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 Many of the 125 memoirs read over that period are now lost, but about 80 are still intact, about 20 of them unpublished.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