Why do we have an inextinguishable desire to designate certain periods as an age or an epoch or an era? Is it a plot to impose order on that swirling movement of events and tendencies in history which would otherwise be unintelligible? Or is it a device to make our own times significant in contrast to what has gone before? Why do we talk so often of a golden age? When Ovid did so he was only giving authority to centuries-old mythology. Talleyrand declared that only those who had lived in the years before 1789 could know the true pleasure of life: and those in France who lived into this century referred to the first years of the twentieth century as la belle époque. Recently Eric Hobsbawm has discovered a new golden age of capitalism in the West between the years 1945 and 1973, when there was a period of extraordinary economic growth and when men and women came to believe that they could end the scourge of unemployment.
Many today see the beginning of the First World War as the definitive end of the long nineteenth century. When Edward Grey said on August 3, 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” he seemed to speak for his generation. But not for Henry James. To him and for many of his contemporaries the death of Queen Victoria that so nearly coincided with the end of the nineteenth century was the event that separated the Victorian Age from its bustling, vulgar, violent successor, the Edwardian. “The wild waters are upon us now,” he said when Edward succeeded to the throne in 1901. “It’s a new era—and we don’t know what it is.”
The ruling class was divided by animosities that had not been seen since the first Reform Bill. One half was barely on speaking terms with the other half, under a prime minister, Herbert Asquith, who would be howled down in the House of Commons. Writers like H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence no longer kept their affairs hidden as Dickens had hidden his. Above all, women challenged male superiority either as suffragettes, or as social reformers like Beatrice Webb, or by advocating birth control. Bernard Shaw sowed confusion by mocking every institution that the Victorians venerated and saying the real joke was that he was in earnest.
Others thought the change came not with the accession but with the death of Edward VII in 1910. “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” So Virginia Woolf thought and Peter Stansky has written a book to confirm it. But then Vanessa Bell thought that a new era had dawned two years earlier when Lytton Strachey, observing a stain on her skirt, murmured, “Semen?” For that was the evening when “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down…. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips.” Or perhaps it was earlier than that when Bloomsbury began to call themselves by their first names.
Whether you think an age golden or an époque lovely probably depends on how old you are. Even more on your social class. Edwin Lutyens, the most eminent Edwardian architect of the day, at least among those designing in the classical style, had no doubt when his belle époque ended. It ended in 1915 when it became clear that the war was not going to be over in six months. “There will never be great architects or architecture without great patrons,” he wrote; he knew that after the war his kind of patron would have been either killed or ruined. He had learned not to hope for commissions from the aristocracy. They were overhoused. Princess Louise, the Duke of Westminster, and the Duchess of Bedford, however, could be of use in dropping his name among their acquaintances in the upper middle class whose fathers had made a pile in business.
Commissions for public buildings or even by banks and firms, which sustain British architects today, were hard to get in the first years of the century. How was Lutyens, who was born in 1869, to break into the stolid circle dominated by Norman Shaw or Reginald Blomfield and the modest Ruskinian Philip Webb? He did so by ingratiating himself with that pleasure-loving, clubbable, upper-middle-class society. How else could he realize his dreams? Among his ploys were artful letters with comical little drawings, irrepressible chatter, awful jokes and excruciating puns, and a willingness to fetch and carry for his clients. He was not exactly a toady but he could, with an antimacassar on his head, give a spirited imitation of Queen Victoria, and he entranced the children of his clients.
Then, as now, the favorite hobby of leisured ladies was gardening and he became a marvelous designer of gardens. His clients were not looking for a Palladian edifice standing in a park with vistas. They wanted a substantial house with a garden; and Lutyens built them with gables, tall chimneys, pitched roofs, a vast kitchen, scullery, pantry and larder, a brushing room, and on the main floor a billiard room; but with few adjoining bathrooms or labor-saving devices. Sir Roderick Jones (Enid Bagnold’s husband) demanded a dining room to seat twenty-eight. Separate quarters for servants with their own hall and staircase enabled the gentlefolk to avoid encountering them. (In Overstrand Hall Lutyens indicated the tradesmen’s entrance by omitting an entablature over it. Subtle?) His houses were not cheap. (After he was dead Vita Sackville-West at a séance asked the medium what Lutyens was doing on the Other Side. “Oh, building,” came the reply. “God must be very rich” was her comment.)
His most important patron was the mildly eccentric Gertrude Jekyll, famous for her original garden designs. She found him his first major commission in West Surrey and soon that county was peppered with sensible, sensitive houses and exquisite gardens. Lutyens was lucky in his clients. One of them had commissioned an architect to build him a house. As it rose from the ground he thought it looked like a suburban villa, so he pulled it down and commissioned Lutyens to replace it, stating publicly that houses were built for men to live in and they were entitled to have them built to suit their fancy and convenience.
His clients became ever more fashionable. Lutyens had fallen in with the Horners at Mells, a family close to the Asquith circle and the Souls. During the war Mells burned down and Edward Horner swore that Lutyens would rebuild it. But Horner was killed on the western front and it was Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer during the war, who rebuilt it.
One aristocratic connection failed him. That was his wife, Lady Emily Lytton, the daughter of the Viceroy of India. Who better to garner commissions? Unfortunately she was shy, so miserable after a weekend with the Souls as fellow house guests that she said she would never stay anywhere for a weekend again. Both she and Lutyens had formed an ideal of the other, hopelessly wide of the mark. He wanted a sparkling hostess and a well-run home. She wanted a high-minded lover; what she got was a sexually inexperienced, jokey man, punning and puffing on his pipe. She nagged, snubbed, and sneered at him, and he found himself treated by his children as a clown. Then she became besotted by theosophy and spent long years abroad. Not until 1929 when Krishnamurti, the boy figurehead of the Star of the East Order, resigned from the Theosophical Society did she return to Lutyens.
His next patroness was a tartar. Ned Lutyens fell not upon the bosom of Lady Sackville, the mother of Vita Sackville-West, but at her feet. She began a correspondence signing herself MacSack and he responded as MacNed. When she decided to leave her husband and her own ancestral house, Knole, she asked Lutyens to redecorate the houses she had bought in Brighton. She complained, writes his biographer Jane Brown, of his “grimy” stories and endless games of patience and,
when he does end up in her bedroom as undoubtedly happened in the autumn of 1917, it is to bemoan Emily’s interests elsewhere or praise her saintliness, or to complain that MacSack is too mean to impoverish herself or mortgage her jewels to let him build.
Still, she loved him even when her tantrums stopped work on the Brighton houses. By now he was failing to get commissions: the National War Museum, Lucknow University, Waterloo Bridge evaded him. He was a hopeless businessman, and after the war ran an overdraft of nearly a quarter of a million dollars in today’s values. Only late in life—he died in 1944—did he learn how an architect who designs houses for individual clients should charge like a lawyer by the hour. A lady at dinner discussed with him a new house he might build her and found a bill by the next post.
The commissions for which he was to be most famous came after the war. The first was the Cenotaph in Whitehall, that dumb evocation of Anglo-Saxon grief, to commemorate the dead of the First World War; and from this came a stream of commissions to design other tombs and memorials—one in Amiens, the other in Cambrai cathedral, for Edward Horner—and 126 war cemeteries. There were tombs for George V, Nellie Melba, Cynthia Mosley, and for his old colleague Gertrude Jekyll, who lived on until 1937. In Trafalgar Square where the famous lions sat, sculpted by his godfather Landseer, who painted “The Monarch of the Glen,” Lutyens built fountains to commemorate two admirals. When Lady Sackville died, Alice Wimborne, patron of the composer William Walton, took her place and he worked for twenty years for her family.
His second great commission was the gigantic Viceroy’s residence in Delhi, now called Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the president of India resides. It took him twenty years to build, involved him in the planning of New Delhi itself, and cost the British taxpayer a million pounds. It also cost him commissions at home; and none of the Indian princes who insisted he should build them a palace ever signed a contract. He already had a project from pre-war days to build a castle in Devon to endorse a genealogist’s contention that the Drewe family’s ancestors had come over with William the Conqueror. The vast edifice was reduced in size from the first, even more so after the war; but Drogo castle, now a tourist attraction, stands as his last major work.
How has this architect of 550 commissions fared? The postwar arbiter of English building, Nicholas Pevsner, had not much use for geometrical designs, or for references to columns and spatial echoes of Christopher Wren, Lutyens’s hero. What had a classical architect to contribute to the way twentieth-century architecture was going? For nearly fifty years he slid out of memory until that perspicacious critic Ada Louise Huxtable rescued him, and Robert Venturi reminded us of Lutyens’s amusement in placing allusions in his work. He was extraordinarily original in extending the classical tradition. He said, “You cannot play originality with the Orders,” but he invented a Doric capital with variations and magnified Palladian proportions in his facade of the Midland Bank in the City to give it an extra look of strength.1 Jane Brown’s splendid book does not pretend to replace A.S.G. Butler’s classic three-volume account of Lutyens’s achievements but she tells us what has happened to his buildings.
It is a melancholy story. His country houses with accommodation for the uniformed maids who served tea by the croquet lawn, meticulously mowed by a team of gardeners, with the chauffeur in his apartment nearby, have been converted, the interiors gutted and turned into hotels, schools, or a house for the golf club. Lutyens built houses just at a time when technology, taste, and finance were revolutionizing the way we live: his houses were an extension of a tradition that began in the sixteenth century. But his variations on the classical pattern were inventive, ingenious, a tribute to his eye; and they differed from the work of his contemporary Sargent, who was as much a virtuoso as Lutyens, painting portraits for the same clientele. Sargent’s portraits were bravura but false. (“I can’t see the man for the likeness,” said Roger Fry.) Lutyens was not false.
Very different is the literary world of the Edwardians that John Paterson describes. He does not even mention Lutyens or Edward Elgar. His book could hardly be more different in tone from Jane Brown’s. Rejoicing in the title of emeritus professor, Paterson has thrown his cap and gown into a corner and written with gusto a shrewdly judged account of the new Edwardian novelists and playwrights. His book reminds one of a fireworks display on the Fourth of July; the jokes are excellent and he shows how many writers found their ideas self-contradictory. It hardly matters if there are a few slips.2
Some intellectuals tried to escape from literary London for the joys of simple rural England. W.H. Davies became a hobo, Augustus John and Dorelia set up as gypsies (she was in fact a secretary from the London borough of Camberwell). Or there were naturalists to evoke the English countryside like W.H. Hudson and the impoverished but touching poet Edward Thomas. Edward Marsh’s first volume of Georgian poetry, praising the open road and the timbered cottage “on a wold or a weald,” sold 15,000 copies. Cottages were cheap as the agricultural depression drove laborers from the land, but the damp, discomfort, and squalor disillusioned many writers. Paterson’s sharp eye notes that in both Howards End and Of Human Bondage the characters find salvation in the hay harvest. The cult of the countryside survived the war and was sustained in the Thirties by Sylvia Townsend Warner, A.G. Street, and T.H. White.
Still, the Edwardian intelligentsia were Londoners, and they reveled in the political conflicts of the times. Except for Henry James and Conrad, they were not so absorbed by the tensions of their own lives that they refused to take a position on the issues of the day. The rich were growing richer and the poor poorer as the economy grew. At the turn of the century the Fabian Society was rising in numbers but was divided by the clash between Shaw and Wells, juggernauts beyond the control of Beatrice Webb. Paterson brings out an unpleasant truth. The writers despised the wretched sub-class, the proles, the workers they said they wanted to help. George Gissing loathed them. “I hate low, uneducated people!” says one of his heroes. Hugh Walpole had no use for anyone with a State school education. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Wells concluded that the common people they invented were “common.” By 1914 disruptive strikes were shaking the political world. Fabian gradualism seemed to be irrelevant to contain this surge of working-class resentment. Wells’s Morlocks were by now organized into effective trade unions.
Yet if neither Maugham nor Pound could see why anyone should want to vote, most writers, Barrie included, supported the Liberals in the frenzied parliamentary clashes of 1910 and 1911. Wells declared that he was in favor of an aristocracy—though not, of course, the present aristocracy. Shaw’s plays exposing social absurdities and injustices induced Galsworthy to write Justice, a drama denouncing the cruel conditions in prisons. It was greeted with pandemonium on the first night. Yet when he was asked whether he wanted to be remembered as a social reformer or a classic playwright, he dissented from Shaw or Granville Barker: art came first.
What did women want? Wells and Lawrence were old-fashioned. They were certain that women wanted a man stronger than they were. Lawrence went much further in asserting male mastery. In Paterson’s reading, Birkin realizes he wants to sodomize Ursula, and Mellors exacts that refinement from Constance Chatterley. Yet at the same time their contemporaries were writing novels about emasculated males. Shaw wanted to abolish the masculine tyrant. Henry James’s Merton Densher and Bennett’s Clayhanger are putty in the hands of their women. Women wanted freedom and found that the typewriter and Pitman’s shorthand enabled them to earn a living. A bullying boss was preferable to a tyrannical patriarch.
The suffragettes left no one in doubt what they wanted. A vast Hyde Park demonstration in June 1908 shouting “votes for women” left Asquith unmoved—though he was considerably less debonair when Churchill and Augustine Birrell were assaulted by women demonstrators, and he and his ineffective Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone were jostled on—unbelievable—the ninth green of their golf club. In 1913 half a million pounds’ worth of property was destroyed by women and in the first seven months of 1914, 107 buildings torched. The writers were equivocal. Strachey once, but only once, marched with the suffragettes. Keynes on the other hand enjoyed speaking during the general election in favor of votes for women. “Life without a howling audience to address every evening will seem very dull.” But he was an exception. The Bloomsbury intellectuals regarded active politics with aversion, both sides seeming to be inspired by the morality of a petty tradesman, “who doesn’t mind if he’s found out to morrow, so long as he cheats you today.”
Paterson spares nothing in his account of the sex lives of the Edwardians. Divorce expelled you from Court, but the monarch was still comforted by his mistress, Mrs. Keppel. (His visits to Mrs. James were misconstrued: she was his daughter, not his mistress.) Of the Souls, the gossips said of their fifteen children that few could be certain who was their father. The allocation of rooms at large country house gatherings tested whether the hostess was really up to date with the latest liaisons. Except for Conrad, the writers were not monogamous. Galsworthy lived secretly with his married cousin. The Ibsenite William Archer, the publisher Edward Garnett, even the Fabian gent Hubert Bland each lived in a threesome. Frank Harris was a sexual predator and no one was safe with the sculptor Eric Gill, neither his sisters nor his daughters—nor his dogs.
As for H.G. Wells, three or four affairs a year was the norm. Ridiculous in appearance as he was, his sexual allure was overpowering: his skin, it was said, smelled of honey. First the would-be writer Amber Reeves, just down from Cambridge, demanded a child, then Rebecca West produced one. The trouble was, she discovered, that Wells also wanted to be a family man, happy with his wife. Ezra Pound and Augustus John acquired even more lovers than Wells. It became an orthodoxy among artists that you couldn’t make art if you couldn’t make love. Gilbert Cannan, a handsome, vain, portentous writer with a “crooked inscrutable smile” ran off with Barrie’s wife. Ford Hueffer tried to run off with Holman Hunt’s niece, but was foiled by his wife and ended in jail for refusing to restore his mistress to her husband. The disasters of free love left behind them some baffled and later resentful children, like Anthony West and Angelica Garnett, who learned only in adolescence who her real father had been. When one reads Paterson on the lesbians and the homosexuals of the period one wonders how Philip Larkin, the melancholic poet of the 1960s, could ever complain that “sexual intercourse began in 1963/…Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”
The Edwardians longed for change and excitement. Personal mobility entranced them. They bought cheap day tickets on the railways and rode the new safety bicycle. Even Henry James bought knickerbockers and a peaked cap to mount his bike. He emerged unscathed, unlike Shaw, Bennett, and Hardy, who all took a tumble cycling. By 1910 both Barrie and Conrad owned a car and Henry James, protected by goggles, was persuaded by Edith Wharton to climb into her “chariot of fire.”
The new excitement among the upper classes was to discover a “genius,” and they competed in taking up artists. James and Conrad regarded themselves as the equals of the grandees they met. Hardy basked in the warmth of a dozen titled ladies. Barrie positively collected duchesses. Augustus John unkindly recorded that the violent iconoclast Wyndham Lewis assumed an “attitude of respectable servility” when talking to a titled lady. Katherine Mansfield could not resist the charm of Garsington, where Lady Ottoline at first dazzled Lawrence. Paterson unearths some embarrassing genuflections to gentility when Lawrence was teaching in a school at Croydon.
Arnold Bennett was despised for his ineradicable lower-middle-class appearance. He did not wear shoes. He wore boots. But Barker first changed his name to Harley Granville Barker, next changed his wife for the rich American Helen Huntington, and finally changed his socialist theater friends for those acceptable to the heiress. Ezra Pound was ashamed of his parents when they visited him in London, and Hugh Walpole did not confess, Paterson writes, “that once he had worked with the dockers in Liverpool and had once even preached the Gospel of Christ in the open air.” The greatest snob was Ford Hueffer, who reveled in invitations and was also the most accomplished entrepreneur in reputations. As editor of the English Review he helped young writers, and he was acknowledged by Edward Garnett, his enemy, to be a prince among editors, even if he lost manuscripts and chaos enveloped his desk.
What did these writers achieve? They revived the theater. Shaw made the Royal Court Theatre renowned for serious drama and indeed altered his style, calling his plays “Experiments.” His own productions were famous for the staginess of the acting that he imposed as producer. He encouraged Galsworthy and Barker to write problem plays; and Barrie twitted the ineptitude of the upper classes in The Admirable Crichton.
What other period in England since has produced so remarkable a range of novels as The Wings of the Dove, Nostromo, The Forsyte Saga, The Old Wives’ Tale, Tono-Bungay, Howards End, and The Good Soldier? Bennett wrote of the middle-middle class, Wells of the lower middle class, how grocers and drapers and clerks lived, what was in their closets. They both found romance in the humdrum.
Few prominent writers doubted they were themselves geniuses. James had no doubt of it; nor did Conrad, “chained, so inexorably, to his Importance,” said Douglas Goldring. Augustus John behaved like a genius. Though Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore disagreed, everyone else, T.S. Eliot included, was convinced that the philosopher T.E. Hulme was a genius. At the very least, if the leading writers were not geniuses, they were original characters like G.K. Chesterton or Pound or the mountebank Frank Harris.
In the end the great Edwardians were undone. The vogue for problem plays passed. From Dublin came Synge and Yeats with a different, poetic, drama. Chekhov bewildered the Edwardians. Diaghilev’s ballet confirmed their worst suspicions that the depiction of bourgeois life was going to be elbowed out of the way by violence and sensuality, which this music and choreography idealized. In much the same way, the Post-Impressionists in Paris were relegating English artists to the minor leagues.
There is a notable absentee in Paterson’s menagerie. Kipling appears in his usual guise as a black reactionary, as indeed in his personal life he was. But not in his writings. He was the English counterpart of Durkheim and Weber. He was unique in perceiving that people are governed, indeed have to submit to social controls, to the rules and conventions of the sub-groups that make up society: many of his stories describe the punishment the in-group metes out to those who refuse to conform. But many stories also celebrate the man or woman whose energy, originality, daring, and cheek enable them to outwit the upright sleepy souls who guard the pillars of society. He turned upon the ruling class who made such a mess of the Boer War and after 1910 challenged the liberal consensus for not taking the menace of the Kaiser’s Germany seriously.
Writers are rarely generous to their contemporaries and Paterson ends his account with some examples of unparalleled rudeness and rows. Wyndham Lewis’s magazine Blast managed to insult everyone in the art world from Walter Sickert to Roger Fry; tagging behind him was the unfortunate Hueffer, by now penniless and despised by his new allies. To be in a rage was now the credential of artists of serious intent. When Wyndham Lewis attacked T.E. Hulme, the philosopher hung the wretched Vorticist upside down on the tall railings of Soho Square.
The violence of the strikes, of the suffragettes, the violence of the language and behavior of the literary and artistic world sickened other intellectuals who yearned for the return to the days when honor, nobility, and a certain high aristocratic mode had been valued. Throughout Europe, intellectuals came to a disastrous conclusion. Henri de Montherlant, Ortega y Gasset, Kipling, Rupert Brooke, and Ernst Jünger, disgusted by the mayhem, believed that a sacrificial war would regenerate the nation. Wells thought so too, when it came. As for Gaudier-Brzeska, Marinetti, and the other Futurists, for them anything that smashed the existing system made sense. But not to Shaw. He condemned the war—and Henry James condemned him. How could the polemics of this frivolous Irishman be compared to “splendid Rupert’s” inspired sonnets? This gives John Paterson the chance to ignite his last firework that “Eliot, it seems, would be right about James. His was indeed ‘a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”‘ Not even the idea that this war was futile and wrong.
And Bloomsbury? By 1910 its writers still had their reputations to make. For Peter Stansky, Virginia Woolf was right to think that this was the moment when modernity dawned and nothing would ever be the same again. The year began with an inveterate hoaxer, Horace Cole, and the youngest of the Stephen family, Adrian, persuading Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant and two others to dress up as Ethiopian dignitaries and take the train to Weymouth and inspect HMS Dreadnought. They telegraphed the naval authorities that the Ethiopian prince and his suite would be arriving. The story of the hoax—its success—the courtesy with which they were treated—and the ensuing fury when Cole (against the wishes of his friends) leaked the story to the press—has often been told. Stansky has fun with the flow of messages from one department to another, and the embarrassment of the civil servants in discovering that the Stephens were kinsmen of the chief staff officer of the battleship. He sees the incident as a protest against nationalism and the public pride in the program of building more Dreadnoughts (“We want eight. And we won’t wait”). Was it not “striking a blow…for private values and against war”? It is hard to believe that such weight even by the participators was attached to this prank in an age of practical jokes (which Edward VII enjoyed far too much).
The difficulty Stansky faces in clinching Woolf’s aphorism is that the Bloomsbury writers in 1910 were hardly known. Only Fry was a public figure. Virginia Woolf was recovering from a breakdown and flirting with Clive Bell, while Vanessa, much upset by this, was expecting to give birth to a girl who turned out to be a son, Quentin. This was, however, the year when Virginia Woolf bought the first of her cottages in Sussex. Perhaps it was the upheavals of 1910 and 1911 in public life that made her declare fourteen years later that “all human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.” Characteristically she chose an image to prove her point. The Victorian cook “lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable”; while the Georgian cook is “in and out of the drawing-room now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat.” (Not in my family. Few were the cooks in London after 1918 who entered a drawing room: they remained Plutos of their subterranean kingdom in the basement.)
Taste certainly changed after 1910. Wells and Bennett began to be spoken of as having no talent for words: they were seen as literary sloggers. After 1910, the geniuses of 1905 were devalued. The new hero from Russia was no longer Turgenev: it was Dostoevsky. Strachey was bowled over by him. But the event on which Stansky rests his case was the Post-Impressionist Exhibition of November 1910. That certainly changed taste in Britain and from it emerged a new avant-garde. It was not only the haw-hawing upper classes or the Royal Academicians that sneered. It split what had been the pioneers in a new style of painting in England who still believed in line, draughtsmanship, and representation—considerable artists like Walter Sickert or admirers of the Impressionists like Henry Tonks. The exhibition transformed the painting of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and Clive Bell became known overnight for advancing the “theory of significant form” and the supremacy of Cézanne.
There was one exception to the obscurity of most of Bloomsbury in 1910. That year Howards End had a sensational success, the only novel to rival Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger. Yet Forster was never again to publish a novel with the assured sense of morality that had governed his previous writings. Indeed Paterson admits that Forster was something of a Victorian in an Edwardian world too brash and competitive for him. No doubt you could slot him into the category of androgynous males, too timid to cruise (as Keynes did), too tied to his mother to venture out of respectable female company. His sense of his own unimportance was at odds with the Edwardian ethos. It was common at the time to introduce a young man as having written a masterpiece. Forster reserved that word for Dante and Shakespeare.
In another respect he was not Edwardian. Unlike the rest of Bloomsbury, he was not rude. Bloomsbury regarded the conventional as benighted. Keynes’s arrogance was already legendary and Strachey was the master of the killing silence and interjection. When Ralph Hawtrey praised Arnold Bennett at least “since he took to writing good novels,” Strachey piped up, “And when was that?” They were not only offensive to others, they were savage to one another because they believed they should be governed by a vision of life partly explicated in G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and partly invented by themselves. Like the evangelicals, from whom a number of them were descended, to fall away from the ideal deserved rebuke. Here are some of the comments on Keynes made by Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf:
“A safety bicycle with genitals.”
“A malignant goblin gibbering over destinies that are not his own.”
“He sits like a decayed and amorous spider in King’s.”
“If ever a soul were doomed it is he.”
“We did our best to persuade him and Ka Cox that if they stay any longer in offices, they will be lost to humanity—as indeed they almost are.”
When Keynes made off with Duncan Grant, with whom Strachey had been in love, Strachey and his brother James circulated nasty stories that turned the Bloomsbury group and the Apostles against him, and Keynes suffered. For what he craved more even than sexual satisfaction was affection.
As the slaughter of the First World War intensified and proposals for peace talks floundered, Keynes’s old Bloomsbury friends reproached him for continuing to work at the Treasury. They sensed a strain of grossness in him. Vanessa Bell, who liked talking dirty to him, drew the line at his scatological reminiscences. Worse still, he became worldly with success. Could they believe their ears when they heard him saying Asquith was more intelligent than Lytton? And when after the war he married that “parakeet”—the enchanting dancer Lydia Lopokova—whose interminable chatter interrupted Vanessa Bell when she was painting, Keynes’s intimate relations with Vanessa and Clive Bell and Duncan Grant at their house across the way withered. Nor was Keynes the only target. Clive Bell soon was ridiculed by Leonard Woolf and Strachey as irredeemably second-rate, fat, “puffed up with worms and gases,” while Virginia Woolf spoke of Forster as “limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow.”
There is a corrective to this vision of Bloomsbury. No one knew them better than Quentin Bell. He had read every bit of their writing (Keynes’s economics perhaps excepted) and knew the secondary sources as well as John Paterson does. He toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography but ended by talking about his elders in Bloomsbury and his friends. The critics have been testy about Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled. Why does he not make more of his childhood grief at being—as he puts it—pig in the middle between his brother Julian and his half-sister Angelica, both adored by their mother, while he, fat, uncouth, unwilling to go to any school, shambled about the house? He was the first to reveal how Virginia was molested by one of her half-brothers. Yet why did he deprecate those writers who made too much of it? Why did he retreat into the position of detached observer instead of plunging into controversy, spearing or cheering the myriad critics on Bloomsbury?
People should write the books they want to write; and if they illuminate and entertain we should be thankful. Clive Bell once said in a superficial way that Bloomsbury was simply a group of friends. They were certainly more than that. And yet that is what his son confirms in his book. There were rifts, tensions, changes of heart that come with changes of time, and Quentin Bell did not deny for instance how much Leonard Woolf disliked Clive Bell. He was frank about his mother’s adoration of his brother Julian, yet when he himself broke up with his first love, his mother, he said, gave him exactly the help he needed. (She once served a pudding, gave half of it to Julian, dividing the rest between the remaining three of them. “You see, I have to,” she explained, and Julian, unembarrassed, grinned and ate.) When Julian was killed in Spain she howled like a wild animal for days on end. Recovering, she began to talk one day about Duncan Grant’s rough trade lovers. Comical, wasn’t it, that they all had their excuses for having been in jail? And then she smiled, and Clive Bell was delighted—“and I was touched with his delight.”
That was the essence of Bloomsbury. Vanessa Bell was not an “advanced” Shavian woman. In the early days she danced naked from the waist up in Gordon Square and later discovered the pleasure of taking a lover. Yet she disapproved of promiscuity and disliked the word “cunt.”
Quentin Bell is at his best in describing his father. As a boy he was dazzled by Clive Bell’s mondain manners and reputation as an arbiter on art. In the Thirties Quentin became an active left-wing socialist and remained a socialist of the purest sort till his dying day. He became disgusted by his father’s evolution from a First World War hedonist and pacifist into an appeaser who was hostile to anything that infringed his pursuit of pleasure. Worse still, Clive became an anti-Semite who after the war baited his son with the misdeeds of the Labour government.
Quentin Bell left home and it was the making of him. He married a major in the fine arts division of the Control Commission in Austria and daughter of the keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum. Olivier Bell became the archivist of Bloomsbury, indispensable to Quentin. Impossible to think of them apart. He got posts in the art departments of northern universities and finally became a professor at Sussex. Years later he ran into his father in an art gallery. There on his arm was an attractive middle-aged woman, one of the silliest and most boring of the pre-war hangers-on of Bloomsbury. How had this boulevardier, former lover of the mysterious Mary Hutchinson, descended so low? But Quentin Bell remained amused: his father was, as he would have put it, “en bonne fortune.”3
In fact Quentin Bell’s book for all its partiality tells us as much as any other what Bloomsbury’s people were like. He conveys Duncan Grant’s immeasurable charm and writes with affection of Keynes’s kindness to him when he was an ugly duckling, taking him to the ballet and opera—even though he regarded Keynes in his later years as a reactionary. He was present when Keynes read at the Memoir Club in 1938 “My Early Beliefs.” Keynes declared he was still true to G.E. Moore’s secular religion but thought that when he was young he had underestimated the irrationality of nations and the need for a social structure. Did not the “elaborate framework” of society to which Keynes genuflected, asks Quentin Bell, include the laws against sodomy? What is all this about the need for reverence and dark forces? Reverence for Church and State that falsified evidence to prove Dreyfus guilty? When Keynes reminded his listeners that “some of the feelings associated with wickedness can even have value,” was he referring to Hitler? (In fact Keynes was making a point copiously argued by Isaiah Berlin that thinkers whose assertions contradict some of our dearest-held beliefs may nevertheless be saying something of extreme importance that we neglect at our peril.) But Quentin Bell laments that the young immoralist at King’s Cambridge had been transformed into the Squire of Tilton and got away with becoming Baron Keynes in 1949 by attending a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe, which sends up the peerage in a way calculated to flatter it.
Much as I enjoyed the jaunty, high-spirited account John Paterson gives of the Edwardians, I do not in the end feel I know them. What are people really like? That was the question that Virginia Woolf put to Arnold Bennett, who had chided her for being unable to create a character. Quentin Bell explains a lot because his book is about friendship. It is not a subject that to-day excites much interest and yet it has inspired some of the most moving passages in poetry and opera—for instance, Achilles and Patroclus or Hamlet’s exchanges with Horatio or Verdi’s duet between Don Carlo and Posa. Even Cicero wrote De Amicitia. Yes, the Bloomsbury intellectuals were brutal to outsiders and said terrible things about one another. People often say terrible things about their friends. The historian of Africa, Jack Gallagher, once said, “All of us have awful friends; and each of us is somebody’s awful friend.” Yet you cannot judge Bloomsbury without understanding how indissoluble was the tie of friendship that kept them together. At the height of their most prodigious row over Duncan Grant, Strachey wrote to Keynes, “You must always think of me as your friend. I shall think of you in the same way.”
Bell’s book is his last act of friendship toward his elders and toward other friends of his youth, such as the painter Lawrence Gowing and Anthony Blunt. Bell was a potter, an artist whose most intimate friends were artists, but he was also an intellectual steeped in French as well as English literature (including Browning, as one of the more bizarre commentators on Virginia Woolf learned to her cost in these pages).4 Before as well as after his classic biography of his aunt he and his wife received hundreds of scholars studying Bloomsbury and tried to dissipate some of the wilder misapprehensions about the milieu in which he grew up. He was moved to anger only by the imbeciles who contended that Leonard Woolf murdered Virginia. He died in December of last year and was buried next to his mother and Duncan Grant.
April 24, 1997
A.S.G. Butler, The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Vols. I-III (Scribner’s, 1960). ↩
Kensington Gardens not Park, the Royal Court Theatre in, not near, Sloane Square; and it was not Frank Harris but the Victorian J.K. Stephen who besought the Rudyards to cease from Kipling and the Haggards to ride no more. ↩
Perhaps Bell recalled Yeats’s lines. “You think it horrible that lust and rage/Should dance attendance upon my old age;/They were not such a plague when I was young;/What else have I to spur me into song?” ↩
See Bell’s review of Louise de Salvo, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work, in The New York Review, March 15, 1990, p. 3. ↩