Bloomsbury Variations

The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury

by David Gadd
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 210 pp., $6.95

Bloomsbury is a part of west-central London that includes the British Museum, University College, and the Slade School of Art; so it peculiarly suits intellectual temperaments. Once fasionable, it had declined by the turn of our century into a region of boarding houses and private hotels. Here the children of Sir Leslie Stephen chose to settle after their father’s death, abandoning the far more respectable address where he had darkened their youth with his years of invalidism. A number of friends and acquaintances soon came to live near by, but only the intimates of the two daughters and their husbands are identified as the “Bloomsbury Group”

Stephen was a brilliant intellectual historian and biographer; he had launched the vast Dictionary of National Biography; and he was garlanded with honors. Playful and imaginative with the very young, he taught his children to enjoy complete intellectual freedom, to pursue the truth as their grail. But music and the visual arts meant nothing to him; he despised literary conversation, and thought frivolity a mark of insincerity. From his wise and beautiful second wife he required constant sympathy, along with reassuring praise of his work. After she died, the guilt he felt for his tyrannical dependence on her attention complicated the burden of his deafness, hypochondria, and self-pity.

Stephen’s youngest daughter, given to manic-depressive cycles, became the novelist Virginia Woolf. Her more stable and even more beautiful elder sister became the painter Vanessa Bell. Both married: Virginia to Leonard Woolf, who combined sanity with intellectual brilliance; Vanessa to Clive Bell, remarkable as a sportsman, philanderer, and critic of art. Among the closest friends of the couples were three men of genius who had had a triangular love affair with one another: the writer Lytton Strachey, the economist Maynard Keynes, and the painter Duncan Grant. From an older generation the group adopted Roger Fry, the most influential art critic of the age; and one of their enduring fringe benefits was E.M. Forster.

If we call these people and those who kept in touch with them “Bloomsbury,” how far can we go in defining what they stood for? For rough bearings we can use other well-mapped territories: the London of Eliot and Pound, the England of Lawrence, the Ireland of Yeats. These men were attracted by the mysterious power of the irrational in human nature, and they did not underestimate it. The Bloomsbury direction points elsewhere, away from what Lawrence drove at when he condemned self-consciousness. It points away from what held Lawrence when he described Mussolini as one of the few examples of true leadership. While Lawrence yearned for the “fierce singleness” of the “old, hardy, indomitable male,” Virginia Woolf jeered at the “unmitigated masculinity” of Rome under fascism. Like a resurrection of Sir Leslie’s brother Fitzjames Stephen, Lawrence warned civilization against decadence: “One realises, with horror, that the race of men is almost extinct in Europe…. Nothing left but the herd-proletariat and the herd-equality mongrelism, and the wistful poisonous self-sacrificial …

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