A bad case of group dynamics

ON OR ABOUT DECEMBER 1910: Early Bloomsbury and its Intimate World by Peter Stansky, Harvard pounds 18.50
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When Virginia Woolf wrote, in Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown (1924), that "human character changed on or about December 1910", she was, as she hinted a little later in the same paragraph, only half serious. Peter Stansky, the author of the latest study on the Bloomsbury circle, has decided nevertheless to take the comment literally, even tracing what he considers to have been its origins in Woolf's life. By December 1910, she was in the middle of her first novel The Voyage Out, had acquired a country home, and had begun to feel healthier than for some considerable time. "These were good reasons," Stansky comments, apparently without irony, "why Woolf came to the conclusion that it was then that human character changed." Not only in her immediate environment, it seems, but also in the rest of Britain, and for that matter in the rest of Europe as well.

The main purpose of this book is at once to introduce the main figures - E M Forster, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, as well as Woolf herself - while setting them, and the general movement of literature and art, in a detailed historical context. "These were young people," Stansky writes, "not willing automatically to accept the conventions and received opinions of the day."

As far as the history is concerned, Stansky's debt (which is generously acknowledged) is to George Dangerfield's classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, from which he lifts what have come to be seen as the major historical events of 1910: the death of King Edward VII, the appearance in the sky of Halley's Comet, two general elections, increasing calls for votes for women, the London exhibition "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" (organised by Fry), the appearance of Forster's Howards End, as well as the coincidental forming of friendships between the individuals who would go on collectively to embody the Bloomsbury ethos.

Of course, this interweaving of the social, political and artistic events of the pre-war years is not exactly new. At the time of the exhibition, the Daily Herald remarked: "The Post-Impressionists are the company of the Great Rebels of the World. In politics the only movements worth considering are Woman Suffrage and Socialism. They are both Post-Impressionistic in their desire to scrap old decaying forms and find for themselves a new working ideal."

The Dreadnought hoax provides an easy way for Stansky to link the personalities of the Bloomsbury circle with these larger social tensions. HMS Dreadnought was the first in a new class of powerful naval battleship, and there was much popular debate in Britain as to whether significant sums of money should be spent on others like it. It was an issue which had partly caused the first General Election of 1910. Six of the Bloomsbury group, including Grant and Woolf, posed as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his suite and boarded the ship on a mock-official visit. Stansky refuses to view this, as most critics before him have, as simply part of a series of jolly games played out by larking toffs fresh from Cambridge. Indeed, he goes so far as to state that "in their irreverent fashion [they] were striking a blow in February 1910 ... for private values and against war". Leaving aside such dissenting (and largely unconvincing) commentary, and a remark that correctly places the hoax on 7 February (as opposed to 10 February, as is stated in most accounts), Stansky has little to add to what is already widely known about the episode.

The chapter on Forster is the most successful. In December 1910 he took Syed Ross Masood, his first love, to see the London premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome. The association of Forster's growing acceptance of his homosexuality with the emergence of more sensuous and violent operas, a new sense of sexual libera- tion in literature and the arts, along with the reinstatement of Oscar Wilde as a cultural reference, all in that month of December 1910, makes for stimulating reading, and provides Stansky with some much-needed justification for taking Woolf's jocular aside to obsessive, though nevertheless interesting, scholarly extremes.