A Bloomsbury lotus

A controversial view of the Bloomsbury intellectual saga
By David E P Dennis

Many people have heard the phrase ‘The Bloomsbury Group’. English society seems to have an echo of ‘clubability’ even now. We like the Pre-Raphaelites but we don’t like ‘The Right Club’ or the ‘Cambridge Apostles’ (some of them anyway) and certainly the word ‘Bullingdon’ raises hackles and ire. Who are these people who set themselves up above the rest?

The accepted list of people who were members of the Group is plain to see. Here’s a list in alphabetical order:

Clive Bell (1881 to 1964)
Vanessa Bell (1879 to 1961)
Gerald Brenan (1894 to 1987)
Dora Carrington (1893 to 1932)
E.M Forster (179 to 1970)
Margery Fry (1874 to 1958)
Roger Fry (1866 to 1934)
David Garnett (1892 to 1981)
Duncan Grant (1885 to 1978)
John Maynard Keynes (1883 t0 1946)
Desmond MacCarthy (1877 to 1952)
Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873 to 1938)
Frances Partridge (1900 to 2004)
Bertrand Russell (1872 to 1970)
Lytton Strachey (1880 to 1932)
Marjorie Strachey (1882 to 1964)
Philippa Strachey (1872 to 1964)
Leonard Woolf (1880 to 1969)
Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941)

All these people were classed as ‘intellectuals’; they were artists, writers, thinkers and some of them were lovers. They were considered to be, in the words of the poet Stephen Spender:

‘The most constructive and creative influence on English taste between the two wars.’

V-Woolf

The consensus is that the Bloomsbury Group ethos began in 1904 when Vanessa Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and her brothers and sisters all moved into 46 Gordon Square in London’s Bloomsbury district. The Stephens’ father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had edited the first 26 volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography. He was an emotional man, crying a lot, shouting a great deal and grieving over the death of his two wives – ending up a tyrannical man. The Stephens’ siblings could hardly be unaffected.

Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell and Thoby Stephen (Virginia and Vanessa’s brother) all entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1899). Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf became members of the Cambridge Apostles in 1902. The Apostles developed a rule-based network of intellectuals sworn to secrecy – though why they would want to hide their much-vaunted brilliance is hard to understand?

But Charles Darwin had thrown the apes amongst the pigeons in 1859 and the shockwaves were still reverberating – in which it seemed that God had been taken down a peg or two – no longer responsible for the creation of Man directly and certainly not responsible for making women from Adam’s ribs in some spare-part surgery afterthought. So what were people supposed to think now? Man had evolved from worms. If God did not have a great part to play anymore then maybe this would free up people to follow their hearts. God would not strike them down if they jumped into bed together.

Virginia Woolf set the scene by saying in one of her books that the purpose of thinking was not to influence others but simply to ‘think of things in themselves’. So the highly educated upper middle class thinkers started to do just that. The trouble is that what you think and believe is a very individual thing and the Bloomsbury consensus was not to everyone’s liking – prurient interest won the day and Bloomsbury became known more for scandal and free love than for thinking.

The problem is that if you decide to sit next to someone on the bus and talk through the Theory of Art for four hours you might find yourself in the bus depot alone and deeply misunderstood. Few people between the wars had time for thinking about theories – they just wanted madcap fun, dancing regattas, wine and lovers. The trouble is that because of the perceived unfairness of the post-World War 1 settlement, a certain Adolf Hitler began to think that German honour had been assaulted and wanted vengeance. The Bloomsbury Group chose to think about things which were not central to the future safety of England and it could be argued that as a result some of them died. Because the Group had great influence, they could have used it for more good than they did. This is my critique: that it is all very well to sit in verdant gardens endlessly reading books, as Lytton Strachey did – but if there is no link to the key problems of the age, then you have wasted your mind.

The dichotomy is plain: should we think to influence people, or should we just think for the sheer pleasure of it, regardless of the looming problems? Imagine for one moment sitting on a railway track with the Flying Scotsman bearing down on you while you consider who had the greatest mind: Nietzsche, Kafka or Wittgenstein. The difficulties back then included unemployment, Communism and National Socialism. The problems today are global warming, vast war-struck migration, famine, child abuse, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and dictatorship. Should Bloomsbury-type thinkers think to influence people about these things – or should they as Virginia suggests, just think about them as things?  To my mind it is the future of the human race that is important – what Darwinian outcomes will there be if we spoil our niches of existence so much and ruin our potential peaceful destiny?

When we look at Bloomsbury now do we see a group of lotus-eaters? Too much cleverness is not good because it is selfish.  We cannot discount the inward-looking nature of the group and the bond of human love in all its varieties, being kidnapped for the benefit of a few, rather than looking out to the safety of many. Lytton Strachey fell in love with Duncan Grant – but so did Adrian Stephen and John Maynard Keynes. Virginia Woolf fell in love with Vita Sackville-West.

Article 231 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (the so-called “war guilt” clause) stated that Germany accepted responsibility for:

‘all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.’

Keynes wrote ‘The Economic Consequences of Peace’ in 1919, without considering what effect the strictures of the Treaty of Versailles would have on German mentality. The Germans felt they had lost the war and been raped by the peace.  This was a thundering and massive fact which any truly thinking person who was not blinded by jollity could have seen.

To me, it seems dangerous to hallow a purported greatness that emerges from incestuous intellectual activity. So we can namedrop Bloomsbury till the cows come home and expect to be seen in some glowing aura, which has adhered to us because we ‘cognoscenti’ know about intellectuals.

But the truth is these people let us down. They had the brains but they did not use them to best effect.  They were dreamers who were fascinated by creativity for itself alone. They kept peacocks in captivity while they themselves were captive peacocks.

Like the ‘Matter of Britain’ in which billions of words have been written about King Arthur and his knights, the Bloomsbury ‘Matter’ has also grown until millions of words have been written about, thinking, post impressionism, free love, naked children at Charleston Farmhouse and gay passion – the Bloomsbury ‘oeuvre’. No doubt the awe and debate will continue.

For me they were a group of clever people who missed the main chance. They did not think enough. They were satisfied with what seemed immediate and they never tried to peer through the cloud of unknowing to see what was coming down the track.

They were trapped in the age of illusion.

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