Books: Isn't that a Van Esserbel?

BLOOMSBURY PIE: The Story of the Bloomsbury Revival by Regina Marler, Virago pounds 14.99
Click to follow
A few years ago, Duncan Grant's straw hat was stolen from his studio at Charleston farmhouse by a literary pilgrim. An American academic broke down in sobs as Sussex county councillors voted to demolish Virginia Woolf's former home, Asheham, to make way for a landfill site. A Californian woman sent Leonard Woolf more than 500 letters, then flew to London, took a taxi to Rodmell (now another shrine), and left a cutting from her garden on his doorstep, returning immediately without even seeing Leonard. A scholar, working at Knole on the original manuscript of Orlando, was accosted by a group of tourists wanting to see the oak tree under which Virginia and Vita had sat. She picked one of the hundreds available, cried "this is it!" and watched the trippers stroke it reverentially.

The Bloomsbury cult is now firmly established, even though, as Marler points out, the various Woolfs and Bells hated the term and disputed the membership and even the existence of the sect. From the beginning the clique attracted opprobrium. D H Lawrence said they made him dream of black beetles ("this horror of little swarming selves"); Clive and Vanessa Bell were lampooned in Wyndham Lewis's 1930 satire The Apes of God. "Not in his darkest nightmare could Wyndham Lewis have imagined that the 1994 Gay Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, Australia, would feature a wild elaboration of the love scenes from Sally Potter's film ... Orlando," comments Marler. Her book fills in the story from Lawrence to the Sydney sapphists.

There's something of the trainspotter about her painstaking, severe approach, but she is fascinating on the issue of literary estates, whereby writers' relatives (here Quentin Bell) seem to be controlling hostile interpretation by withholding documents. (He also wrote the first major biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf; Marler traces the happy academic pursuit of Bell-bashing.) Important collections can fall into indifferent hands: Virginia's letters to Lytton Strachey were sold by Leonard to a Miss Frances Hooper, who soon recovered from her Bloomsbury phase and chucked them in the attic. At the request of Nigel Nicolson, Vita's son, she grudgingly agreed to allow them to be photocopied, then indignantly withdrew permission when she found out that he was "the man who had written that appalling book about his own mother".

The painters suffered persistent rubbishing. Marler reports that one auction house called any duff painting of uncertain provenance a "Van Esserbel". Today, Vanessa Bell's work is avidly collected by the likes of Tina Brown, who once bought an unseen drawing over the telephone.

Marler even rounds up cartoons and stray cuttings. "Hold the back page!" said the Sunday Time's Atticus column. "I have found someone in the Bloomsbury Group who has no intention of writing her memoirs." One sympathises with the friend of Frances Partridge who wanted "SHUT UP" on her tombstone. Fat chance.

Literary hostess and key Bloomsberry Lady Ottoline Morrell in Italy with Augustus John; from 'The British Century' by Brian Moynahan (Weidenfeld pounds 30)