‘Is it true what I hear, Thoby, that you’re running some sort of degenerate salon?’
‘To friendship: that rarest good deed in the naughtiest of worlds.’
We join the Stephens family while they’re clearly in mourning, and poor Vanessa’s being bored to death by some loser who can’t shut up about trout fishing. Later, her aunt, who clearly set up this awful date, scolds Vanessa for not being a bit more forthcoming, before turning to their brother, Thoby, and telling him that it’s not quite proper for his two sisters to be unchaperoned in the wake of their father’s death. Thoby reminds the woman that he’s totally respectable—a lawyer and everything—and everyone chimes in to say that Virginia’s unstable mind isn’t so wavering these days, so everything’s fine, just fine! Auntie gets in a jab at Vanessa for her painting before leaving.
The girls go upstairs to complain and strip, as you do, and Vanessa, in a fit of pique, throws her corset right out the window, followed by Virginia, and complains about all this conventional boredom. The girls wonder if, after all those years pleasing their dad, they might be able to please themselves now. Hahaha, oh, it’s sweet that these ladies living deep in the Edwardian period think anyone cares about a woman’s feelings!
Thoby’s invited his intellectual buddies for a visit, and the two V’s get to join them, though Thoby warns Vanessa that his friends aren’t very used to dealing with females. Have they been living under a rock their whole lives? Surely they’ve come across women before, they’re all grown men.
First up are Lytton Strachey and Duncan Grant, Duncan whining about having to go out in society, and isn’t it all just too much a bore? Oh, he and Vanessa should get along famously. Lytton reassures him Thoby’s cool and his sisters are said to be both pretty and smart, so it shouldn’t be too much of a wasted evening.
Inside, the guys talk about Byron while the ladies circulate with coffee and biscuits. Clive Bell takes a biscuit from Vanessa with a wicked look. She moves on to Duncan, who’s checking out some of her paintings. She declares them not very good, and he agrees, though he thinks about two square inches of one of them is ok. He then realizes the paintings are hers and apologises for being so blunt, but though the criticism clearly stings, she tells him she’d rather hear the truth. Maynard Keynes and Lytton eye Duncan from across the room and Maynard figures that having such a handsome cousin around the house must be quite the distraction for Lytton.
Clive gets up and joins Vanessa to fetch another of her ‘remarkable buns’, which she offers up, along with a compliment on his colourful socks.
That night, the girls dissect the men, Virginia declaring them all terribly unattractive, though Duncan’s acceptable, if one were matrimonially minded. Vanessa agrees he’s quite pretty. Talk turns to marriage and sex, which neither of them know much about. Virginia doesn’t even want to hear about it and tells Vanessa that they should only marry each other. ‘Just us Stephens,’ she says. Creepy, V!
Vanessa paints and can’t seem to really get into what she’s doing. She adds a big red patch to the canvas, contemplates it, brushes back her hair, scrapes the paint off, paints over it. She can’t seem to settle.
Duncan, meanwhile, is in the park, sketching. A young man walks by and the two eye each other. The man approaches, makes some small talk about the sketch, and then suggests Duncan check out a spot nearby with a really nice view. A ‘view’ really. They repair to some back alley and enthusiastically rub each other off. The young man then walks away while Duncan enjoys a cigarette. A policeman on the beat spots the young man, then very carefully watches Duncan as he passes a little later.
Aunt Mary returns to the Stephens household and asks Thoby about his ‘degenerate salon’. She’s reassured it’s perfectly respectable, as Virginia comes whirling in talking about some meeting she was just attending, which was not a great success, by the sound of it. Mary warns her not to tire out her brain and her brother, Adrian, teases her a bit. She snaps at him to shut up as she reaches for a cigarette, which Mary of course does not approve of, and she starts in on the ‘if your father were here’, prompting Vanessa to scream that their father is dead and she and her siblings intend to live their lives as they see fit, and if Mary can’t handle that, she knows where the door is.
Virginia is delighted to have their meddlesome aunt banished and praises Vanessa’s boldness as Vanessa changes for a date with Clive.
He takes her to see a Gainsborough painting (Mary, Countess of Howe, for those who are interested) and calls Gainsborough the Turner of portrait painters. What does he even mean by that? Vanessa verbally eye rolls about everyone just talking, talking, talking all the time, as though everything can be talked. ‘Well, not everything,’ he says wickedly.
Lytton returns home and is confronted by his mother, Jane, who’s wielding a book called How we Lost Our Virginity, which was found in Duncan’s room. She’s in full Victorian flutter and asks Lytton if he’s noticed any signs of ‘depravity’ in his cousin. Lytton is unconcerned, but she’s off to consult an expert.
Lytton warns Duncan that he’s going to be subjected to a Dr Hyslop, head of Bedlam. Lytton’s more surprised that the book seems to involve young ladies, but he urges his cousin to stay brave in the face of Hyslop.
Hyslop carries out an exam and Duncan comes out hale and hearty. Hyslop says that his aunt is concerned that Duncan has adopted some unclean habits. Duncan swears he’s not ‘dissipated’, while Hyslop notices all the drawings of nude men decorating the walls. They’re artistic sketches, so innocent enough, and Hyslop says that he painted himself, when he was young. ‘Quite the enthusiast…for a time,’ he says, which makes me wonder if ‘painting’ is some sort of code he’s employing. Looking pained, Duncan says he’s frustrated because nobody else seems to understand him, and he’s afraid that if he tried to explain himself to them, they’d just think he was crazy. Hyslop pats him on the shoulder and Duncan wonders if this is why he can’t seem to finish any of his work. Hyslop tells him that he’s young and therefore a work in progress himself. He’s still experimenting, so he needs to give himself some time and find some sympathetic friends.
[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]Clive tells Vanessa that, if she were a painting, he’d never tire of her. Yes, she’s exactly the sort of girl who’ll be won over by being compared to an inanimate possession, Clive.[/cryout-pullquote]Vanessa returns to look at the painting, accompanied by Clive. He stares appreciatively at her and says he wishes he could see what beguiles her so. She tells him that there are some brushstrokes that you just feel, you know exactly what it was like for the painter to make that mark. She smiles at him and thanks him for being so patient, because she figures it must be boring to keep looking at the same thing again and again. He counters that he never tires of looking at her, and if she were a painting, he’d still never tire of her. Yes, she’s exactly the sort of girl who’ll be won over by being compared to an inanimate possession, Clive.
Vanessa returns home and briskly informs her siblings that Clive proposed. Aghast, Virginia asks if he was rejected. He was. Thoby worries that the Thursday nights are going to be awkward now, but Vanessa, seeming a bit twitchy, says she just told him she had no desire to be married and Clive seemed perfectly cool with that.
Thursday evening. The men debate while Clive tells Vanessa he’s not giving up on winning her over. Duncan asks her what the man’s talking about, but she dismisses that so they can go back to talking about painting. Lytton’s and Keynes’s debate gets a little too heated and Lytton gets up and stomps out. Duncan goes to help him cool down and finds out that what’s really going on here is that Keynes has taken up with someone Lytton fancied at Cambridge. Lytton sighs that he’s ridiculous but Duncan reassures him he’s no such thing. And then they start to make out. Talk about kissing cousins. Vanessa, coming downstairs to see how everyone’s doing, catches sight of them and heads right back up.
She tells Virginia all about it and Virginia has a bit of a giggle over it. Virginia thinks they should just do away with men, since they do nothing but exclude women, and only have to do with other ladies. Vanessa doesn’t think sex is that big a deal, that friendship is really the thing.
Clive is so determined to win over Vanessa he’s actually willing to go on an extended shopping trip with her. He accompanies her home, laden with purchases, trying to convince her that they can make a marriage whatever they want. She still doesn’t see the need for marriage. He asks if Virginia is the obstacle, since she needs care, but Vanessa says this is really about her wanting the freedom she’s only just received. She tells him she’s come to care for him as a friend (ouch) and suggests he get out of England for a while, suggesting that some time apart might help them clarify their feelings. He doesn’t think his feelings need clarifying, since he’s sure he’s in love with her. He’s starting to get exasperated and she apologises, explaining that she just doesn’t know how to gracefully handle situations like this. He takes her hand, unbuttons the glove and very slowly strokes her wrist. ‘Marry or burn,’ he says. Are those really her only two options?
Lytton and Duncan are cozied up in bed together, enjoying some afternoon delight followed by RealTalk. Lytton states frankly that Duncan doesn’t love him and urges Duncan to admit it. Duncan won’t say so, even if it is true, but Lytton keeps pressing, so finally he does. And then they start having sex again. These people have some strange turn ons.
Vanessa and her siblings are in Greece, and she’s writing some rather playful letters to Clive, who’s in Paris. She passes on some info on their friends: Keynes has a fellowship and Lytton is determined to finally finish his dissertation. Clive reads the letter while in a café, but his excitement is cut short by the arrival of a telegram summoning him back to London.
He arrives at the same time as the Stephenses. Thoby is mortally ill, and Vanessa’s not doing too well herself. Vanessa thanks Clive for returning so quickly. He helps her into the house, promising that all will be well.
He sits at Thoby’s bedside, reading him Jane Austen, and, finally, Thoby comes around and says he’s craving anchovy toast. Vanessa comes in and smiles weakly, seeing her brother on the road to recovery.
Keynes, Duncan, Lytton, and Lytton’s new hipster beard get together at a posh restaurant to toast Toby’s recovery, Duncan’s new paintings, and Lytton’s finished dissertation. Keynes also raises a glass to the beard. Duncan starts to get a bit squirrelly and breaks the news to his cousin that he and Keynes have got a thing going Lytton gets an amazing ‘is this really happening again?!’ look on his face, but he recovers enough to wish them both well. That was quite mature of him.
And once again a telegram arrives to spoil the fun: Thoby is dead. Vanessa quietly stops the clock in his room while Virginia weeps and Adrian looks helpless and wonders what they’re going to do. Vanessa admits she doesn’t know. They all hold hands over the body.
Vanessa goes downstairs to the sitting room, looking at her paintings, including one of her brother, and starts to sob. Clive finds her there sometime later and she tries to be brave as she says that he didn’t suffer, he even had time to say goodbye. She begins to cry again and he steps forward and hugs her close. A moment later, she pulls away slightly, then starts to kiss him. I feel weird for saying this, but it’s kind of hot.
Apparently she’s decided to marry Clive, and though she swears to Virginia that nothing will change, Virginia knows that everything will change. She can’t believe her sister actually wants to marry this guy but Vanessa wants to at least try to be happy, and Clive has a certain talent for that. She quietly says that this kind of snuck up on her and Virginia snaps that Vanessa’s an artist and should be much more in touch with her feelings. She stomps off.
Vanessa and Clive marry and have a sex-filled honeymoon in Italy. In a letter home to Virginia she tells her that Italy is great, the weather’s great, and the sex is AWESOME. Also, she wishes Virginia were there. Strange juxtaposition there, Nessa. Virginia gets the letter, seems a little sad, and then starts doing her hair the way Vanessa does hers.
The Thursday nights continue, now at the Bell home, now with Vanessa gigantically pregnant. Lytton and Virginia gossip about Duncan and Keynes’s ongoing relationship. They also gossip a bit about the Bells, and Lytton tells Virginia that Vanessa’s not as smart as her little sister, but she’s still terribly clever. He wonders how long it’ll take her to notice that Clive isn’t.
Later, Duncan thanks Lytton for being such a brick about him and Keynes, while Clive sits down for a chat with Virginia. He takes her hand and tells her she looks really pretty and he hopes they’ll be good friends. She smiles shyly, then comments that Vanessa was born to be a mother and will adore it. He hopes she won’t love it too much, since he didn’t marry her to become a brooding milk cow. Screw. You. Clive.
Congrats. Mary Poppins thinks you’re an asshole.
[cryout-pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]Clive says he hopes Vanessa won’t love motherhood too much, since he didn’t marry her to become a brooding milk cow. Screw. You. Clive.[/cryout-pullquote]Cut to Vanessa nursing her newborn son, named Julian, after Thoby (whose first name was Julian). Vanessa, as Virginia declared, is in her element, while Virginia’s like, yeah, the kid’s great, whatever. Hey, the Times Literary Supplement wants me to write something! Vanessa tells her that’s great, the first step on the road to a brilliant career. Virginia doesn’t seem so sure, and she’s not too happy to hear that Vanessa’s got Virginia’s whole future figured out.
The baby wakes, crying, in the middle of the night, as babies do. Vanessa goes to tend to him while Clive sulkily goes to sleep in the dressing room. Clive, if you didn’t want this to happen, you should have taken precautions. Birth control did exist at this time and I’m sure a member of the bohemian set like yourself would have been aware of it.
Vanessa settles down one day to paint, her chilled out baby relaxing beside her. Clive comes in and asks if she wants anything, when what he really means is, ‘can I offer you my penis?’ She tells him she’s good, thanks, and he retreats, pouting.
Virginia has given Clive one of her stories to read, and he comes back to her with some edits. She appreciates the honest feedback and admits she didn’t think he’d do more than glance at it. He brings his leg a little too close to hers and says he had some time on his hands.
Vanessa comes bustling in, startling the two of them apart, and Virginia hustles out of there. Vanessa sits down with her husband, saying she hopes he looked after her.
She and Clive buy one of Duncan’s paintings, and he delivers it, thanking them for the support. Keynes is worth a lot, but Duncan doesn’t want to just live off his lover. Clive comes in, dressed in white tie, and reminds Vanessa that they have a posh dinner to go to. The Asquiths will be there and everything! Duncan’s been invited as well. Vanessa goes upstairs to take a bath and brings Duncan with her so he can shave. She asks how his relationship with Maynard is different from marriage. He says they don’t expect the same things from each other. Children or fidelity, to name just a couple. They do share loyalty, companionship, and frankness, though.
While they’re getting dressed, Duncan asks to borrow a pair of Clive’s studs, and when Vanessa goes to fetch them, she finds some rather racy love letters from Virginia to Clive. Duncan chatters on for a bit, then realizes she’s gone quiet, and when he comes into the dressing room and sees her with the letters he puts everything together immediately. She shoves them away and asks if he thinks loyalty’s the most important thing in a relationship. He takes the studs and quietly withdraws to let her gather herself.
That night, she sits on the edge of the bed for a while, then goes into the dressing room, where Clive’s still sleeping, and sniffs his shirt. She then launches herself at her sleeping husband, demanding to know who he’s been with, because the shirt smells like a woman’s perfume, which Virginia never wears. He’s pretty sleep confused, but then admits it was a woman he had an affair with before he and Vanessa married. They met up again and one thing led to another because, as Clive says, Vanessa’s been so wrapped up with the kid. Dickhead. He swears that he adores Vanessa, but men have a weakness and they see pretty women and just can’t keep their dicks away from them. Really, we should feel sorry for poor men! She sits down beside him and tells him she doesn’t want either of them to feel trapped here, but they do have a kid and a house and friends and a life together. ‘We must be honest with each other, and realistic,’ she says. ‘Nessa, you amaze me,’ he says honestly. She’s pleased to hear that and launches herself at him. She breaks away from him long enough to tell him he’s got to end things with Virginia. He doesn’t’ seem to have much of a problem with that just now. She suggests they find Virginia a husband.
Fast forward many years in the future. Older Vanessa goes out to the garden, looking for Virginia. Clive tells her that Julian’s showing her the new barn. There’s some chat about Virginia getting a bunch of new hats, on orders from Vita Sackville-West. Vanessa wonders if Virginia’s husband doesn’t consider this matter with Vita a bit of a bore. He doesn’t care if Virginia has her fling, as long as she comes home to him in the end.