Susan Sellers’ novel Firebird: a Bloomsbury love story is inspired by the life of the dancer Lydia Lopokova and her love affair, and eventual marriage, with the economist John Maynard Keynes.  One of the problems for the novelist telling a true story is that at any point the reader is likely to know what happens next, yet Sellers’ compelling narrative creates suspense both through the immediacy of her writing  (she largely uses the present tense) and by shifting the gaze from one character to another to give alternative points of view.

Lopokova and Keynes were from completely different backgrounds.  She came from St Petersburg and was trained at the Imperial Ballet School, he was educated at Eton and Kings College Cambridge, and the general consensus among his friends in the Bloomsbury Group was that they were ill-matched.  Interestingly, in Sellers’ account, they are both to some extent outsiders among these people, who consider their table manners uncouth, and look down them for their willingness to work for a wage, albeit in very different fields.

The novel begins and ends with Mikhail Fokine’s ballet The Firebird (1910), which provides a title, a metaphor, and a structure.  In between the descriptions of the two performances, five years apart, Sellers marshals a large cast of real-life characters to tell a story that falls into three ‘Acts’.  The first Act, which opens in 1921, ends when Lopokova, who has been snubbed and humiliated by Keynes’ friends, declares ‘Maynard and I will never be married.’  The second Act is the story of Lopokova’s life, imagined through the medium of her own voice, from the day that she first saw a ballet at the Mariinsky theatre to her appearance in Léonide Massine’s ballet Parade (1917).  The third Act (without giving too much away) sees the resolution of earlier trials and tribulations.

Some of the best moments occur when, without comment, Sellers presents the contradictions between what her Bloomsbury characters say and what they actually do: Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell complain about Lopokova’s untidiness as they stub out their cigarettes on the grass; they are disdainful of money, but simultaneously worry that Keynes’ and Lopokova’s marriage will cut his former lover Duncan Grant (and hence also Vanessa’s daughter Angelika) out of his will.  This is a story about a culture clash between a group of intellectuals and artists in self-conscious rebellion against bourgeois society, and a woman who, without a thought, is even more adventurous, shocking and outrageous than they are.  Lopokova captivates Keynes, who attends the theatre night after night to watch her in the 1921 Ballets Russes production of The Sleeping Princess:  to quote Clive Bell’s lover Mary Hutchinson, she is a ‘firebird on and off stage’, who disrupts the Bloomsbury Group’s social circle and settled way of life.  It is impossible not to take Lopokova’s side as she bursts off the pages of the book:  like dance itself, she lives in the moment, luring and enchanting, ‘before flying away leaving a trail of feathers’.

Maggie Watson

3rd August 2022

Firebird: a Bloomsbury love story, by Susan Sellers.  Published by Edward Everett Root, 2022. ISBNs 9781913087807; 9781913087814

Buy the book online here