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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 cultured soul.” Bloomsbury had grown up with full access to that belvedere, and had moved away.

The mysteries of the earth, of the body, of love, easily survived in Bloomsbury. The mysteries of church and state, of money and sex, did not. In these departments reticence seemed opposed to health. Think of the Schlegel household in Forster’s novel Howards End—so like the Stephen children on their own. Here when Margaret Schlegel has an ill-bred young clerk to tea for the first time she thinks nothing of asking him (for his own good) how much money he has. Or think of that true occasion when Lytton Strachey read the history of a day in his life to a group of Bloomsbury friends. Here he cheerfully described his efforts to make a rendezvous with a postman, the failure of the scheme, and the attempt to console himself with the arms of David Garnett: “We kissed a great deal and I was happy.”

So much honesty and pursuit of truth may rise to larger doses than we can get down. But before we primly shut our mouths, we might think about political implications, and consider the national alternatives to exhibitionism. Which governments fuss the most about sexual decencies; which discourage visitors from poking into remote corners? Secretiveness, we have learned, commonly means there is something to hide.

Large doses of reality can only be compounded in an air of extreme tolerance; and this of course is quintessentially the atmosphere of Bloomsbury. In its origin the air started from undergraduate friendships made at Cambridge and maintained in London, where they reached into other connections. It started from the teachings of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore.

Moore’s philosophy combines several distinct elements: a methodical insistence that one analyze and carefully define one’s meanings (“What exactly do you mean?”); an acceptance of commonly followed rules of practical morality—don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. (“Always conform to rules which are both generally useful and generally practised”); but above all, a definition of the ultimate, intrinsic goods of this life as “states of mind” focused on love and friendship, beauty in nature and art, and the search for true knowledge.

A feature of these states of mind is, I think, their fragility. Moore described them as complex but organic wholes in which different parts must work together: the individual subject, his correct appreciation of the person communed with or the thing contemplated, and his feeling of the appropriate emotion. It is obvious that any of these can easily change; and as soon as that happens, the state of mind must vanish. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an example Moore employs: he doubts there can be any value in even the “proper emotion” if the listener does not accompany this with some “consciousness, either of the notes, or of the melodic and harmonic relations between them”—i.e., of the exact qualities that make up the beauty of the sound.

As it happens, Forster in Howards End gives several pages to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, with Helen Schlegel listening. We quickly discover that this English Antigone appreciates the melodic and harmonic relations between the notes; but while she undergoes plenty of emotions, we may doubt that they are appropriate. Once the organic whole is broken by the close of the finale, she leaves the concert hall without waiting to hear Brahms. The state of mind has no cause to last any longer.

A loving state of mind would have little more endurance; for duration has no share in these organic unities, and every element of love constantly shifts. Moore made deliberate attacks on Christian ethics, chastity, love of God, the idea of heaven. But if devotion and chastity have no use apart from the rest of an organic whole, matrimony can hardly defend itself. Moore found it easy to imagine a civilization in which conjugal jealousy and parental affection were abnormal. Perhaps some of his tenets are among the reasons that the sexual patterns of Bloomsbury were so intricate.

Keynes once pointed out the dangers that “Moorism” might lead to. In the frame of such principles, he said, social reform and political action were never ends in themselves. “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom;…we repudiated all versions of the doctrine of original sin, of there being insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men.” With time, he said, the pure doctrines deteriorated. “Concentration on moments of communion between a pair of lovers got thoroughly mixed up with the, once rejected, pleasure. The pattern of life would sometimes become no better than a succession of permutations of short sharp superficial ‘intrigues,’ as we called them.”

Leonard Woolf took issue with Keynes. He protested that his circle of friends at Cambridge had worried a great deal about political and social action, and indeed about right conduct generally, but that they thought ridicule was a fair weapon to turn against obscurantism. He admitted the air of arrogance and flippancy but linked it to the most serious intellectual idealism—a confidence that the new generation, by fresh methods, would correct the errors of the old. It was, according to Woolf, during the decade after these men left Cambridge that their skepticism coarsened, their devotion to friendship, the mind, and the arts was colored by easier enjoyments, and that their questioning of authority became an excuse for self-indulgence.

Today anyone who studies the products of Bloomsbury will find they fairly quiver with social and political meanings. Putting aside the obvious relevance of Keynes’s and Leonard Woolf’s writings or the whole plan of the Omega Workshops, even putting aside explicit statements in the essays of Strachey, Forster, and Virginia Woolf, one still meets the inescapable implications of the novels: feminism, antimilitarism, anti-imperialism, a passion for civil liberties, for the rights of the poorest Englishmen. Howards End and A Passage to India rest on prophetic insights into national destiny.

We may now give these themes some literary associations. Moore taught that when, as often happens, a man must choose among several good courses and there is no commonly accepted rule of practical morality to guide him, he should prefer what he strongly desires, what concerns him directly, and what he can get fast. A man should reject greater goods that he cannot appreciate, extended beneficence that he may not persist in, and those goods he would have to wait a long time for.

In Forster’s novel The Longest Journey Gerald puts off his marriage to the girl he loves until financial prudence would recommend it. Gerald dies in a football match while his fiancée watches. Rickie, in the same story, must choose between following an impulse of compassion for one of his pupils and suppressing the impulse for the benefit of the whole school. He suppresses the impulse and injures both the boy and the school. Stephen puts down his weak desire to work in Scotland and yields to a strong desire to visit his native county; he is rewarded with a legacy.

If we set Forster aside for Virginia Woolf, we should remember the fragility and immediacy of states of mind; for she composed her best novels out of immediate sensations that convey quickly changing states of mind, the best of which are contemplations and communions. In the autobiographical novel To the Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay (a portrait of Mrs. Stephen) watches Mr. Ramsay (a portrait of Sir Leslie) reading at the end of the day, and then looks out the window while he—as she very well knows—turns his head to watch her, to think how beautiful she is, and to wish she would say she loves him. Mrs. Ramsay then turns back:

And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—“Yes, you were right….”

This passage ends the long first part of the novel and produces its highest moment.

Such parallels are too simple. The relation between art and intellectual history is not in fact so plain. It would be absurd to say that G.E. Moore and the Bloomsbury direction led to the novels of Forster and Woolf, the paintings of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the art criticism of Clive Bell and Roger Fry, the biographical essays of Lytton Strachey, or the autobiography of Leonard Woolf. England at the death of Victoria, about to start dividing itself from the empire, was poised for efflorescence as nations are when imperial energies suddenly concentrate themselves in a drifting capital. The talents that had governed colonies, purified religion, and abolished slavery were now drawn into the labors of the imagination.

Civilization would have made its leap without Bloomsbury. The novelists would still have had the examples of Austen, Meredith, and James to show the way. The painters would have known postimpressionism without Roger Fry. But it would be fair to say that Bloomsbury represented a magnificent English variation of the movement in philosophy and the arts that transformed European culture during the first third of our century, and that the Bloomsbury direction, with its playfulness, tolerance, and honesty, its respect for human ties, its suspicion of authority, connects us to the greatest humanists, Rabelais, More, and especially Erasmus.

Such treasures are not to be had cheaply. The cost, to its members, of Bloomsbury’s accomplishments has been revealed in detailed biographies and in posthumous works. Without religion and convention as enforcements of morality, one must exercise more than ordinary restraint not to hurt or even to ruin oneself and one’s intimates. Tolerance sometimes means self-torment. Easy self-exposure can be a screen for sickening prurience. Those who conquer time by yielding to immediate sensation risk destroying the fidelities on which their aesthetic powers depend.

For in reality the most precious relationships are nourished by time; they are vulnerable to jealousy and rarely transcend even darker emotions. We now know what humiliations and defeats these pioneers opened themselves to with their reliance on reason and good humor. We know how much compassion worked behind their wit. We also know the degree of courage, the lack of self-pity, with which they underwent their various ordeals.

Given Strachey’s masochistic temperament, the cheerful bravery that he showed while dying of cancer did not surpass the bravery with which he met his erotic frustrations. Vanessa Bell’s loyalty to a recklessly promiscuous husband, and to a sister who flirted cruelly with him, represents a heroic compromise for the sake of a deeply rewarding comradeship. No wonder these people understood the strength of the impulses they shunned.

Forster’s exploration of ugly depths—in Howards End, the misguided remorse of Leonard Bast; in The Longest Journey, the sadistic lovelessness of Mrs. Failing (who embodies all the vices that F.R. Leavis attributed to Bloomsbury)—suggests the profundity of his own experience of guilt-ridden passions. Virginia Woolf understood what she was disclosing about Leslie Stephen in To the Lighthouse when six-year-old James responds to his father’s dashing of a longed-for expedition: “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence….”

It was Virginia Woolf who suffered the bitterest tragedy. Guilt is an emotion peculiarly at odds with the Bloomsbury direction. “Of all the means to regeneration,” said Forster, “Remorse is surely the most wasteful. It cuts away healthy tissues with the poisoned.” Yet Leonard Woolf records that his wife’s madness involved a pervasive sense of guilt.

When the mania passed into depression, she would insist her condition was “due to her own guilt,” and would refuse to eat. “In the worst period of the depressive stage, for weeks almost at every meal one had to sit, often for an hour or more, trying to induce her to eat a few mouthfuls.” The behavior suggests the response of an intimidated child to a stern parent.

She had had a minor breakdown in her childhood, and she first tried to end her life when she was thirteen and her mother died. In To the Lighthouse it is remarkable that although James at sixteen broods over the memory of his dead mother, the daughter never thinks of her. She concentrates on her father, toward whom James still has the most ambivalent feelings. And yet the character of Mrs. Ramsay is the steady focus of the entire novel. I suppose Virginia Woolf could not let her frightening emotions out.

But the guilt she felt toward her mother must have received painful additions from the guilt toward her husband. As she went on torturing him with her breakdowns, hallucinations, self-starvation, and suicide attempts, she must have faced the devastating knowledge that Leonard was undergoing the very misery she had endured herself when her father was a widower—Leonard, whose career as a man of letters, editor, publicist, was so much like Sir Leslie’s, and who had to give to Virginia, year in, year out, for every novel, every essay, the kind of reassurance that Mr. Ramsay required from Mrs. Ramsay.

In To the Lighthouse Mr. Ramsay keeps reading Scott’s The Antiquary, with particular attention to the episode in which a favorite son is drowned. He also keeps quoting Cowper’s “The Castaway,” in which the poet compares his fate as a victim of psychotic melancholia with that of a sailor drowning as his helpless friends watch. When Virginia Woolf finally succeeded in killing herself, she did so by drowning; and she left a note for Leonard saying, “I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.”

There is no better introduction to Bloomsbury than a short book by Quentin Bell, who devotes much of his space to the visual and decorative arts (Bloomsbury, Basic Books, 1969). Anyone who reads it will wish to go further; and he will be well advised to look at an excellent collection of memoirs and documents that has now appeared, edited by S.P. Rosenbaum: The Bloomsbury Group. Here are long extracts from Keynes and Leonard Woolf, a bright, short essay by Duncan Grant, a good piece of appreciative recollection by Stephen Spender, and many other illuminations, including attacks by Lawrence and Leavis. My favorite is Vanessa Bell’s “Notes on Bloomsbury,” now published for the first time. I wish Professor Rosenbaum had found room for an evocative and elegant essay, “The Air of Bloomsbury,” that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (August, 1954) and received an encomium from Clive Bell. But the collection is comprehensive and well arranged, with concise headnotes and other aids to readers.

Those who are fatigued by thoughtful recollections in excellent prose, and prefer spicy reportage, may try David Gadd’s The Loving Friends. This is a breezy biographical survey of the chief figures in Bloomsbury. Mr. Gadd does consider books and ideas superficially as they come along, but his style rises when he deals with scandal; and he pays careful attention to matters like housing, clothing, and bedding. He can tell you who was in bed with David Garnett when he tried to make love to Dora Carrington (Barbara Hiles), and what costume Duncan Grant wore to Oliver Strachey’s fancy dress ball (that of a pregnant whore). Mr. Gadd shows much sympathy with his subjects; he writes clearly and, in general, sensibly; but he gives too many words to trifles and skimps on essentials.

One of the contributors to Professor Rosenbaum’s collection was able to observe Bloomsbury from two surprising positions: as the lover of Carrington—the woman who was in love with Lytton Strachey—and as the old friend of her husband. This is Gerald Brenan, who also produced one of the best books ever written about Spain. Mr. Brenan has now brought out a volume of autobiography that touches on Bloomsbury. But most of the book is a brisk panorama of his own experiences with places and persons (especially female). The sections devoted to Carrington, Strachey, and Bloomsbury return to ground that he has covered better elsewhere. The rest of the book makes a desultory impression with the exception of two memorable parts: a fascinating account of his great aunt Tiz and a brilliantly detailed description of how the Civil War entered his remote district of Spain.

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