A Hidden Life

Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries

chosen and with an Introduction by David Garnett
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 514 pp., $12.50

Dora Carrington
Dora Carrington; drawing by David Levine

The group of writers and painters known as Bloomsbury is unique in English literary history because its members formed a closely knit circle which met regularly over many years and held to certain general principles. Its origins go back to undergraduate days at Cambridge when seven of its members had belonged to a secret discussion society known, because they numbered twelve, as the Apostles. The rules of this society, to which Tennyson had belonged, required absolute frankness and candor in discussion: no subjects were barred and the most personal remarks and criticisms could be made without giving offense.

One of its members around 1900 was Thoby Stephen, the son of the literary critic and biographer, Sir Leslie Stephen, and he introduced some of his fellow Apostles along with other undergraduates to his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia. Thoby died soon after, but in due course the girls married two of the Apostles—Clive Bell, the art critic, and Leonard Woolf, who later became a Fabian Socialist—and settled in London. Here the idea occurred to them of setting up a discussion group along the lines of the Apostles, but presided over by the two Stephen sisters, one of whom represented painting and the other literature.

Of the twelve original members of Bloomsbury, as this group came to be called, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, and E.M. Forster are still widely known and read today, while most of the others left their mark on the literature and painting of their time. What was distinctive about them was that they were all close friends who met every week, and often twice a week, over a period of more than twenty years for discussion and conversation. This, almost as much as writing or painting, was a thing they prided themselves on and they cultivated it as carefully, though in a less formal way, as the habitués of the French eighteenth-century salons had done. Their meetings began in 1912 and after the First World War they came gradually to admit new recruits, most of whom were young men recently come down from Cambridge. In the end, as death and absence thinned their ranks, the group came to be practically synonymous with Virginia and Vanessa’s family.

Bloomsbury was thus a group of writers and painters with a Cambridge background who met regularly to discuss questions of every sort, social, moral, and aesthetic. In their general principles they had been strongly influenced by the philosophy of G.E. Moore, who had been one of their fellow Apostles, and like him they stood, above everything else, for truth and common sense. But their meetings, when I attended them in the early Twenties, were not at all solemn. Perhaps they had exhausted their original themes, for they just talked. The tone was usually ironic and there was a good deal of banter: each seemed to be playing his own role…

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