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 this edition matches the standard set by Oliver Bell in her monumental edition of Virginia Woolf’s diary. The footnotes conceal the work that makes them so informative. Spotts has divided the letters into six clumps: Cambridge, Ceylon (where Woolf was a young colonial officer), the husband of Virginia, the publisher of the Hogarth Press, the political worker, and finally the long sunset. Each section is headed by an introduction that is judicious and concise, and written with distinction.
Letters are as unstable as gelignite. So much depends on the mood of the writer and his relation to the recipient. Frederic Spotts quotes Woolf’s comment to a correspondent that letters in youth are “dashed off in half a minute by a living hand”; and when that hand is dead they acquire a marmoreal authenticity and become records into which scholars read far too much. Letters, he thought, are often written when the writer is miserable, and often dramatize his misery. Certainly this is true of Woolf’s letters from Ceylon. Woolf enjoyed four idyllic years at Cambridge but failed to get first class honors in his final examination. Worse still he failed to win a high enough place in the civil service examination to be appointed to a post in Whitehall. Instead he had to accept an appointment in the colonial service and set off for Ceylon. He did not give in to his misery: he proved to be an exceptionally able proconsul and won rapid promotion. But he was cut off from intimate friendship and discovered that with none of his fellow officials had he anything in common. The letters show his misery.
They also show something else. In these first two sections, there are a few letters to Bob Trevelyan, Saxon Sydney-Turner, and, of course, to G.E. Moore. Everyone knows that the singular group of undergraduates who were to form the nucleus of Bloomsbury idolized G.E. Moore’s passion for truthfulness and his method of establishing it. But the most powerful influence among them was not Moore but Lytton Strachey. Strachey went far further than any of them in showing his contempt for Christianity and the sexual taboos of those days. He not only mocked orthodox ideas, he mocked orthodox people and did not care a straw if they disliked him—as indeed his good-form contemporaries did. The future members of Bloomsbury were hypnotized by his deadly silences and dismissive epithets. It was essential not to betray by a thoughtless word any sympathy for the benighted in what they called the phenomenal world. To do so would be to expose yourself to one of Strachey’s depth charges and be labelled as funeste. Only Thoby Stephen, Vanessa’s and Virginia’s elder brother, a man of strong common sense, imperturbable good humor, and good looks, did not fall under Strachey’s spell.
The power of Strachey’s personality distorted the personae of his correspondents. Virginia Woolf’s letters to Strachey were the least attractive she wrote—self-consciously clever and bringing out her worst traits: spite, malice, and cruelty. Leonard Woolf did not play up to Strachey to the same degree. His letters express the affection that Strachey craved and the sympathy for his vision of life: sympathy too for Strachey’s sorrows and rebuffs—and here one needs to read between the lines. On the evidence of these letters Woolf must have hated Keynes, a man whose “dullness is sublime,” who was “crass & his feelings are those of a frog,” who, if he has “the face of a pig, has the soul of a goat”; “I detest Keynes, don’t you?”
In fact those outbursts are not statements about Keynes but messages of sympathy sent to Strachey at a time when he was losing to Keynes a succession of lovers of whom the last was Duncan Grant. There is also another code operating in these letters—the code of the Cambridge Apostles, who divided the world into the “real” and the “phenomenal,” the real being inhabited by those who lived by Moore’s standards and who had penetrated the falsities and platitudes of the phenomenal world of the comme il faut. Moore was not their only guide. Henry James’s tentacular approach to reality fascinated Strachey and Woolf, and at times they tried to emulate it. In his autobiography Woolf gave a marvelous account of the personalities and behavior of his set at Cambridge, but it was descriptive and analytic. In all Woolf’s letters you can hear that unmistakable tone of voice.
Leonard Woolf was unique in Bloomsbury for two reasons. He was a Jew and a socialist. Frederic Spotts’s good sense as an editor is never better displayed than when he deals with Bloomsbury’s anti-Semitism. It was the anti-Semitism that was endemic among the upper middle classes in England before 1914. Both Vanessa and Virginia made cutting remarks about Jews; Keynes did so intermittently; and Vita Sackville-West’s husband, Harold Nicolson, regarded Jews with all the distaste that one could expect of a career diplomat schooled to regard the security of British oil interests in the Middle East as of prime importance. Quentin Bell remembers that in the general conversation at Charleston someone asked a question and Virginia said, “Let the Jew answer.” Leonard Woolf simply said, “I won’t answer until you ask me properly.” Woolf never took offense because he regarded the matter of little importance. It seems clear that he never suffered any disability from being a Jew at Cambridge or in the colonial service or later in life.
Some have found Woolf’s insouciance mildly shocking: was it not extraordinary that he and Virginia should have toured Germany in 1935 in their car, a marmoset perched on his shoulder? To him anti-Semitism was just another of those ludicrous manifestations of nationalism that plagued the world. He shrugged off T.S. Eliot’s remarks about Jews as an irrelevance, though he was quick to rebuke Bertrand Russell when he made some disobliging remarks about Jews in his memoirs. Woolf described Judaism as the primitive beliefs of desert savages. He hated Jehovah but was rather more indulgent toward Jesus—that is to say he chose the passages in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that appealed to him and ignored those that he could never have swallowed. With the true condescension of the rationalist, he wrote that if Christ
had brought me the Sermon on the Mount in 1920 I should have published it with the greatest pleasure (and would probably have been the only publisher in London who would have done so) and I am sure he would have been quite willing to be published by someone with my views.
But organized religion was to him an abomination, the mother of persecution, and he relished nothing more than a controversy with a believer. (His letters to Fisher, an archbishop of Canterbury who treated the Church of England rather as if he were the headmaster of a public school going through a bad phase, are particularly enjoyable.)
But Woolf was an ethical socialist, no man more so. He detested ideological socialism and equated communism with Roman Catholicism, both evil systems that purported to reveal immutable laws expounding irrefragable truths. Indeed he distrusted all institutions as being likely through bureaucracy and self-interest to distort the principles that should govern life. These principles were, at home, to promote a socially just society that recognized the need to promote equality and, abroad, to replace the system of balance of power between rival alliances with collective security and disarmament through the League of Nations. Capitalism, he believed, sowed inequality and through the armaments industry the seeds of war. That industry should be controlled. He loathed class privilege and snobbery: he refused all honors from the State, as did Virginia, and would not attend a Buckingham Palace garden party.
As for imperialism, the sooner it was buried the better. All his life Woolf fretted as British governments procrastinated and broke their word to the inhabitants of their colonial Empire, imprisoned native leaders, and quelled riots with bloodshed. He lived to see that cockatoo, Harold Macmillan, get the credit for withdrawing from East Africa, a policy Woolf had been advocating for thirty years. He regarded the foreign policy of the Conservative party as responsible for destroying collective security and the League of Nations; and since Conservatives held office for seventeen out of the disastrous twenty years between the wars, he was entitled to his opinion. Perhaps he never understood how much the propaganda of pacifists and his own harping on disarmament and distrust of military alliances corroded the public will to resist the dictators. A letter in 1934 shows that he was against the policy of sanctions. But he was one of the first to denounce Hitler in 1933, and when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, he called for sanctions and opposed the hopelessly confused policy of the Labour party.
Indeed he stood out among those who opposed the fellow travelers. Like most socialists at that time he wished the Soviet Union well but he would not turn a blind eye to Stalin’s villainies. Victor Gollancz commissioned him to write a book for the Left Book Club though Woolf warned him that some readers would find it controversial. When Gollancz got the manuscript in 1938 he used every excuse to delay publication and forced Woolf to meet with John Strachey, Harold Laski, and himself to tone down critical references to the Soviet Union. His encounters over the years with Kingsley Martin were even more searing, since Woolf was a director on the board of the New Statesman. Martin was, I think, the most intellectually dishonest man I have known: he even looked dishonest. When Woolf wrote a letter for publication protesting against his failure to condemn the Communist leaders in Hungary for the judicial murder of the deposed foreign minister Laszlo Rajk, Martin refused to publish it: Woolf must, he said, have intended it as “some kind of a joke.” “About once a year,” Woolf replied.
I write a letter to the New Statesman and the editor refuses to print it on the grounds that it is both unintelligible and unintelligent. He has shown it to Dick [Crossman], Aylmer [Vallance], Norman [Mackenzie], J.B.S. Haldane, the office cat, a high Cabinet minister, and they all agree.
Next year Martin wrote that he hoped that a delegation of Englishmen on a visit to Peking could say whether the execution of a million and a half Chinese “was really necessary.” Perhaps, asked Woolf, Martin could say under what circumstances the execution of that number of Chinese would be “necessary.” He distrusted the new generation of socialist intellectuals, in particular Thomas Balogh (who became Harold Wilson’s economic adviser and whom Keynes contemptuously referred to as Oxballs). “I mistrust everything he says,” Woolf told Martin. Since at that time Balogh was declaring that the “dynamism” of the Soviet economy would give the Soviet Union in ten years “an absolute preponderance economically over Western Europe,” he had good cause. Woolf was critical of American foreign policy but he told Martin that he had turned the New Statesman into a periodical that assumed
the worst of everything connected with America, Americans, and American policy. This is not counterbalanced by the one sentence in which you surreptitiously admit that nine-tenths of what you have been saying is exaggerated anti-American propaganda.
For fifty years Woolf ran the Hogarth Press. It can stand comparison with any publishing house for giving young authors who were to make their names their first chance. This tiny venture was also the house to publish Freud’s works. Woolf was a tough publisher and took pride in showing that an intellectual could run a business with competence and imagination. Printing as he did poetry and experimental works by unknown authors, he kept everyone and everything on the tightest of reins. He was by nature stingy—he and Keynes belonged to a generation of intellectuals to whom taking a taxi always remained an indecent self-indulgence—but his authors, some of whom left him in hope of more generous terms, could not complain that he and Virginia luxuriated on profits to which they were entitled. They got the going rate, and his own style of life was Spartan. For years the only lavatory paper in the outside privy at Rodmell was discarded galleys from the Hogarth Press.
Virginia would not have his family at their wedding, and Woolf consigned them to the outer reaches of the phenomenal world. They took his second novel and other reminiscences of them in his writing as an insult and exploded in bitterness. He could be hard and he was so to them.
No one reading these letters can doubt how deeply he cherished Virginia. Frederic Spotts will have no truck with the silliness of critics who have transformed Leonard Woolf from the devoted husband who dedicated his life to preserving his wife’s health, so that she could realize her genius, into the anal monster whose so-called concern for her health was a device for imprisoning her; and whose practice of logging her periods for signs of another outburst of manic depression was on a par with his habit of keeping accounts, checking the mileage of his car, recording the date he had his hair cut, the number of bushels of apples yielded by each tree in their orchard, and the exact amount of their earnings and spendings.
Spotts dismisses stories of affairs that Woolf was said to have had when Virginia, early in their marriage, refused to let him make love to her. He knew infidelity would unhinge her and how impossible it would have been to keep an affair secret in Bloomsbury; and though Virginia’s fling with Vita Sackville-West pained him, he wisely let it take its course. His chastity was all the more heroic because he was susceptible and sexually attractive.
Leonard Woolf was reticent about sexual behavior; and he and Bloomsbury have been taken to task for this reticence. When Goronwy Rees asked him why in his autobiography he had not alluded to Strachey’s and Keynes’s homosexuality he replied that it was irrelevant to the kind of autobiography he was writing. Moreover, it was still then “unusual to reveal facts which might be painful to living people.”
More recently Gertrude Himmelfarb denounced Bloomsbury for being hypocritical “in concealing from the public the wickedness they flaunted in private.” But none of the group made any secret of their views or their behavior, though they would have regarded coming out with public statements as vulgar and ostentatious. It is a little difficult to know whether Ms. Himmelfarb expected Strachey to commit a homosexual act on a Sunday morning in Hyde Park or Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to announce their adultery in a letter to the Times. Even odder is her condemnation of Roy Harrod’s commemorative biography of Keynes for concealing (and hence condoning) his homosexual behavior. Harrod published it at a time when homosexual relations were still a crime and when among Keynes’s relatives still alive were his father, mother, widow, and his fanatically antihomosexual brother who, as one of the two trustees of Keynes’s papers, would have stopped publication of the biography had Harrod tried to discuss Keynes’s sexual activity.
Woolf was the one member of those undergraduates at the turn of the century who continued to live his life according to Moore’s precepts of unworldliness and concern for political as well as personal morality. The ardent young Dreyfusard never hesitated to denounce injustice in old age. Life took one revenge on him. He would dearly have loved to have written a treatise that could stand comparison with Moore’s famous work Principia Ethica, and he entitled his book Principia Politica. He argued that communal psychology molds a nation’s policy and often inclines the nation’s rulers to declare war. Since like Russell he ignored sociology and wrote as if Spencer, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim had never existed, his masterpiece fell dead from the press. University examiners are often ridiculed for their failure to recognize genius: but those who placed Strachey and Woolf in the second class made an acute judgment of their academic attainments—their remarkable gifts were far better deployed in other ways.
And yet was not perhaps their lack of interest in the impersonal forces of history their salvation? Unlike so many ardent socialists between the wars, Woolf did not allow the ideology of the left, which held that the operations of capitalism were invariably wicked and the consequences of collectivism invariably benevolent, to distort his judgment. Cruelty to individuals, indeed to whole classes of people, remained for Woolf diabolical. He never forgot that the aim of socialism was to make people happier and less oppressed. When I remember him, I think of Marty in Thomas Hardy’s Woodlanders laying down flowers on Giles Winterborne’s grave and saying, “You was a good man and did good things!”
March 29, 1990