Magazine article The Spectator

Frances Partridge Reaches Her Century

Magazine article The Spectator

Frances Partridge Reaches Her Century

Article excerpt

When Frances Partridge, diarist, translator and keeper of the secrets of old Bloomsbury, learned, earlier this year, that she had been awarded the CBE, she was characteristically clear-eyed and selfdeprecating about the whole business and remarked, 'Rather ridiculous really to be given a medal just for being so old.' Nevertheless, she allowed that she was really quite pleased, and three weeks ago put on her best dress and a wide-brimmed hat and went off to the Palace with her granddaughter Sophie and two great-granddaughters to be decorated by the Queen for 'services to literature'. They celebrated afterwards with a lunch in her local Lebanese restaurant. This week, on Wednesday 15 March, she reached her 100th birthday, and marked the occasion with a lunch at the Ivy and a party for 150 friends and admirers at the Savile Club.

It has struck me, as I have made regular visits to Frances in her pretty, civilised London flat over the past year to talk to her about her life and times, that she very much prefers to be occupied. Suggestions that she might put her feet up more often are brushed aside, although she will concede that her energy is not quite what it was. Nevertheless she endeavours to go for a walk every day, to the shops or perhaps round nearby Belgrave Square even when it is so windy that she has to hold on to the lamp-posts; she was never a large or heavy person and now she is tiny, slightly bent and not always steady on her pins. She has always loved to walk and swim, although to her annoyance she was advised not to swim in the chilly English Channel last summer.

The other thing she tries to do every day is work, preferably on something connected with writing. This is not easy, as although her hearing remains excellent her eyes are not so good; but equipped with strong lights and huge magnifying lenses, she nevertheless attends to her considerable correspondence, keeps up her diary (five volumes have so far been published and all are in print) and, as Spectator readers know, writes the occasional elegant expert book review. She has a short rest after lunch, provided by her housekeeper Vera, who comes each morning, when she listens to music, and in the evening a friend may call, or she may summon a taxi and go out. Her mantelpiece, below a serene and glowing painting by Duncan Grant, always carries a row of invitations to dinners, publishers' parties, gallery openings and lectures.

In recent months, many of them were connected with a rush of events linked to the Bloomsbury exhibitions held late last year at the Tate and Courtauld Gallery. As the very last representative of the inner circle, someone who indeed lived with Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington at Ham Spray in the 1920s and married a man who had worked for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, it was inevitable that she was suddenly especially sought after. She lent one of her Duncan Grant paintings to the Tate, and the National Portrait Gallery put on a small selection from her photograph albums, including a charming snap of her afloat in a large rubber ring in the Ham Spray swimming pool, with a parasol and, as a glimpse of breast indicated, without a swimsuit. When an overexcited journalist pressed for details of naked caperings, she did not turn a hair. …

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