The Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers, active from early in the twentieth century until the Second World War, takes its name from the district of Bloomsbury, in central London, north-east of Piccadilly Circus, between Gower Street and High Holborn. It includes a series of “squares” (such as Bloomsbury – the oldest, laid out in 1661 – Bedford, Russell, Fitzroy and Gordon, with their terraced houses) and, apart from the Bloomsbury Group itself, it is best known for the British Museum and, just to the north of it, several educational and artistic institutions and foundations, such as the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London University and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Once the centre of the book trade, Bloomsbury housed many publishers, such as Faber and Faber in Russell Square.
The Bloomsbury Group evolved from the Thursday evening gatherings, beginning in 1904, of a few recent Cambridge graduates and their friends for the discussion of art, literature and philosophy. These took place at 46 Gordon Square, the family home of the Stephens: the late Sir Leslie, and his children – Vanessa and Virginia (later, Bell and Woolf, respectively), Thoby (who died in 1906) and Adrian. Years later, Vanessa Bell remembered that they talked “till all hours of the night. Not always, of course, about the meaning of good - sometimes about books or painting or anything that occurred to one – or told the company of one’s daily doings and adventures”. They felt “free, all beginning life in new surroundings, without elders to whom we had to account in any way for our doings or behaviour, and this was not then common in a mixed company of our class”. Her reference to the “meaning of good” is an allusion to G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, published in 1903, where the philosopher identifies “the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” as “good in themselves”. To the extent that it had a uniting credo, this was Bloomsbury’s. Lytton Strachey, one of the original members of the Group, regarded Moore as a modern Plato and optimistically dated the arrival of the new Age of Reason from the publication of his philosophy.
Insofar as they were radicals and reformers, the “Bloomsberries” (as Molly MacCarthy called them) were motivated by a rejection of Victorianism. Yet, for all their gestures of rebellion and the trappings of a progressive movement, recent scholarship on Bloomsbury has argued that, au fond, the Group was a manifestation of conservatism – social, political and aesthetic. As Lyndall Gordon has observed, they witnessed to “a Victorian confidence in the social bond; they made much of friendship and manners, and though manners were deliberately changed, they were carefully observed”. A shared nineteenth-century background in the professional world of education, colonial administration, law and literature was a formidable inheritance, giving them social advantages (some Bloomsberries maintained country houses) and a self-confidence which enabled them to rebel decisively against the Victorian society from which that very forthrightness derived. The ambiguities of Strachey’s assessments of the Victorian age in his biographical studies, Eminent Victorians (too easily dismissed as merely a satirical account) and the ultimately affectionate Queen Victoria, reveal something of Bloomsbury’s paradoxical relationship with its social and familial roots and its inability completely to exorcise Victorian values from its consciousness.
Too much attention has been paid to the best-known aspect of the Bloomsberries’ anti-Victorianism – their sexual liberation from the established taboos – and it is usually misrepresented. The adventurousness and complexity of the sexual bonding – heterosexual and bisexual, as well as homosexual – of the Bloomsbury Group is not evidence of a careless licentiousness which can be appropriated (as it has been) to explain and endorse the promiscuity of the later twentieth century. The emphasis on the bonds of friendship (with Moore’s ideal as the touchstone) was stronger than the advocacy of free love. As Quentin Bell (son of Vanessa and Clive Bell) has observed:
Bloomsbury was never promiscuous in its normal or its homosexual relationships. By modern standards it was restrained in its language and romantic in its attachments.
The sexual component of the Group’s relationships was usually a subordinate, often ephemeral and occasionally non-existent element in their pursuit of ideal human intercourse. For Bloomsbury, “sexual emancipation”, observed Angelica Garnett (herself the product of it as the illegitimate daughter of Vanessa Bell and the mainly homosexual Duncan Grant), “though a source of some trouble and a good deal of amusement, was hardly as important as friendship”. In spite of the lasciviousness of a few Bloomsberries, several of the circle were remarkably frigid. Displays of physical affection in her immediate family were rare, Angelica Garnett remembers – “what an undemonstrative family we were”. While, the “Woolves”, her aunt and uncle, who enjoyed perhaps the happiest of Bloomsbury unions, were “asexual if not virginal”. Yet Virginia reputedly had a lesbian relationship with Vita Sackville-West, modeling Orlando (the character in Woolf’s experimental fantasy novel of that name) on her. The homosexual Strachey enjoyed a fourteen-year co-habitation with the painter, Dora Carrington, and if he relieved her of her virginity, the relationship was generally asexual. Duncan Grant had had an affair with Maynard Keynes who later married the ballerina, Lydia Lopokova. With these complex couplings, it is understandable that “Bloomsbury” has come to be associated with bohemian sexuality, but, for all that, it is likely that there was a good deal more talk than action.
With regard to the more important issue of the character and influence of the Bloomsbury Group on twentieth-century thought and artistry, three major issues of debate have arisen amongst cultural historians and commentators on the various art forms to which the Bloomsberries contributed. Who, precisely, were members of the Group; to what extent, if at all, was it an organised movement in art and thought, with common principles, and what might these principles be? In A House of Lions, Leon Edel identifies just nine individuals as members of the Bloomsbury Group: Clive and Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes, Desmond MacCarthy, Lytton Strachey and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Indeed, Edel takes his title from Virginia Woolf’s description of the denizens of Bloomsbury:
Gordon Square is like nothing so much as the lions’ house at the Zoo. One goes from cage to cage. All the animals are dangerous, rather suspicious of each other, and full of fascination and mystery.
In contrast, in Alan and Veronica Palmer’s Who’s Who in Bloomsbury, over a hundred artists and writers are enlisted, including T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield and Bertrand Russell. D.H. Lawrence is there, too, but he had a low view of the Bloomsberries, describing them as “little swarming selves”. Shaw, Yeats, and Arnold Bennett had appeared at the Thursday evening conversations. So, with regard to membership, we find a small core of individuals (about whose identity everyone agrees), but who cultivated extensive contacts and were widely influential thereby, drawing many others into the loosely-constituted Bloomsbury domain. Eliot, for example, owed much to Bloomsbury for its support of his work. He first read The Waste Land to them; the Hogarth Press, established by Leonard Woolf in 1917, published his work, and Virginia Woolf was sympathetic to the poet’s domestic and financial problems, although hostile to his later Christianity. Many contemporary writers and thinkers similarly participated in and benefited from the intellectual and artistic life of the Bloomsbury Group, and socialised in its company, but cannot be said to be “members” of it. Bertrand Russell is another example and, like the Bloomsberries, he also enjoyed the hospitality of such wealthy patrons as Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in Oxfordshire where further intellectual and artistic enrichment and diversification of Bloomsbury occurred.
In the matter of the Group’s common ideas and artistic principles, we are as often struck by the differences between them as their shared ideals and practices. While generally liberal, agnostic and feminist (especially in the writings of Virginia Woolf), in creative accomplishment the Group exhibited a range of allegiances and talent, innovative and reactionary, rather than the fixed adherence to principles that might be expected of a ‘school’. Quentin Bell sweepingly rejected the idea of the Bloomsbury Group as an organised movement
It had no form of membership, no rules, no leaders; it can hardly be said to have had any common ideas about art, literature or politics, and although it had, I believe, a common attitude to life and was united by friendships, it was as amorphous a body as a group of friends can be.
Accordingly, the Bloomsberries could be as critical of each other’s work (or simply uncomprehending), as of their personal traits. Roger Fry’s promotion of French post-impressionist painting, for example, was beyond Strachey’s ken and he came to view Fry as a “most shifty and wormy character”. James Strachey (brother of Lytton), although a trail-blazer in bringing Freudianism to England by producing (with his wife, Alix) the first English translation of the psychologist’s works, was decidedly not appreciative of contemporary developments in music. Having attended a soirée, he wrote to Alix that he had to endure “modern things that I couldn’t stick: 2 violin & piano sonatas, one by Debussy & one by Arnold Bax”. He was relieved when they turned to Mozart, “which was very enjoyable”. Lytton affected to find Modernist writers incomprehensible and looked for his standard of literary perfection to eighteenth-century French neo-classicism. He described Forster’s The Longest Journey as a “dreary fandango”, condemned Joyce’s Ulysses for “not containing a single idea, or showing any signs of intelligence”; Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was “little more, it seems to me, than an arabesque” and David Garnett’s Go She Must! caused Strachey “agonies of boredom” on “every page”. So even the generally-accepted idea of the Bloomsbury Group as supportive of Modernism, and united about it, can only be advanced with substantial, all-but-disabling qualifications.
Gerald Brenan warned against the conception of his friends as wholehearted advocates of the avant-garde: “they had always stood too far above the life of their day, had been too little exposed to its rough-and-tumble really to belong to it. Thus, though they thought of themselves as new brooms and innovators, they quickly found they were playing the part of a literary establishment”.
The eccentric Strachey was particularly edgy about the idea of any organised “group”. Attending an anti-conscription rally in 1916, he dismissed the assemblage (while being sympathetic to its principles) as “merely Bloomsbury and Crankdom” and in terms of his own literary creativity, writing to Edmund Gosse in mid-career, he noted that “if I am ever able to do any service to literature, it will be as an entirely independent person and not as a member of a group”. Similarly, Leonard Woolf insisted that “we were never a group” and his wife archly observed that Bloomsbury “is largely a creation of the journalists”. “Each labored in his separate vineyard”, Leon Edel has written. “They led different lives, followed different careers”.
How, then, did the stubbornly persistent idea of a formidable movement emerge, especially when the Bloomsberries themselves so explicitly rejected it?
The explanation is twofold. First, there was, in fact, more commonality, intellectually and aesthetically, than the Bloomsberries and some of the biographers and scholars have conceded. Second, the enemies of this or that distasteful principle or practice, espoused by one or other of the Group, by virtue of their vilification of a formidable cultural phenomenon called “Bloomsbury”, could add significance to their polemic by identifying something substantially dangerous rather than merely isolating a single individual and his or her ideas or works. “Bloomsbury” came to be associated, collectively, with insular, snobbish aestheticism. Wyndham Lewis derided the Group as an “ambitious and jealous cabal”, the “Pansy-clan”, which had “such a destructive influence upon the intellectual life of England”. F.R. Leavis (also in the 1920s) began his unrelenting abuse of the “cheapening and destructive vulgarity” of Bloomsbury, “this coterie ethos which has played so important a part in our cultural history”.
With regard to shared views, justifying the identification of a Group, the essential point is the commitment to friendship and the kind of communication between highly intelligent and cultivated people which that entails. If not Leavis’s “coterie”, precisely, the Group’s measure of support for one another’s endeavours was undeniably influential in the same way as a Modernist, like Ezra Pound, encouraged Yeats and Eliot. Yet we must always qualify this with recognition of the Bloomsberries’ notable differences of opinion. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, for example, criticised Virginia Woolf’s artistic method.
While every Bloomsbury voice is distinctive, the Group’s literary output may be generally characterised as a discourse of intimacy, strengthened by a rigorous intellectuality and elevated by an exquisite aesthetic sense. The commitment to reason led to a certain logical strenuousness, springing from vigorous debate, and shot through with usually oblique references to progressive social and political ideals. With regard to these qualities, we may cite Strachey’s numerous biographical and historical essays (perfect models of the form), or Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, where every word – indeed, every comma – has a jewel-like perfection of setting. Reading both writers is like participating in a cultivated conversation, in which learning, discernment and perception about human nature are deftly but determinedly communicated.
The tradition is significantly belletristic, with an inheritance from the Art for Art’s sake movement of the 1890s. So Strachey regarded Paradise Lost as the finest English poem, but not because of the subject matter: “who cares about what Milton had to say? It is his way of saying it that matters; it is his expression”. There is an element, too, of the amateur – in the best sense of the word, which includes an “English” quality of artistry apparently easily won, rather than painstakingly polished (in spite of the infinite pains taken by both Strachey and Woolf to bring their works to birth). The Bloomsbury “style” is utterly different in manner and scope from the contemporary epic gestures and concentrated complexities of High Modernism, with its cosmopolitanism (the contrast between Forster’s and Joyce’s novels could serve as an example). The probing of psychological motivation is another Bloomsbury characteristic, whether in biography or in fictional characterisation. Often impressionistic in procedure, it reflects thereby the manner of impressionist painting, communicating through suggestion rather than explicit statement, and reminds us of the ways in which the arts interact in Bloomsbury, as in the musicality of Woolf’s The Waves (1931).
Nevertheless, the literary activity and influence of the Bloomsbury Group is better measured and appreciated by studying the various masterpieces of the individuals which comprised it, and others associated with it, through four decades – extending to works of the later 1930s, such as Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937) – and how these have shaped and inspired subsequent developments (such as Strachey’s impact on biographical writing and Woolf’s influence on the modern novel), rather than in the pursuit of the Group’s general literary character and influence.
Citation: Spurr, Barry. "Bloomsbury Group". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 19 July 2005 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=130, accessed 19 August 2022.]