Reginald Sherring (Ralph) Partridge, the son of Reginald Partridge, of the Indian Civil Service, was born in 1894. He was educated at Christ Church and joined the British Army on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. By the time he left the army he had reached the rank of major.
Partridge had rowed with Noel Carrington while at the University of Oxford. In 1918 Noel introduced him to his sister, Dora Carrington, who was on holiday in Scotland. At the time Dora was living with Lytton Strachey at Mill House, Tidmarsh, in Berkshire.
On 4th July 1918 she wrote to Strachey that "Partridge shared all the best views of democracy and social reform... I hope I shall see him again - not very attractive to look at. Immensely big. But full of wit, and recklessness." Strachey replied: "The existence of Partridge is exciting. Will he come down here when you return? I hope so; but you give no suggestion of his appearance - except that he's immensely big - which may mean anything. And then, I have a slight fear that he may be simply a flirt."
Gretchen Gerzina, the author of A Life of Dora Carrington: 1893-1932 (1989), pointed out "Partridge was the opposite of the kind of man who normally attracted her. He was tall and broad-shouldered and, in spite of her critical assessment of his looks, very handsome. He was in many ways a man's man, who wore his uniform as if he was meant to and was an athlete. Her friends in Bloomsbury took to calling him the major, and wondered how to assimilate such a seemingly stereotypical and masculine member of the English upper middle classes into their circle. They were to find that he fitted in rather well."
Partridge went to live with Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey at Mill House. Carrington began an affair with Partridge. According to Strachey's biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum, they created: "A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Strachey's relation to Carrington was partly paternal; he gave her a literary education while she painted and managed the household. Ralph Partridge... became indispensable to both Strachey, who fell in love with him, and Carrington." However, Frances Marshall denied that the two men were lovers and that Lytton quickly realised that Ralph was "completely heterosexual". Partridge was soon an accepted member of the Bloomsbury Group. Other members of the group included Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Dora Carrington, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Gerald Brenan, Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy and Arthur Waley.
Another member, Frances Marshall, later recalled in her autobiography, Memories (1981): "They were not a group, but a number of very different individuals, who shared certain attitudes to life, and happened to be friends or lovers. To say they were unconventional suggests deliberate flouting of rules; it was rather that they were quite uninterested in conventions, but passionately in ideas. Generally speaking they were left-wing, atheists, pacifists in the First World War, lovers of the arts and travel, avid readers, Francophiles. Apart from the various occupations such as writing, painting, economics, which they pursued with dedication, what they enjoyed most was talk - talk of every description, from the most abstract to the most hilariously ribald and profane."
In 1918 Partridge began an affair with both Strachey and Carrington. According to Strachey's biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum, they created: "A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Strachey's relation to Carrington was partly paternal; he gave her a literary education while she painted and managed the household. Ralph Partridge... became indispensable to both Strachey, who fell in love with him, and Carrington."
Frances Marshall was a close friend of Dora Carrington during this period: "Her love for Lytton was the focus of her adult life, but she was by no means indifferent to the charms of young men, or of young women either for that matter; she was full of life and loved fun, but nothing must interfere with her all-important relation to Lytton. So, though she responded to Ralph's adoration, she at first did her best to divert him from his desire to marry her. When in the end she agreed, it was partly because he was so unhappy, and partly because she saw that the great friendship between Ralph and Lytton might actually consolidate her own position."
Gerald Brenan, had served with Ralph Partridge during the First World War, was a regular visitor to Mill House when he was in England. Brenan later described an early meeting with Dora: "Carrington came to the door and with one of her sweet, honeyed smiles welcomed me in. She was wearing a long cotton dress with a gathered skirt and her straight yellow hair, now beginning to turn brown, hung in a mop round her head. But the most striking thing about her was her eyes, which were of an intense shade of blue and very long-sighted, so that they took in everything they looked at in an instant."
In the summer of 1920 Partridge began work for Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. This gave him enough money to marry Dora Carrington on 21st May 1921. She wrote to Lytton Strachey on her honeymoon: "So now I shall never tell you I do care again. It goes after today somewhere deep down inside me, and I'll not resurrect it to hurt either you or Ralph. Never again. He knows I'm not in love with him... I cried last night to think of a savage cynical fate which had made it impossible for my love ever to be used by you. You never knew, or never will know the very big and devastating love I had for you ... I shall be with you in two weeks, how lovely that will be. And this summer we shall all be very happy together."
In 1924 Strachey purchased Ham Spray House in Ham, Wiltshire, for £2,100. Dora and Ralph were invited to live with Strachey. According to Michael Holroyd, the author of Lytton Strachey (1994): "Ham Spray House had no drains or electric light and was in need of general repairs... The builders started work there in early spring... Even with some help from a legacy which Ralph had received on his father's death, it was all turning out to be fearfully expensive." Later, the loft at the east end of the house was converted into a studio for Carrington.
According to David Garnett: "They (Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey) became lovers, but physical love was made difficult and became impossible. The trouble on Lytton's side was his diffidence and feeling of inadequacy, and his being perpetually attracted by young men; and on Carrington's side her intense dislike of being a woman, which gave her a feeling of inferiority so that a normal and joyful relationship was next to impossible....When sexual love became difficult each of them tried to compensate for what the other could not give in a series of love affairs."
Frances Marshall fell in love with Ralph. She later recalled: "He was a tall, good-looking and very broad-shouldered man.... His remarkably blue eyes never seemed quite still, conveyed an impression of great vitality held in check with difficulty, and often flashed in my direction, as I couldn't help observing." Virginia Woolf was also fond of Ralph describing him as having "an ox's shoulders and a healthy brain".
Michael De-la-Noy has pointed out: "It was not long before Frances Marshall found herself entangled in another extraordinary ménage à trois, at Tidmarsh, where Lytton Strachey was in love with the literary journalist Ralph Partridge, Partridge with the painter Dora Carrington, and Carrington, most improbably of all, with the quite obviously homosexual Strachey. Ralph and Carrington got married; then Ralph and Frances fell in love."
Dora Carrington started an affair with Gerald Brenan. In 1926 Ralph left Dora and set up house with Frances Marshall in Gordon Square. As Anne Chisholm points out: "In 1928 Frances left the bookshop and started to work, with Ralph, on an unexpurgated edition of the Greville diaries, under Lytton Strachey's editorship." One biographer has argued: "This, inaccurately attributed to Strachey, was a mammoth scholarly task, and her work for it has not been sufficiently acknowledged. Every character mentioned had to be identified. It took nine years (until 1937) and the index alone was a volume of 300 double-column pages."
Lytton Strachey died of undiagnosed stomach cancer on 21st January 1932. His death made Dora Carrington suicidal. She wrote a passage from David Hume in her diary: "A man who retires from life does no harm to society. He only ceases to do good. I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence... I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping."
Frances Marshall was with Ralph when he received a phone-call on 11th March 1932. "The telephone rang, waking us. It was Tom Francis, the gardener who came daily from Ham; he was suffering terribly from shock, but had the presence of mind to tell us exactly what had happened: Carrington had shot herself but was still alive. Ralph rang up the Hungerford doctor asking him to go out to Ham Spray immediately; then, stopping only to collect a trained nurse, and taking Bunny with us for support, we drove at breakneck speed down the Great West Road.... We found her propped on rugs on her bedroom floor; the doctor had not dared to move her, but she had touched him greatly by asking him to fortify himself with a glass of sherry. Very characteristically, she first told Ralph she longed to die, and then (seeing his agony of mind) that she would do her best to get well. She died that same afternoon."
Ralph and Frances were married on 2nd March 1933. Two years later their only child, Lytton Burgo Partridge, was born. Her friend, Nigel Nicolson, later commented: "It was as happy a marriage as any which is recorded, and the record is Frances's own diary. Without histrionics, she conveys the pleasure which each took in the other's company, the pleasure of travelling together, of sharing the same table and bed, of discussing without staleness the great moral and political issues of the day. Both loved music (and dancing: they once actually came second in the national ballroom championship) and literature. Both were agnostic, both became committed pacifists, Ralph in consequence of his experiences in the first world war, Frances as early as nine years old when she watched boys battering each other at Bedales."
According to The Times: "For the next 30 years, from their wedding in 1932, the marriage was extraordinarily close. Ralph, very good-looking, was highly intelligent and loyal, but not always easy. He had a formidable presence and loved arguing. Frances was his equal in debate, and never lost her head; and she could soothe him. More important were their intense interest in people and their highly developed senses of humour (Frances had a particularly delightful bubbling laugh). They talked about everything together, and for the last 28 years were never apart for more than a day. Few marriages can have been so enjoyable, not just for the lucky (and skilful) couple, but for their friends."
Ralph Partridge died of a heart-attack in 1960.
Ralph had been an undergraduate at Christ Church when he oined the army in 1914, and after the usual training in England was sent out to the Western front as an infantry officer. Except for a short time in Italy he remained in France until 1918. He liked talking about it, had an excellent memory and was above all a realist; I was often amazed by the lucid detail in which he would describe his most harrowing experiences. He was not so deeply scarred by what he had gone through as were many others among my friends who took part in one of the two great wars, but although he was a brilliant soldier and his character was too forceful to be deeply dented, it was, as it were, reorientated. I can give three examples of what I mean by this: firstly, he lost his ambition; then, like Morgan Forster and G. E. Moore, he grew to think that human relations were far the most important things in life (without however losing his passionate interest in public events); and lastly, he became a pacifist for the rest of his life.
The existence of Partridge is exciting. Will he come down here when you return? I hope so; but you give no suggestion of his appearance - except that he's immensely big - which may mean anything. And then, I have a slight fear that he may be simply a flirt.
After surviving the Western Front, Partridge returned to Oxford, and became a regular visitor to Tidmarsh. He soon fell in love with Carrington - whilst Strachey fell in love with him, rechristening him "Ralph', as he would thereafter be known. It eventually transpired that the only way to keep this improbable menage a trois intact was for Carrington to marry Ralph. She was reluctant to "join the hordes of the respectable". "Let us cling to wickedness as long as we have breath in our bodies", she told Noel. Though she did not love Ralph, she finally relented in 1921. According to Beatrice Campbell, when Gertler heard the news, "He was so shattered that he felt that nothing but a revolver could end his pain. He went out to buy one, but found it was Saturday afternoon and all the shops were shut."
Carrington (she refused to change her name) still had no desire to start a family - "One cannot be a female creator of works of art & have children", she had observed the previous autumn. Partridge was neither a faithful nor an affluent husband, and the marriage (though not their friendship) failed within a couple of years. Carrington did not lose the capacity to have men fall madly in love with her, nor to act deceitfully, and she would have a string of lovers - the most important being with Ralph and Noel's old army friend, the writer Gerald Brenan. Then in 1924 she embarked on her first known lesbian relationship - an expression of physical feelings that had been emerging for many years. In 1929 she would become pregnant by another lover, Bernard Penrose; there were fears she might kill herself, and Ralph arranged an illegal abortion. Through it all, however, she and Lytton and Ralph remained close friends.
My brother has been spending the last two days with me here. Yesterday a friend of his (Ralph Partridge) came down to stay - I had been reading Berty's new book on the reform of the state, and foolishly fell into the belief that it was all very possible. That except for a few bloated capitalists, and politicians everyone really wanted to see such a life of freedom, and happiness. And when this young man and my brother started talking together after dinner, I woke up into realizing how hopeless, and distant such ideals are; that the educated people make the blockade which prevents revolutions, and progress. This young man thought himself very advanced and yet was so self satisfied, and narrow minded, as to simply dismiss with a few cynical phrases any variety of mankind who he didn't agree with. A certain callousness, and lack of reverence for life, and death appalled me. They neither of them felt any passion or interest in things like we do. They discussed their futures and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of certain professions. But there was no desire to do any creative work of their own. What a gulf this fixes between one and such people. My brother is so charming that it hurted to hear him becoming intolerant, and complicatedly conventional.
I've become much fonder of Ralph Partridge. He has become so much more charming, & has given up his slightly moral character which used to tire me. So we never quarrel now, & have become a perfect pair of pigeons in our affections. I certainly will never love him but I am extremely fond of him - I believe if one wasn't reserved, & hadn't a sense of what is possible one could be very fond of certainly two or three people at a time, to know human beings intimately, to feel their affection, to have their confidences is so absorbing that its clearly absurd to think one only has the inclination for one variety. The very contrast of a double relation is fascinating - but the days are too short, and then one has work to do. So one has to abandon some people, & the difficulty of choosing is great, don't you find it so?
Oh Gerald I wish you were here, such afflictions have fallen upon us. And Ralph would give a good deal I think to have you with him. There is nothing new. It is only he is very unhappy which makes me in despair also. And as far as I can see there is no solution. It seems appalling that in this world when one gets on with so few people, when one does care for someone as much as I do for him, and he does me, one must part because of these difficulties. It is impossible to go on being perpetually unhappy and worried which is what he is doing now. Yet I know, even if I did not think of myself, to marry him, would not make it any better. Because one cannot change a spirit inside one. And it is that he cannot possess. But I will not burden you with all this. I think it is aggravated by his being at Oxford, with no real interests to occupy his time when he is away from me.
We met casually in London, after which Ralph Partridge brought her over for a two day walking tour of the Cotswolds and I joined them. Then in July I went down to Tidmarsh for the night. It was, as I remember, one of those dark, overcast summer days. The trees and the grass had turned to a uniform tint of green and the air was heavy and stagnant. I came down a straight road shaded by elms and then saw a low brick and plaster building, in size a small farmhouse, standing by an open meadow which must once have been the marsh.
This was the Mill House. Carrington came to the door and with one of her sweet, honeyed smiles welcomed me in. She was wearing a long cotton dress with a gathered skirt and her straight yellow hair, now beginning to turn brown, hung in a mop round her head. But the most striking thing about her was her eyes, which were of an intense shade of blue and very long-sighted, so that they took in everything they looked at in an instant. Passing a door through which I saw bicycles, we came into a sitting room, very simply furnished, in which a tall, thin, bearded man was stretched out in a wicker armchair with his long legs twisted together. Carrington introduced me to Lytton who, mumbling something I did not catch, held out a limp hand, and then led me through a glass door into an apple orchard where I saw Ralph, dressed in nothing but a pair of dirty white shorts, carrying a bucket. He came forward to meet me with his big blue eyes rolling with fun and gaiety and carried me off to see the ducks and grey-streaked Chinese geese that he had recently bought... After this I was introduced to the tortoiseshell cat, which to his delight was rolling on its back in the grass in the frenzies of heat, and taken on to the kitchen where a buxom, fair-haired village girl of twenty, whom he addressed in a very flirtatious manner, was busy among the pots and pans.
Ralph was by now clearly in love with Frances (Marshall) and no doubt this contributed to the more peaceful atmosphere between him and Carrington. Frances was more suited to him in any number of ways: where he could fluster and defeat Carrington in philosophical argument, Frances, trained at Cambridge in Moral Philosophy, would lock horns with and often defeat him. She was not inclined to moods or inconsistencies, and they spent hour upon hour talking and laughing together. And, as Gerald remarked, she was one of the prettiest girls in London, with glossy dark hair and a ready smile.
The main obstacle to their happiness was Frances' own indecision. She was at the time still seeing a man in the Foreign Office who, as he was single, had none of Ralph's marital liabilities. And although they got along well, she was not sure that she was in love with Ralph. For these reasons they had not become lovers, despite her frequent weekends at Ham Spray. As long as this state continued, Carrington could be sure that her life would remain intact. However, that was about to change.
In October, Ralph persuaded Frances to go off to Spain with him. She no longer cared what her parents might think of such an arrangement; she had a mind and life of her own (she was now twenty-five) and later said that they had by now given up expecting to control her movements and actions, even though she still lived with them in London. She and Ralph lived roughly, travelling on inexpensive tickets and staying in cheap hotels. Nonetheless it was extremely romantic and decisive. By the time they returned, Frances recalled, "Ralph and I were both very much in love, and our one desire was to spend our lives together."
I am naturally anxious about you, and through you about Frances. I cannot, dear Ralph, be of any help to you until you are better. I have not known the depths. But it seems to me likely that one cannot remember the dead truly - the essence of their being - until one has recovered in some measure the enjoyment of life. Their death was not the characteristic thing about them. It was their response to life, and it is by living oneself again that one meets them as they were and keeps in closest touch with them. If you can feel again delight in the thought of them, even if for a long time it is a cheating torturing delight, your life, with what you have in Frances, will be much more full of what is worth having than that of most people - you are not really an unfortunate man - far from it, although you have had to bear much worse sorrow than most. Your affectionate Desmond.