The recent three-part BBC2 drama, Life in Squares – the title borrowed from a famous quip traditionally attributed to Dorothy Parker that ‘Bloomsbury painted in circles, lived in squares and loved in triangles’ – is but the latest in a long line of hommages to this celebrated district of London. The only surprise, perhaps, is that broadcasters still think there is mileage to be had in yet another version of the life and loves of the Bloomsbury set.
In the copious memoirs written by its various members the Bloomsberries were always very insistent that they were not a set or a group. Quite rightly, no one believes them. Setting aside their upper middle-class social provenance (Virginia Woolf, from Kensington, claimed she was not really posh at all) that enforced unexamined codes and assumptions of caste, the central male members of the Bloomsbury group learned their associative habits at Cambridge, where many of them were members of the exclusive Apostles, and their transference to the capital was largely on the same terms. They were an exceptionally privileged and exclusive group against whom the charge of social superiority or snobbery simply bounces off like a rubber dart. Vita Sackville-West’s sigh of ‘How I hate the proletariat’, though not expressed with such starkness by the others, would not have struck any of them as particularly outrageous.
Why, therefore, are we so obsessed with them? The most entertaining and witty account of our infatuation is Regina Marler’s shrewd Bloomsbury Pie: the making of the Bloomsbury boom (1997), which explores what we might call the Bloomsbury Paradox: these people with their arrogance, piping voices, and love of gratuitous outrage embody everything that should repel decent folk in a democratic age yet we continue to be fascinated by them. Marler brands the famous National Portrait Gallery postcard of Virginia Woolf, still its best-selling card, as ‘the corporate logo of Bloomsbury’ and the centrality of Virginia Woolf may be the key to the mystery.
When I wrote my book Real Bloomsbury in 2010, a guide to the area and its associations, I deliberately left my consideration of the Bloomsbury Group to the very end in order to make space for all the other intriguing aspects of my patch, but Virginia Woolf kept on breaking in. The statues, the blue plaques, the street names (‘Woolf Mews’), the bars, even a looming picture of her in her muffler filling the side window of a pub on the corner of Marchmont Street, make her presence haunt this district.
I began to see her, scurrying out of doorways, dashing along Tavistock Square, with her large, inquisitive eyes, noticing things. She permeates Bloomsbury and it was here, notwithstanding periods in Richmond or Sussex, that most of her productive writing life was spent. Writing, and talking — for the Bloomsbury set loved to jaw and entertain each other, listen to one another’s memoirs being read out and engage in verbal fencing. Lytton Strachey with his high-pitched Bloomsbury voice and waspish apothegms was undisputed champion of this sport, but many of the others attempted to give as good as they got and often succeeded.
The very strong temptation to see the Bloomsbury Group as an overvalued, precious group of people, boosting one another, and raising minor talents to unjustified eminence, encounters a problem when one begins to reel off the names: Woolf, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Strachey, Bertrand Russell… These were not minor talents and so we cannot brush them aside as merely a bunch of inflated egos ripe for cutting down. Virginia Woolf’s reputation as a novelist, an explorer of life-writing, an essayist, a feminist, remains undimmed and the first decades of the twentieth century in which they lived constituted a remarkable period of artistic creativity. In many ways it was very ‘English’, their philosophy and criticism enunciated in perfect patrician sentences rather than in the rarified academic language of continental philosophy, but its impact was, and remains, considerable. Of course there were marginal figures, hangers-on, high-toned gossips, snobs, but the core group was unignorable.
Bloomsbury was for modern tastes far too male but Virginia Woolf, Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell and others were never cowed in this outspoken company and as Vanessa Bell wrote in her 1950s memoir Sketches in Pen and Ink, they all felt part of a much bigger explosion of creativity at that time: ‘It was in these years, from 1909 or 1910 to 1914, that there came the great expansion and development of Bloomsbury, that life seemed fullest of interest and promise and expansion of all kinds…And then came the great excitement of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1910–1911 which caused even more dismay and disapproval than Bloomsbury itself. How full of new life those days seemed. Everything was brim-full of interest and ideas and it certainly was for many of us “very heaven” to be alive.’
Detractors would say that it was very heaven if you lived in one of the large, leafy stuccoed squares but perhaps not so if you lived in cramped and insanitary worker’s accommodation around St Pancras or King’s Cross.
But the paradise didn’t last. The First World War, which these bright young intellectual things, (liberated as they claimed to be from social convention, religion, all forms of inherited thinking) hadn’t seen coming, changed things for ever. Strachey the pacifist would fight a rearguard action, allegedly telling a woman who handed him a white feather and who demanded to know why he wasn’t at the front fighting to defend civilisation: ‘Madam, I am the civilisation they are fighting to defend.’
But the party was over and the sound of well-bred laughter, in response to the latest bon mot, spilling out through an open sash window in Gordon Square would be replaced by sirens and the tramp of military feet. Having signed up to the Artists’ Rifles whose HQ was nearby at the Drill Hall in Bloomsbury, Wilfred Owen shouldered his rifle and bashed one of those very squares – Cartwright Gardens – that are now celebrated, oblivious to a group to which, like so many other important talents of that era, he never belonged.