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;…

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