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Eminent Romantics

Bloomsbury: A House of Lions

by Leon Edel
Lippincott, 288 pp., $12.95

Writers have often been responsive to the tendency to prefer some sorts of people to others, and to do so in a way that confuses one order of merit with another, and that gives rise to uncertainties of status and to the behavior of the snob. If the writer in question is eminent, we are rarely offended by this response: only those who are in the habit of protesting are heard to protest about it, and Eliot is loved for loving other people so little. It is as if most people find it easy to accept the belief in an “us” and a “them,” to believe in elites and elects, and in eminence, and to believe that writers have to be, or are right to be, snobs.

Leon Edel has had to be a student of this tendency. Having brought to completion, and reissued, his long and famous life of the snobbish Henry James, he has now turned his hand to a portrayal of the early lives of an elite and an elect. Bloomsbury was both. It flourished during the first two decades of this century, and its members belonged to the English upper class. Women may not have been envisaged originally, but two of them—the Stephen sisters, Virginia and Vanessa—soon passed through the eye of the needle. No working-class male was ever to make it, and one reason for that was Cambridge University. Bloomsbury was recruited from the highly elective Cambridge secret society known as the Apostles, and the Apostles lacked working-class undergraduates at a time when the university itself did. So far as Bloomsbury was concerned, then, merit spoke with a posh voice, in what England revealingly describes as a “cultured” accent. It consisted both of brains and of birth. To complicate matters, brains and birth were sometimes to affirm the principle of the equality of man and to work for the socialist cause.

Professor Edel conveys the impression that books by and about Bloomsbury have been and are cherished. Well, a scholarship of the subject has gone ahead in the last few years, and a second wind of interest in it has blown into being some more memorabilia. In America, it seems to have acquired the charm of an exotic cult, to which Anglophiles may elect themselves. There and in England, young people express the view that Bloomsbury was the engine-room of modernism. Protest has seized on Virginia Woolf as an injured woman; others again have seized on her for her breakdowns. And yet it can equally be said that, in England at least, very few even of those who are interested in the work of some individual member of the group are at present exercised by the question of its corporate identity and fame, or are other than calm about the old curse called down on Bloomsbury by Edel’s “Cambridge dogmatist,” F.R. Leavis: “Articulateness and unreality cultivated together; callowness disguised from itself in articulateness; conceit casing itself safely in a confirmed sense of high sophistication; the uncertainty as to whether one is serious or not taking itself for ironic poise….”

The story told here runs from 1885 to 1920, and takes in all those who are usually thought to be Bloomsbury, disconnecting only E.M. Forster. The book pays more attention to social relations, and to sexual activities and abstentions within the group, than it does to the work they did. It digests the products of the first and second winds of interest in the group, so that what happens on the page tends to be a biographical account based on a biographical account. This is the manner of Edel’s book on James, and it is the manner of many biographies.

How does this method differ from the method credited here to Lytton Strachey, who “turned his craft of biography into the art of pastiche, into imitation of voices he found in documents, larded over with seasoned generalizations of wit and psychological insight, as well as psychological insight, as well as psychological asperity”? Perhaps the difference is not very marked, just as the difference between Strachey and the biography which preceded him is smaller than was originally supposed. Edel and Strachey share a taste for the dignified and colorful analogy or allusion. Strachey’s Florence Nightingale is reported to have been no Aspasia, while, for Edel, Leonard Woolf played Pericles to the Aspasia of his wife. When Vanessa Bell has a child one Christmas, a Nativity scene is delivered, visited by wise men. But the analogy with Strachey should not be pressed. Vanity and “asperity” made him an unreliable writer, whereas Edel is kindly, careful, and careful to appear undogmatic. He keeps calling his persons by their first names: it is as if he can’t have enough of them, and it is surprising that his bland book is so short. But then it is surprising that he chose to write it, since he has hardly anything fresh to say about a familiar subject, which he has not revived by choosing to do the group, in its totality, as a jeunesse.

Nevertheless, there is something distinctive about the book. What is distinctive is that Bloomsbury is steadfastly presented as romance. Whether or not Edel would welcome the suggestion, one may add that there is dogma in this. Iconoclastic Bloomsbury was more inclined to attack Victorians than romantics, and his approach owes less to a feeling for whatever element of anti-romantic modernism can be ascribed to the group than it does to the romantic attitudes which also prevailed there. The reader of Bloomsbury: A House of Lions is conscious that to be romantic is to be ambitious and excellent, and to be full of a sense of the divisions that can exist between the self, or the coterie, and its surrounding society.

Mankind plods along,” writes Edel, while “someone like Keynes leaps above it,” leaps above the irrational “commonplace.” Virginia Woolf’s conversation achieved “vertiginous flights.” Roger Fry “soared into the sublime.” Carrington, for that matter, was “curiously flighty.” Social distinction and spiritual flights went together. These lions leap above the common people of ordinary life, and lope about the Cambridge Backs to “the soaring song of innumerable nightingales.” I remember the Cambridge Backs myself, but I don’t remember any nightingales. It may be that Professor Edel takes them on trust, rather as he does the excellence of Bloomsbury conversation. Their conversation is, in fact, amply recorded, but he writes: “We must take it on trust that they were remarkable.”

The romanticism of Keynes is prominently displayed, and so is that of Virginia Woolf. In referring to her first novel, The Voyage Out, the book also refers to the “Virginia character” in Leonard Woolf’s early novel, The Wise Virgins: “She tells the hero she wants ‘the romantic part of life…it’s the voyage out that seems to me to matter, the new and wonderful things.’ But she also says, ‘I can’t give myself: passion leaves me cold.”’ Throughout the book, the romantic construction placed on the activities of the jeunesse is a vehicle for much of the praise that is dispensed.

The notion of a “them” and “us” is linked, for this writer in this book, as it has so often been elsewhere, with the notion of an “up” or an “out,” a “beyond” or “above.” It was possible to think that Bloomsbury itself might be excelled: “Lytton was critical even of his old intimate Leonard, for putting himself on the level (the niveau) ‘of the Bloomsbury gang.’ This suggested that Lytton considered himself to be quite above the gang’s level.” On the previous page, a word about the death of Vanessa Bell’s son Julian in the Spanish Civil War is succeeded by: “Her mourning spiraled into illness and melancholy far beyond that of a mother grieving for a lost child.” Florence Nightingale was said by Strachey to soar to a niveau far above “the popular imagination”: and yet his essay on her demonic flights, in Eminent Victorians, was immediately popular.

Near the start of the story, two of the group meet as they travel up to the hereditary festive Cambridge of meals and clothes:

The young hedonists in their first-class carriage hit it off as hedonists can, out of their brimming egos. Like the others, they had imbibed the religion of the “Good” and the “True.” Clive expansively invited the charming and distinguished stranger to lunch with him in his rooms the next day; Desmond expansively accepted. That evening, eager to match wit with wit and show off his newfound friend, Clive asked Lytton to join the luncheon party. He was a little put out to learn that Lytton had already met Desmond (obviously at the Apostles). What Desmond remembered of the Sunday lunch was the costume of young Clive Bell. The black fur coat, the astrakhan collar gave way to a white hunting stock with a dressing gown thrown nonchalantly over it. Desmond was amused. Sunday was not a hunting day.

Undergraduate exuberance and chic, cherished with avuncular ironies. Clive Bell, who liked art, also “liked company, sport, food, women.” The civilized consumer of women is the subject of an ugly portrait by Roger Fry, which illustrates the book, and which can occasionally be felt to have served him right.

Not everyone in the group liked women, or could be imagined to dine off them in a black fur coat. Virginia Woolf remarked: “The word bugger was never far from our lips.” It seems gloomily romantic of Leonard to praise her, during their courtship, as “one of possibly three women” who “know that dung is dung, death death and semen semen.” What did she actually know about semen semen? Her knowledge was likely to have been of the kind that calls a spade a spade but doesn’t deserve an agricultural diploma. In other words, all we can take on trust is that the last item must have been known, to this young woman whom passion left cold, as a topic for the new conversational candor which Bloomsbury felt it had evolved. A gap between reality and report opens up at this point, as at others.

In general, Leonard Woolf’s exacting relations with his wife are skillfully dealt with, for all the talk of Pericles and Aspasia. We are told that they were from different tribes: as a professional-class Jew, Woolf stood lower in the upper-class scale, and some of the less attentive of the early birds in the group may even at first have managed to see him as a Leonard Bast. We are told that Virginia did not like her husband’s tribe: “How I hated marrying a Jew.” But we are also told that her marriage suggests “there was no trace of bigotry in her, although some critics have accused her of what is today called ‘racism.”’ No more is said about the charge: Professor Edel does not like to argue with critics whom he reckons to be in error.

Where Keynes leaped, we are told, D.H. Lawrence could only look. “Yes, Lawrence, tied up in the knots of his own nightmare lower-class past, could not follow Keynes’s nimble mind.” His censures of the group “reflect Lawrence’s personal problems: his fear of homosexuality—that is, his own problems of machismo, and his perpetual sense of inferiority in the presence of such less self-centered upper-class minds as Keynes’s or Bertrand Russell’s.” So it might seem that social distinction can assist a romantic escape from the self, that the upper class gets up, and gets it up. Elevation and its pronouns dominate the book. A stock language of European romanticism produces stock equivocations in which merit and social background merge.

The upper-class mind of Bertrand Russell once set itself to praise William James by saying that he “refused altogether to follow his brother Henry into fastidious snobbishness.” William refused to perform Henry’s leap. This is the kind of judgment of Henry James which teachers of literature pass over in fastidious silence. It derives from an intellectual practice which isn’t theirs, but it would not do them any harm to inquire whether what Russell says is true, and whether it matters.

The situations and the psychology of Poor Folk thus speak for themselves against class pride and class prejudice, and against the presumed superiority of the upper over the lower.” It would be unusual, though not impossible, to encounter a work of literature which was directly opposed to the meaning which Joseph Frank finds here in Dostoevsky’s novel. The snobbishness of writers is not of a kind to drive them to such opposition, and may even tend to preclude it. But this snobbishness has been compatible with many varieties of unobtrusive support for the interests of an upper class. Bloomsbury’s England, leaped at by Henry James, is a good place to go for examples, and there are examples to be found in the writing which came of James’s romance with it, in the writing which came of his English election and escape.

James was, in certain things, Bloomsbury’s master. His thoughts about the elevation and isolation of the artist, and about the isolation of the artist from his art, were their thoughts, and conduct was formed, in the days of their youth, by a zeal for his late fiction. Leonard Woolf has explained that they tried to see “the world of Trinity and Cambridge as a Jamesian phantasmagoria, writing and talking as if we had just walked out of The Sacred Fount into Trinity Great Court.” No less to the present point, James and Virginia Woolf were alike in taking a poor view of the poor. Poverty can be a reproach in his novels, and he was capable, as Edel’s biography does not disguise, of dropping people because they were short of money.

In recent times, the elevation of both writers has proceeded in the spirit of some of their suppositions about the eminence of the artist, and the high claims on their behalf have generally depended on high conceptions of the part they played in advancing the medium and burying the Victorians, on the idea that they were different from—above—their predecessors. We are seldom told that both could be meanly hostile to gifted contemporaries, and to innovation: Bloomsbury was not amused by Bloomsday, and for Virginia Woolf, Joyce’s novel was “underbred,” “the book of a self taught working man.” James taught himself the technique which seeks to withdraw the author from the work, and it is considered vulgar to say that there are works of his which suffer from the absence of an author who knows what other people are like.

There was more to Bloomsbury, of course, than the romance of snobbery and the snobbery of romance. This is nowhere more obvious in the book than when it concerns itself with Leonard Woolf and with the very different Desmond MacCarthy, whose stories of stretcher-bearing in the trenches are awkward company here for the troubles of those of Bloomsbury’s noncombatants who were condemned to the spade for part of the war, and to battles with the mice which Duncan Grant, like Robert Burns, was loath to kill. Bloomsbury did some good in the world, and did well there: in two of Leon Edel’s less fortunate words, “aggressivity” became “archirespectable” at times, and Orders of Merit were conferred. But if there were those who rose to achievement and reputation, and who shone in public office and at dinner parties, there were those who were against most of that, and who showed, while they were at it, that if the group liked to go on about principle, and to devise principia, it could also shy away from these in laughter.

In discussing Bloomsbury’s “experiment in civility,” Frank Kermode has written instructively of its “secular saints,” its “sillies,” and the giggle of its sillies makes a better sound than the soaring song of its innumerable nightingales. But I need to admit, having complained about romantic thoughts, that this, too, is a romantic thought—one that might round off a romantic diatribe.

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