied with Freud, and translated him into English. They are dignified with one of the very few chess references actually indexed in the Bloomsbury corpus, namely page 498 of Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey - they returned from Vienna in 1921 "very much in love, busy playing chess."

Frances also gives a vivid description of "Alix's Red Indian profile, thick dark hair and level gray eyes [which] gave her a striking appearance...her brain was like a first-rate machine..." (M p. 79) borne out by this revealing picture:

Marjorie and Alix playing
c 1932 at Ham Spray (home of the Partridges) 
Getty Images
Incidentally one might here see why - without condoning it - her opponent and sister-in-law, Marjorie, was afflicted with the unflattering nickname "Gumbo", as applied consistently (and almost with relish) by Virginia Woolf in her letters and diaries.

Looking at the photo, what leaps out - apart from the deck-chair, obviously - is the position on the chess board (observing now as a chess player). Alix, playing Black, has developed her King's side pieces, has kept her pawn structure intact and, if it is safe, will castle any minute now: she is playing decent chess. Let's hope Marjorie is up to the challenge, because it is her chess fortunes that we shall be monitoring: Marjorie, of all the Bloomsberries, is the real Bloomsbury chesser.

There now follows a biographical note on this unregarded, and occasionally maligned, minor member of the Group. Chessers not as intrigued by her as I may wish to skip the section marked off below, and jump to her chess further down.

Marjorie was one of the ten Strachey siblings, split equally brothers and sisters. She was number nine. The first-born was already 23 years old, and had a daughter of her own, when Marjorie first saw the light of day; thus Marjorie arrived to find herself with a niece one year her senior. By the way, Lytton (#8) was two years older, James (#10) two years younger. Remarkably, after - or perhaps because of - such exertions, Jane Strachey, their mother, had enough fuel left in the tank to be active as a Suffragette.

Barbara Caine's collective biography of the Strachey brood reveals that Marjorie suffered as a consequence of being next to last in the queue. At school and university she was very nearly forgotten by Mother ("shabby treatment" says Professor Caine (BB p.141)), and in desperation wrote home to complain about her neglect. She studied at both Somerville College, Oxford and the Royal Holloway College, London, leaving at the age of 26 for what (reading backwards) would be a rather rootless life lurching from one pursuit, and from one temporary domicile, to another, often short of money.

After an involvement in (or, co-option to) the suffrage movement - her mother's pre-occupation - she tried teaching, and was dismissed "on account of short sight" (LVW vII p. 341) - that was after WW1, in 1919. She also tried running a small school herself in Bloomsbury, while living with her mother (LVW vII p. 544). It failed. She was teaching "shop assistants" in 1920, notes VW sniffily (LVW vII p 451), and again (at a girls' school in Lewes) after WW2. This was when Quentin Bell, who happened to hear her from an adjacent room, said she was "wonderfully effective", if eccentric in her perspectives on Italian history (BR p. 143) - about which she wrote a book. Indeed she wrote many, including a fictionalised life of Chopin: she had studied music, had become an able pianist, and gave lessons herself.

She also wrote a novel: Counterfeits (1927). This was a thinly disguised roman à clef based on Bloomsbury itself. A major character in the novel was "Volumnia Fox" who in real life condemned it as "a pretty dismal affair: Bloomsbury shown up against the radiance of Jo's Wedgwood's private parts..." (LVW vIII p. 386). Barbara Caine, who seems to have read all of the Marjorie Strachey oeuvre (the biographer's burden), is equally unimpressed - by the whole lot (BB p.374-5).  

This - to miss out much, insofar as it is known, of Marjorie's story - brings us to the Josiah Wedgwood affair, perhaps the key to her unattached status in later personal life. He was pillar of the establishment (M.P, Peer, etc, etc.) whose wife bore him seven children - and then left him in 1913. Ottoline Morrell, (in)famous socialite and Bloomsbury satellite, together with other Bloomsbury conspirators, "procured Marjorie" (DVW vI p.21-22), to fill the gap. She (now in her mid 30s) was led up the garden path almost to the altar, only to be dumped by Wedgwood in favour of another woman as soon as his divorce came through. Virginia Woolf expressed "doubts - about Jos, mostly" also about "Ottoline's manoeuvres". But the damage was done. Marjorie repaired to the south of France to lick her wounds, and appeared never to trust a man (or her so-called "friends"? - but see Note 2) in such matters again. "It looks a little as if Marjorie was to be one of the failures - not that I rank marriage or success in a profession as a success" opined Virginia, who was to do quite nicely in both, in her diary in March 1919 (DVW v1 p252).    

But socially Marjorie was always good value as, for example, she habitually threw parties (in the 1920s), which she could ill afford, and of which her miserabilist brother James disapproved (BB p.197). And spare a moment for her endearing fruitiness. At a dinner party she - said Virginia, now approving - "was superb, and insisted on talking about purges and bottoms and the w.c. in the most dramatic way." (LVW v2 p.347). Her party piece was to declaim (yes, she had tried drama school, too) lewd nursery rhymes, often in a state of extreme undress. "Or clad in black tights..." as described by Quentin Bell "...into which she had forced a bright scarlet cushion suggestive of indecent deformity... [When], in the middle of this outrageous performance, a corner of the scarlet cushion began to slip down between...her legs, the effect was overwhelming" (BR p.154). On this occasion her audience was of genteel ladies from the nicer neighbourhoods of north London. For the most part they tut-tutted and walked out. Those who remained, said Bell, were delighted.

Both Quentin Bell and Virginia Woolf refer unflatteringly to Marjorie's appearance. The former said that even when she was young she was "a fright" (BR p.153); and the latter, talking of her in especially brutal terms perhaps twenty years later, in January 1933, said this:
"My word! she is now an elderly fat woman - grey as a badger, but so stout, so pendulous - so much an old fireside matron for all her witch ways - which are in truth obscene with her peculiar touch of genius in being blatantly obscene. She has few, black, crooked (so it seems to me) teeth. She opens her mouth, grimaces, claws, paws, stumps, projects, hawks, pirouettes - and should have been on the stage - a Marie Lloyd." (DVW vIV p. 140).
Later, in 1939, Woolf was again drawn to animal grotesquery to unpleasant effect: "that vast marsupial Margery [sic] Strachey" (DVW vV p205).

Quentin Bell balances his curt assessment by reference to Marjorie being "entirely without malice or ill-temper although she could be moved to fury by any kind of cruelty or injustice", and he adds that "Vanessa [Bell] once said of Marjorie that she was the most moral person she knew" which, given that the frame of reference is the Bloomsbury Group, may be high praise, or not much, depending on your point of view. After the outburst above Virginia has some amends to make, methinks, but the best that she can do is this from 1924: "Marjorie continues to develop the soundest and ripest character in Bloomsbury" (LVW vIII p144). Which is okay, as far as it goes; but frankly, speaking for myself, a more generous way for Virginia to have righted matters would have been - zealous diarist that she was - to have recorded for posterity the words of Marjorie's famously dirty ditties.

Above we heard Virginia Woolf using the unpleasant endearment "Gumbo", not to mention that borderline vicious sketch of Marjorie just before this lovely photo was taken in the late 1930s. Whether Virginia's invective does justice to this lady in her mid/late fifties who simply looks right for her age, I'll leave you to judge.

From LSE Women's Library; Ref TBSH/6/3/80
Also in the National Portrait Gallery.
Here Marjorie can be seen playing proper tournament chess, an engagement that seems to have been overlooked both by her contemporaries and by her later biographer. Given that Marjorie skittered from one pursuit to another this omission may not be surprising. On the other hand I have found three tournaments in the late 30s where she played (there may be more), and she must have been already playing quite a bit, perhaps in a club, to have reached that standard. This not insignificant. It makes you wonder what else remains to be discovered.

The photograph above was produced by Sunbeam Photos Ltd., 156 Northdown Road, Cliftonville, Margate and indeed Marjorie played at the Margate Congress in 1936 and 1938, as shown by these results tables from the British Chess Magazine.

In 1936 she was 5th out of 6, on two points in a short one-week tournament.

In 1938 she picked up three points, which is not so bad.

It is interesting to see so many women playing (Hirst, Storr-Best, Henniker-Heaton, Denne, Saunders, Budd). Elaine Saunders was in fact a chess prodigy. Born in 1926, she was the British Women's Champion in 1937. She died as recently as 2012 and you can read an obituary of her here (and the story attached to the obituary itself via our Blog here). In keeping with the focus in this episode on women's chess, and as - sadly- we don't have a game of Marjorie's to show, here is a short game of Elaine's from a simul in 1938. Had no one told Spielmann what to expect? Did he just mentally dismiss a 12-year old slip of a girl? Or, did he, the perfect gentleman, contrive to lose?

I suppose Marjorie might have taken comfort from seeing Elaine finish equal second in Section A in 1938, just as she had done herself in Section B. However, she had also had a go at Hastings in December 35/January 1936, in a morning "Second Class" tournament, finishing disappointingly 9th/10, again picking up two points.

These are the results as published in the Times Monday 6 January 1936. The BCM results report says she was from Haslemere, which fits in with Barbara Baines placement of her during WW2 (BB p.196). Notice by the way, E.M.Jellie in the Major "B" (we blogged about him here).

Marjorie didn't hit the big time in any of these events, but it says something for her independent and indefatigable spirit that even in single middle-age she played in these male dominated tournaments. However, in all of them, the Hastings Congress included, there was a fair sprinkling of female contestants which might have made the atmosphere more congenial to her.

For a few years anyway she was clearly active on the chess scene, and it must be possible that she was member, somewhere, of a chess club at the time - though there is no trace in the Surrey County Chess Association records for her in any affiliated club, nor of her playing in any Surrey inter-County matches.

Marjorie played more, and more seriously, at a competitive level than any other Bloomsberry. It is fitting that she should bring this series to a close. In the matter of chess and the Bloomsberries the best of them comes last.

This five-part investigation of chess in the Blooomsbury Group has revealed that for them chess was a valued, shared, pastime. They played it, for the most part, as a social game, taken seriously notwithstanding, and in many cases it seems to have been woven into the fabric of their friendships. It is remarkable how much it does feature in the accounts of their goings on (though not, as we have already observed, in Life in Squares). The Bloomsberries could hardly be called a random sample of the general public, but their indulgence in the game may say something about its wider popularity in the days before television.

Our investigation has also thrown up three chess-in-Bloomsbury artworks to add to our chess-in-art collection, showing Bloomsberries, major and minor, engrossed in the game (with a fourth item, noted below, to track down).

I must admit to being surprised how fruitful this exercise has been - much more so than I expected at the outset. If anything more turns up about Bloomsbury and chess, especially concerning Marjorie Strachey, you will be the first to know. [Post script note: There is more on Marjorie - see 6. Empire Days  and 7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.]

Note 1: For a 1950 photo of Mary Sargant Florence, with - remarkably - yet another chess painting in the background, see here. It seems possible to me that the chess players are the now adult Marjorie and Alix, with James Strachey looking on - a partial reprise of the 1903 effort.  

Note 2: You can hear 8 minutes-worth of Marjorie reminiscing about Bloomsbury in 1959, at the British Library. "Marjorie Strachey recalls Bloomsbury Group and their love of practical jokes"; excerpt from BBC LP 24916. She speaks remarkably fondly of them, holding - apparently - no grudges.        

BB  Bombay to Bloomsbury Barbara Caine (2005) Oxford U.P., New York
BR  Bloomsbury Recalled  Quentin Bell (1995)  Columbia U.P. New York
DVW The Diary of Virginia Woolf  (Six volumes) (1977) Anne Oliver Bell (ed) Hogarth Press, London
LS Lytton Strachey (2011) Michael Holroyd  Pimlico, London (First pub 1994)
LVW (1977-8) Letters of Virginia Woolf  (Six Volumes) Harcourt, NY and London   
 Memories Frances Partridge (1981) Guernsey Press, Guernsey

Thanks for help with this episode to Martin Cath of the Surrey County Chess Association, and the Women's Library at the LSE.  

Previous Episodes: 1. Keynes2. Fry;  3. Fry part 2; 4.Woolf.  And see also further supplementary episodes: 6. Empire Days  
 7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.

History Index 


Richard James said...

Fascinating - but any reason why you keep on switching between 'Marjorie' and 'Majorie'? I can find no reason for the latter spelling.

Next question: when exactly did she die? You give her dates as 1882-1962, which you might possible have taken from the National Archives. According to, not a reliable source, she died in 1974. But the only death record I can find for a Marjorie Strachey is from Q1 1964 (this record doesn't give a middle name, but the age, 81, is fine). Most online trees give 16 January 1964, which seems highly likely to be correct.

Interesting also how the lower sections of inter-war congresses seemed to be full of ladies of a certain age and social class.

Anonymous said...

Interesting also how the lower sections of inter-war congresses seemed to be full of ladies of a certain age and social class.

Outside of academic life, holidays were still limited to little over two weeks even by the 1970s. Only those of relative wealth and leisure would have been able to afford the time and money to take part in a mid-week tournament as one assumes Margate would have been.


Martin Smith said...

Thanks Richard. I have now given "Marjorie" her due, and corrected the spelling of her name throughout (I hope).

Prof Caine also gives Marjorie's year of death as 1964. She died in a nursing home, retaining her sense of humour to the last. Confused and imagining herself to be Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, she complained that if one were Nelson how could one ring the bell to summon the nurse. Her niece asked her aunt how the nurse was supposed to know that she was Nelson. "She might at least have asked", came the reply. (BB p400)

Richard James said...

Still two Majories - in the 2nd and last paragraphs!

Martin Smith said...

Got there...