At the Charleston Festival last year the aged Quentin Bell ran mischievous rings around Jeremy Isaacs; and watched enraptured as the actors Patricia Hodge and Sam West delivered the words of his long-dead mother, Vanessa Bell, and his even-longer-dead brother, Julian. Now, Quentin Bell, too, is dead and Charleston farmhouse, the home of Vanessa and Duncan Grant, has been transformed from an experiment in living into a heritage site.
Charleston, an adjunct of the Brighton extravaganza, is still one of the most special literary festivals around. The crowd is well-to-do and largely elderly, though there's a sprinkling of more exotic types who worship the shades of Vita, Virginia and Duncan Grant: gaggles of smart, intellectual, strangely tactile young men gather under the trees; steely haired Sapphics stride by, their sharp suits softened by floating silk scarves.
The festival is a mostly female affair. The first Asham Award for writing by women, which sneaked in almost unnoticed after the furore of the Orange Prize, was lauded as the platitudinous Edna Healey presided over a line-up of four female novelists: Deborah Moggach, Candia McWilliam, Rachel Cusk and Louise Doughty. The most striking thing about Cusk was not her famed pulchritude, but the fact that she sounds exactly like Jo Brand's baby sister. Doughty's bouncy public persona is that of the love-me puppy, but I'm convinced audiences prefer a bit of hauteur. Rose Tremain was low-key, not a performer, but in the tea-tent later every second person was clutching a pink-jacketed copy of The Way I Found Her.
Sparks flew during the evening discussion with Carmel Callil, Valerie Grove and Elizabeth Jane Howard. A man with a floppy blond fringe stood up and addressed Callil after the panel had condemned the over-theoretical reviewing style of James Wood. …