Book review: 'The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club' by S P Rosenbaum (edited James M Haule) - Reviews - Books - The Independent

Palgrave Macmillan £20

Book review: 'The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club' by S P Rosenbaum (edited James M Haule)

The Bloomsbury Set: literary and potato peel pie society

“I don’t think those people are little; but they belittle all who come into their power unless the comer is strong, which I am not. Great as is my admiration for the Club, I shall resign, I think.” So wrote E M Forster in 1920 after hearing two “memoirs” read out at a Bloomsbury Memoir Club meeting, one by John Maynard Keynes and one risqué tale by Clive Bell, about a woman called Mrs Ravenhill with whom he had had a long affair.

Forster found both accounts fascinating, as he found many of the “memoirs” read out over the years. The Club prided itself on fostering an atmosphere of honest critique and absolute candour. Although Forster often doubted he could cope with it, he never actually resigned from it, in spite of his many protestations. In an amusing contrast, Lytton Strachey, who hailed the club’s “sense of freedom and intimacy which was the outcome of a real equality, a real understanding, a real friendship”, seems to have attended rarely and never read any memoirs there at all.

S P Rosenbaum sadly died before he could complete this book about an aspect of Bloomsbury that is often forgotten – the group’s love of autobiography, perhaps most obviously practised by its now most famous member, Virginia Woolf. It is nevertheless a fascinating account of a club started up by Molly MacCarthy, in a bid to get her husband Desmond to complete his own memoirs, and of a group who were famously intertwined. The original members of this secret memoir club, invited specially by Molly, were the MacCarthys themselves, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and Maynard Keynes. Forster joined shortly after, though Bertrand Russell declined. Clive’s mistress, Mary Hutchinson, was also a member. So they knew each other well, an important aspect to the public nature of the memoir readings. Each could be confident of the audience he or she had, but as Haule notes in his introduction, “it was no place for comfort or support, certainly not applause”.

The group met about 60 times over the course of its 45-year history and ended in 1964, with Clive Bell’s death. Many of the 125 memoirs read over that period are now lost, but about 80 are still intact, about 20 of them unpublished. Perhaps the most notorious memoir read out was the one by Virginia Woolf, when she told the group of her half-brother George Duckworth’s sexual attentions to her just after her mother had died and she was still a young girl. She ended her account by describing George flinging himself on her bed, who then “took me in his arms”. She described George as not only “father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.”

The shock that greeted Woolf’s revelation of abuse by both Duckworth brothers much later when her diaries were published is partly a misinterpretation, Rosenbaum insists. Her reading was “a wonderfully comic performance” (in contrast to her revelations about Gerald’s molestation of her as a child). Her memoir was written with her audience in mind and she wanted to entertain them, whilst also revealing something important about herself. It is a controversial point, but Rosenbaum understands the Bloomsbury set and how they operated – Clive Bell’s revelations about Mrs Ravenhill were not news to his wife, Vanessa, but they were to other members of the group. Listeners, as well as speakers, had to have thick skins.

It was perhaps this need for a thicker skin that prevented Forster from making his own rather remarkable and personal revelation until much later on. His memoir of his time in India included details of his affair with an Indian barber, which was aided and abetted by the Maharajah by whom he was employed, and he was extremely sexually explicit about it, too. The end result is, Rosenbaum says, “a carefully crafted piece of writing”, with dialogue and scenes that Forster never witnessed personally, a piece of writing mindful of its audience.

Ultimately, what the club embodies for us now is the notion of influence – how artists and writers in close proximity to one another might shape each other’s work and ideas, something Woolf herself recognised. It wasn’t just the level of competition between them all that proved so motivating – there was a further, more direct level of significance for Woolf, who, greatly affected by the workings of the club, decided that she would “sketch” a “grand historical picture, the outlines of all my friends”. This would be “a way of writing the memoirs of one’s own times during people’s lifetimes.” That “grand historical picture” turned out to be the novel Orlando. It should be, she said, “truthful but fantastic”. As a comment on the club itself this is, perhaps, the best.

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week