The central character of E.J. Barnes’ two historical novels
is the economist John Maynard Keynes:
‘transformative thinker, government adviser, financial speculator . . . and one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.’
The first, MR KEYNES REVOLUTION, creates a picture of the clever, complex man at the centre of the intellectual Bloomsbury group. Maynard has close relationships with the artist Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, her lover Duncan Grant and others as they move between their busy lives in Edwardian London and the artistic freedom of Charleston, a secluded farmhouse on the South Downs. This circle of friendship is suddenly disturbed when the homosexual Keynes falls in love with his Lilac Fairy, Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina. Lydia, who has fled the Revolution, is kind, practical and worldly, and the sisters feel little empathy towards her.
Alongside the dramas of these and other characters, the novel follows Keynes’ public life, from when he walks out of the International WWI Paris Peace Talks in protest at the punitive terms imposed on the defeated Germany. Returning to his academic life in Cambridge, with his parents close by, Keynes starts developing the economic theory that will bring him back to political and economic attention.
I particularly enjoyed the way that the novel flowed between these private and public lives, illustrating the social impacts of the political clashes of these decades. Although the conflicts E.J. Barnes describes are less 'heroic' than scenes of soldiery, she shows that Maynard Keynes’ battles for sound economic practices were also relevant to the lives of small ‘s’ society.
Ther second novel, MR KEYNES’ DANCE, follows the now-married Keynes and Lydia as they face all the changes of the post war years. I had been waiting for this second novel to appear, and I was not disappointed.The pair move into Tilton, a farmhouse not for from Charleston, where they keep pigs, garden and grow vegetables. Vanessa is too jealous and Virginia too troubled by snobbery for them to act as any more than social friends. Will the group ever be at peace again?
Meanwhile, a contrasting thread continues through the interweaving the lives of the young servant girls, often moved between one or other of the ‘Bloomsbury’ homes. Lydia herself is often more at ease with servants than with Chartwell and company. Drawn from working-class backgrounds in Wales and London, the novels show the servants hopes and social awakenings developing during the decade.
The second novel takes place against the wider powerful political changes arriving between the wars: the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression and others. They all drive Keynes onwards, to working harder and harder, analysing fresh economic theories and solutions.
We see the world beyond Sussex and London: visits to Lydia’s mother in Russia show them that Stalin’s regime is far removed from the idealised dream of Communism and Keynes sees Hitler and the anti-semitic Nazi party taking control in demoralised Germany. Finally, as the century grows darker, Lydia and Keynes’ love of theatre, music and the arts become even more essential to them and to the futures of others.
I was really pleased to have read MR KEYNES DANCE and MR KEYNES REVOLUTION.
Through her own economic studies and knowledge, E.J.Barnes has set each title neatly within an interesting historical frame, creating a warm, compelling picture of an unlikely marriage, and of a pair whose different pasts give a worldly and touching tolerance to their deep love for each other. Such a pleasure.
Lydia as Petrushka