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 Many of the 125 memoirs read over that period are now lost, but about 80 are still intact, about 20 of them unpublished.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

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor