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.

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