Published  by Yale, order for £27 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Victorian Bloomsbury, By Rosemary Ashton

This novel about Arab immigrants in Brooklyn captures their dreams and disappointments

When Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa moved into 46 Gordon Square in 1904, in what Henry James had described as “dirty Bloomsbury”, the family was appalled at the young women’s choice of this profoundly unfashionable district of London, and predicted that no one decent would call on them. The emergence of the Bloomsbury set belonged to the future.

When Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa moved into 46 Gordon Square in 1904, in what Henry James had described as “dirty Bloomsbury”, the family was appalled at the young women’s choice of this profoundly unfashionable district of London, and predicted that no one decent would call on them. The emergence of the Bloomsbury set belonged to the future.

Bloomsbury’s on-off relationship with fashion has remained a constant theme in its history. As Rosemary Ashton demonstrates in her fascinating account of the 19th-century reforming bodies and personalities that shaped the other, institutional Bloomsbury, it was the failure of the Bedford Estate, who owned much of the land, to turn Bloomsbury into another Mayfair that gradually opened the door to its transformation into a place of educational and social innovation.

The pragmatism of the estate and the good communications offered by the new railway termini made Bloomsbury the perfect location for the progressive experiment Ashton explores. At the centre of this story is the foundation in 1826 of University College, where Ashton herself is a professor of English. The “godless institution in Gower Street” was created to offer the capital city a university of its own that, unlike Oxbridge, did not make its students pass religious tests. Not only the first London University but the Working Men’s and Working Women’s Colleges, the British Museum and the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street, among others. By the end of the century it was what Ashton claims it remains, “the heart of intellectual London”.

The story comes alive with characters such as the charismatic religious orator Edward Irving and his Catholic Apostolic Church; or the irascible Antonio Panizzi, creator of the round Reading Room in the British Museum. Ashton suggests that this progressive, reforming world deserves to be evoked as much as the Woolf-Strachey set when the word “Bloomsbury” is uttered. She certainly makes a convincing and well-documented case.

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

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup