Gerald Brenan

Gerald Brenan

Gerald Brenan, the elder son of Hugh Brenan, subaltern in the Royal Irish Rifles, and his wife, Helen Graham, was born on 7th April 1894 at Sliema, Malta. He spent most of his childhood in South Africa and India. According to his biographer, "Gerald was a precocious, imaginative little boy, and devoted to his mother, who stimulated his love of books and his interest in history, travel, and especially botany."

Brenan won a scholarship to Radley College. His father insisted he went to Sandhurst Military Academy but at seventeen he left to travel around Europe. One of the women who knew him at the time commented: "As a young man Brenan was tall, sparely built, and agile; he had straight fair hair and small, nearly black eyes set wide apart in a face that was expressive and charming rather than good looking." On the outbreak of the First World War he was commissioned into the 5th Battalion Gloucester Regiment and served on the Western Front at Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme. While in the army he met Ralph Partridge, and the two men became great friends. A brave soldier, he won the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre during the war.

In 1919 Brenan decided to move to Spain and rented a little house in the village of Yegen in the Alpujarras district of the province of Granada. According to his biographer: "Here he began life in his adopted country, devoting himself to reading, walking immense distances in the mountains, and writing quantities of long and brilliant letters." Gretchen Gerzina, has argued: "His family was strongly opposed to what they viewed as a lazy, pointless existence and he was given little financial support. Spain was inexpensive, and he therefore packed up his books and set out for a monastic life of study and writing in the remote regions of Andalusia on 13 January 1920. Yegen was poor but visually stupendous. At 4,000 feet above sea level, one could see the Sierra Nevada chain of mountains rising behind it. Streams ran down the hillsides, and houses seemed suspended along the incline. It was full of light and air, with wonderful colours, and at night the stars were brilliant and multitudinous."

Brenan was a regular visitor to Mill House, the home of Ralph Partridge, Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey, when he was in England. Brenan later described an early visit: "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."

Brenan got on very well with Lytton Strachey and he introduced him to Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy, Arthur Waley and other members of the Bloomsbury Group. 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."

Ralph Partridge married Dora Carrington in May 1921. Dora 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 and Partridge bought Ham Spray House in Ham, Wiltshire, where a studio was made for Carrington and a library for Strachey. Julia Strachey, who visited her at Ham Spray, recalls: "From a distance she (Carrington) looked a young creature, innocent and a little awkward, dressed in very odd frocks such as one would see in some quaint picture-book; but if one came closer and talked to her, one soon saw age scored around her eyes - and something, surely, a bit worse than that - a sort of illness, bodily or mental. She had darkly bruised, hallowed, almost battered sockets."

Gerald Brenan by Dora Carrington
Gerald Brenan by Dora Carrington

Although he continued to live in Yegen, whenever he was in England he stayed in Ham Spray House. A friend, Frances Marshall later recalled: "Gerald Brenan, a great friend of Ralph's from the war, and here it was that Gerald and Carrington - who had met before, and indulged in a light flirtation - finally fell in love." Gretchen Gerzina, the author of A Life of Dora Carrington: 1893-1932 (1989), has argued: "Gerard agonised. Wanting more than anything to make love to her, he feared that importance would overcome him, causing not only sexual failure but embarrassment. He spent the night awake and miserable, and early the next morning crept down to her room to explain himself. Sitting unhappily on the edge of Carrington's bed, he found her completely understanding and sympathetic."

They became lovers. Brenan's biographer has argued: "His love affair with Dora Carrington was far the most serious in his life, producing as it did an enormous two-way correspondence, some ecstasy, and considerable unhappiness on both sides. Otherwise he was obsessed by sex, and inhibited by fears of impotence. A stream of prostitutes, hippies, and peasant girls occupied his agitated thoughts and feelings and directed his travels."

Gerald Brenan and Dora Carrington
Gerald Brenan and Dora Carrington

Dora Carrington continued to write to Gerald Brenan but decided she did not want to continue their sexual relationship. When he complained she replied on 19th March, 1925: You are again I see going to press in a direction which will cause difficulties. Every sentence of your post script confirms what I felt only too acutely last winter. That by becoming your lover I would make the situation more difficult. Because the responsibilities would be greater. Since our relations are circumscribed because my life is so arranged that I can only give you a small portion of it it is a very difficult matter the arranging of that portion... I tell you there are few things that hurt me more than to think I am cared for just because of sex. The whole difficulty in my relation with Mark Gertler was always that he could take little interest in seeing me unless he made love... If you find no point in seeing me because you cannot make love to me, you have only not to see me. But I refuse to be intimidated by your saying before hand you are going to make a scene. You know making you unhappy doesn't give me pleasure."

In another letter dated 21st September 1925, Carrington argued: "It is simply another proof of our fundamental difference of character. I wish to bury the past, you have an infinite capacity for investigating it. I do not believe any particular circumstances made our relation impossible. It was rather my predestined inability, (which whenever I think of my past life is forced upon me), to have any intimate relations with anyone. I believe I am a perfect combination of a nymphomaniac and a wood-nymph! I hanker after intimacies, which another side of my nature is perpetually at war against. Lately, removed from any intimacies, causing no one unhappiness and having no sense of guilt I have felt more at peace inside myself than I have ever felt before." Brenan replied that the sex act was a natural outgrowth of mutual fondness, that one "cannot separate in this way the intellectual and the physical." However, she disagreed and that aspect of their relationship came to an end.

Gerald Brenan returned to Spain where he was visited by Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Ralph Partridge, Bertrand Russell, Dora Russell, V. S. Pritchett, Roger Fry and David Garnett. His biographer, Frances Partridge, later claimed: "At his best a brilliant and amusing talker, Brenan's character was full of contradictions: he had a great capacity for prolonged and concentrated study as well as outstanding intelligence and originality in the interpretation of its results; he would often work far into the night, but he might collapse many times in a month with what he called flu".

In 1930, while in Dorset, he met the American poet and novelist Gamel Woolsey. At the time she was involved in a passionate affair with the husband of Alyse Gregory. In 1931 they married in Rome and went to live in Spain. Brenan had one child, a daughter, Miranda, whose mother was Juliana Pellegrino, an unmarried girl from Yegen.

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 Partridge 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."

Gerald Brenan wrote to Alix Strachey about the death of Dora Carrington: " It was proved (at the inquest) that her last letter to Ralph, found in the drawer, was written within three days of that Friday. Then instead of wearing her own yellow dressing gown, she put on Lytton's purple one and died in that. It was a kind of ritual act... She killed herself mainly, I think, to emphasise the importance of Lytton's death but time races away from that Friday and soon very few people will ever remember it. I do not know whether great tragic acts occur out of literature, but this, I feel, was not one but something childish and thoughtless and pitiful. Or perhaps it is merely that I am obliged to go on reproaching her - for the last act as for so many other acts of her life."

Brenan's first book, the picaresque novel, Jack Robinson, was published in 1933. This was followed by The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War (1943), The Face of Spain (1950), The Literature of the Spanish People (1951) and South from Granada (1957). He then produced two volumes of autobiography: A Life of One's Own: Childhood and Youth (1962) and Personal Record: 1920-72 (1974).

Gerald Brenan died in Alhaurín el Grande on 19th January 1987.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Gretchen Gerzina, A Life of Dora Carrington: 1893-1932 (1989)

Gerald Brenan, another former soldier and friend of Noel Carrington and Ralph Partridge, had been introduced to her (Dora Carrington) some months before in London. He had been a fellow officer of Ralph's for a time during the war, but since then had a more remarkable history. When he returned from the war he found that he wanted no part of the future mapped out for him by family expectations. Instead, he set out to educate himself, first in England and later in Spain. His family was strongly opposed to what they viewed as a lazy, pointless existence and he was given little financial support. Spain was inexpensive, and he therefore packed up his books and set out for a monastic life of study and writing in the remote regions of Andalusia on 13 January 1920. Yegen was poor but visually stupendous. At 4,000 feet above sea level, one could see the Sierra Nevada chain of mountains rising behind it. Streams ran down the hillsides, and houses seemed suspended along the incline. It was full of light and air, with wonderful colours, and at night the stars were brilliant and multitudinous. Up these hillsides Gerald Brenan transported 2,000 books and in due course found a house and a servant, and quickly learned the language. His friendship with Partridge was based on common backgrounds: born in the same year - 1894 - both had spent their early childhoods in India before being sent back to England for a more or less traditional education, Ralph to Westminster and Gerald to Radley. Always a rebel, Brenan left home at the age of seventeen intending to walk to the East, but with the outbreak of war returned to join the army. Partridge spent a brilliant year at Christ Church, Oxford before joining the army. Both had outstanding military careers. Brenan was awarded the Croix de Guerre and served as an officer at the front; Partridge won the Military Cross and the Croce de Guerra and became a major at twenty-three. Now, both were experiencing similar changes in their rejection of traditional careers and lives.

(2) Gerald Brenan, Personal Record: 1920-72 (1974)

We met casually in London, after which Ralph 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.

(3) Francis Partridge, Memories (1981)

Just three months after the marriage of Ralph and Carrington, the trio (Lytton included) spent a few weeks at Watendlath in Cumberland. Here they were visited by Gerald Brenan, a great friend of Ralph's from the war, and here it was that Gerald and Carrington-who had met before, and indulged in a light flirtation-finally fell in love. The feeling was deep on Gerald's side, and they had a good deal in common; but Ralph was quite unsuspicious, merely delighted that they were getting on so well together, and unaware of their secret meetings and love-making, so that when later on the truth came out, the wound he suffered was intensified by the fact that trust and candour were as necessary to him as secrecy was to Gerald and Carrington. He had lashed about like an animal in pain and behaved irrationally. Very largely thanks to Lytton's affection and patience the trio gradually came to terms with the situation, and (what was more) realistically, but the process took two years. On the surface everything would now go on as before, but there were vital changes. The marriage between Ralph and Carrington was never the same again, and each considered themselves free to choose their own lovers and friends, though this unusual trio were still bound by ties of devoted affection to each other and to their shared life at Tidmarsh Mill House.

(4) Gerald Brenan, Personal Record: 1920-72 (1974)

From the moment that she (Dora Carrington) entered the room, dressing in her rather absurd and ugly London clothes - for no formal clothes became her - and carrying a bunch of garden flowers and a home-made cake or pot of jam, her whole face irradiated by her honeyed smile, I was thinking only of that and could listen to nothing she said until the matter had been decided. This was not because my physical urge was so great, but because making love had become the proof that she still loved me... In her sexual feelings she was unpredictable.

(5) Dora Carrington, letter to Gerald Brenan (15th December, 1919)

I've become much fonder of Ralph Patridge. 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?

(6) Gerald Brenan, Personal Record: 1920-72 (1974)

I told him the whole story of my love for Carrington down to my last visit to Tidmarsh. He (Ralph Partridge) began to press me on certain physical details had I put my hand down the front of her dress and so forth? I could see that they were of immense importance to him. If I had told him that I had, I felt that he would have been overcome with loathing for her and would almost certainly have refused to go back to her. But, keeping my mind firmly on what had happened to us at Watendlath and (Larrau), I could assure him truthfully that I had done nothing of the sort, and he appeared to believe me. Luckily for me he asked no questions about our recent relations at Tidmarsh, since in that case I should have had to lie to him. Then the story of the supposed plot with (Valentine) came up. Every ten minutes he left the room and went upstairs to consult with her about what I had said. That, at least, was what he told me, though I have since gathered that it was a hoax and that she was not there. At the end he said that he would have to consider what he would do and whether he would return to live with Carrington or not.

(7) Dora Carrington, letter to Gerald Brenan (19th March, 1925)

You are again I see going to press in a direction which will cause difficulties. Every sentence of your post script confirms what I felt only too acutely last winter. That by becoming your lover I would make the situation more difficult. Because the responsibilities would be greater. Since our relations are circumscribed because my life is so arranged that I can only give you a small portion of it it is a very difficult matter the arranging of that portion... I tell you there are few things that hurt me more than to think I am cared for just because of sex. The whole difficulty in my relation with Mark Gertler was always that he could take little interest in seeing me unless he made love... If you find no point in seeing me because you cannot make love to me, you have only not to see me. But I refuse to be intimidated by your saying before hand you are going to make a scene. You know making you unhappy doesn't give me pleasure. But life is so arranged. When I formed an attachment for Lytton I could not foresee it would then make another attachment more difficult. One is not made of iron, one cannot say `because I shall also give pain as well as pleasure to this person I must not form an alliance with him'. One forms attachments which complicate life, & also make life durable.

It is unfair of course that I should have this very complete life here - & only give you a small portion of it - but that is outside me - I cannot alter that now. No one, not even you, can make me care less for Ralph, & Lytton & Ham Spray - my own life - no one but you could ever make me care so much as I do for a third person. But it is no use your continually blaming me for something I cannot help.

(8) Dora Carrington, letter to Gerald Brenan (21st September 1925)

Thank you for your letter. It is simply another proof of our fundamental difference of character. I wish to bury the past, you have an infinite capacity for investigating it. I do not believe any particular circumstances made our relation impossible. It was rather my predestined inability, (which whenever I think of my past life is forced upon me), to have any "intimate" relations with anyone. I believe I am a perfect combination of a nymphomaniac and a wood-nymph! I hanker after intimacies, which another side of my nature is perpetually at war against. Lately, removed from any intimacies, causing no one unhappiness and having no sense of guilt I have felt more at peace inside myself than I have ever felt before.

(9) Gerald Brenan, letter to Alix Strachey (April 1932)

One or two things transpired after you left. It was proved (at the inquest) that her last letter to Ralph, found in the drawer, was written within three days of that Friday. Then instead of wearing her own yellow dressing gown, she put on Lytton's purple one and died in that. It was a kind of ritual act. Then a paper was found, written in fresh ink, a fair copy of the dirge from the White Devil, covered with birds and crosses and weeping willows... She killed herself mainly, I think, to emphasise the importance of Lytton's death but time races away from that Friday and soon very few people will ever remember it. I do not know whether great tragic acts occur out of literature, but this, I feel, was not one but something childish and thoughtless and pitiful. Or perhaps it is merely that I am obliged to go on reproaching her - for the last act as for so many other acts of her life.