Books: Definitely not the last tango in Charleston

Vita and Virginia, Maynard and Duncan, Emma and Michelle? D J Taylor wonders why we still care

Bloomsbury Pie: the story of the Bloomsbury revival

by Regina Marler

Virago, pounds 14.99

I n his shrewd account of the rise of the "Angry Young Men", Success Stories, Harry Ritchie showed how that rise was abetted, if not created, by the pundits. Bloomsbury Pie hails from the opposite ledge of that 1950s literary divide - no two figures could be further apart, perhaps, than Kingsley Amis and Virginia Woolf - and it explains how fashion turned a forgotten biographer (Lytton Strachey), a superannuated novelist (Woolf), two or three painters and a clutch of hangers-on into one of the most bankable cultural phenomena of the age.

With Woolf and Strachey long dead, and Leonard reluctant to release material about his wife, the 1950s were a bad time for shares in Bloomsbury. Values rose in the early 1960s when Michael Holroyd set to work on his mammoth life of Strachey and academics began to rediscover Woolf's novels. In 1964, to quote one of Regina Marler's intriguing statistics, the number of learned articles devoted to Virginia rose from 16 to 35.

The roots of this resurgence are less easily tracked. Was it the 20-year rule, according to which an author's reputation crashes after death and then takes off again two decades later? Or 1960s whimsy recasting the Bells and the Garnetts as upper-class hippies? Or, as Marler winningly suggests, the sight of the broadway neon advertising Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By the late 1960s, the renaissance was well in hand, promoted both by English faculties and sharp-eyed art dealers such as Anthony d'Offay. At this point, the stream began to divide: on the right, traditional biographers and autobiographers, such as Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell, who wrote the first authorised life of his aunt; on the left a covey of austere, many- named feminist scholars.

No doubt the motives of the US Woolf-pack, under the paw of its Akela, Jane Marcus, were genuine enough. But it seems clear that by the advent of Louise de Salvo's airily speculative Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (1989), the writer had begun to take second place to the fixation of her fans.

Regina Marler - who recently edited Vanessa Bell's letters - is a reliable and often very funny guide to all this reputation-mongering. Undeviatingly pro-Bloomsbury, she is also an incorrigible gossip. We learn of Emma Thompson's role in Carrington, a film sadly devoid of lesbian encounters, that "She would have liked to play a love scene with a woman. She would like to enact such a scene in life, as well, but had never met the right woman - someone like Michelle Pfeiffer, perhaps, with those wonderful lips."

Elsewhere, one or two clues to the enigma are suggested by Lord Annan's lofty judgement on Keynes: "It would be wrong to talk about him as if he were an ordinary man. He was not". This is not only an exceptionally silly thing to say - presumably Keynes ate, slept, breathed and defecated - but it also seems to summarise the essential objections to the Bloomsbury clique. Never mind their achievements: in Lytton, Virginia and the details of Charleston table-settings, a great deal of faintly patrician prejudice about English cultural life still find a home.

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