The Best of Bloomsbury

Anyone who studies British culture in this century will find that many (though not all) the dominant ideas and attitudes in that culture are to be found in the Bloomsbury group. For the generation that grew up in the shadow of the First World War they were liberators—all the more so because they enraged the Establishment in London and the universities. After the Second World War Leavis and his followers dented their reputation, but the torrent of biographies, diaries, letters, and memoirs restored them to life by rescuing them from the stereotypes critics had created. For a few it had been all too much. “Afraid of, no; marginally bored with, yes” was the title of one of Mark Boxer’s cartoons. But they embodied more than any other movement the English response to the revolution in art and morals that we call Modernism.

It was a restrained English response. The first reaction was to mock people who wore stiff shirts, lawn sleeves, and academic cap and gown. Leonard Woolf said that they considered their first duty to pillory the monarchy, the Church, the army, the stock exchange, the upper classes, and suburbia. Whatever explanation authority gives, disregard it. Never argue with authority. Ridicule it. The next response is to cultivate the right feelings. Without them questions about Duty and Obligation will be misunderstood, All of Forster’s novels say: Don’t lie about your feelings, trust your sexual desires. They may well be homosexual. Bloomsbury substitutes the aristocracy of the sensitive, the brave, and the plucky for the aristocracy of dukes and earls which snobs worship. But your rebellion must be explicable through reason. When Roger Fry and Clive Bell explained the revolution in the visual arts or when Virginia Woolf defended her revolution in the novel by considering Arnold Bennett’s vision of reality, they gave no quarter to irrationality.

Sometimes they were hardly revolutionary at all. Strachey disliked the Post-Impressionists, thought Bell’s books nonsense, and was at heart a mild conservative. Leonard Woolf and Forster scolded British officials for snubbing educated Asians and Africans, but Virginia referred to them as darkies and Strachey called them golliwogs. She and Forster hated Ulysses. Keynes said that on the barricades he would be found on the side of the educated upper classes. Only one of their number appears on the surface to be an orthodox member of the left. Leonard Woolf was a socialist, an anti-imperialist, and a supporter of the League of Nations and collective security. And now, undeterred by Woolf’s five volumes of leisurely autobiography, a retired American diplomat has now collected his letters.

Frederic Spotts could not have done the job better. Only a fraction of Woolf’s correspondence has survived—his files contain the letters of forty thousand correspondents but much political correspondence and material from the Hogarth Press, which he founded, has perished: little survives from the Fabian Society, from his family, or from Freud. Frederic Spotts has published six hundred of the eight thousand he has collected, and the accuracy of…

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