Why are we so interested in the Bloomsbury Group?

After all those books, now there is a film. David Lister investigates
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The Independent Online
NEVER in the field of English literature has so much been written, filmed, painted, praised and plagiarised by so many about so few.

If only they had agonised in Tulse Hill, some of the romance by association might have been lost. But it had to be Bloomsbury, the still faintly aesthetic inner-city village of London University and the British Museum.

If only they had been ugly or just plain plain instead of being epitomised by Virginia Woolf's romantically elegant, soulful features gazing from so many book covers and Sunday magazine articles. Beauty barely concealing inner torment, love wrestling with intellect, and she can write, too . What better role model for any girl at Oxbridge with literary pretensions?

The cultural legacy of the Bloomsbury Group continues to be largely unchallenged. And the only legacy can be cultural, as this set seemed to have no truck with doctors, solicitors or accountants. You wrote, painted, philosophised or had grand economic theories or you could take your dinner and sexual pleasures elsewhere.

The release of the film Carrington, about the artist and sometime Bloomsburyite Dora Carrington, has resulted in a rash of tributes to these cultural icons. Above an article by the chronicler and biographer of Bloomsbury, Michael Holroyd, the Sunday Times proclaimed that "from artistic and sexual attitudes to economics and psychology, they transformed the century".

It took the redoubtable commentator Simon Jenkins in the Spectator to point out that sex had proved the Bloomsbury Group's most bankable asset, to note that Carrington's triangular relationship would be faithfully portrayed by a three-in-a-bed scene in the film, and to advise: "Whether they will begin or end the scene by transforming 20th-century economics, go see for yourself."

But before considering how great the cultural legacy of the Bloomsbury set really was, how true was even the sexual torment? In Modern Painters magazine, the film of Carrington is reviewed by the last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Group, the diarist Frances Partridge. "I have it on good authority," she says coyly (for her husband was also the former husband of Dora Carrington) "that she [Dora] was not highly sexed but took it all mainly as something of a lark, and her favourite objects were lesbian."

With delicious irony, myth-making over sex continues 70 years later from the actress playing Carrington, Emma Thompson. She has given a flurry of interviews "revealing" her permissive youth and her lax attitude to fidelity. But a newspaper investigation last week found that all her school and Cambridge friends remembered her, to no great surprise, as an extrememly hard-working girl with few boyfriends who was scrupulously faithful to those few boyfriends.

In 70 years' time, though, the story of the Cambridge Group with Thompson, Fry, Laurie and Slattery, and Branagh in the second reel, will doubtless be one of unfettered sexual intrigue and torment.

But of greater import is the myth of the cultural legacy. As the excellent exhibition at the Barbican Centre shows, Dora Carrington was an interesting painter and decorator, an imaginative figurative artist and interior designer, certainly better than the "Sunday painter" that a former arts minister, Lord Eccles, dubbed her. But transform the century she did not.

Of course, the Bloomsbury set had its genuine icons. Virginia Woolf and E M Forster in literature, John Maynard Keynes in economics, and George Moore in philosophy are towering figures in their fields whose impact would have been undiminished in any age.

But was Virginia's sister, Vanessa Bell, a major painter, or Lytton Strachey a significant historian and biographer? Is David Garnett one of the century's great novelists, or are Duncan Grant and Roger Fry notable artists?

Perhaps Britain has had so few artistic "movements" this century that students and teachers of literature have seized on the Bloomsbury Group to compensate. Simon Jenkins argues that while Woolf and Keynes were geniuses, the Bloomsbury members were never the movement claimed by their biographers. He has a more compelling theory for their iconic stature.

"What I believe was unique was Bloomsbury's capacity to write about itself. These people seem to have occupied a window in history, when intelligent beings threw off personal inhibition yet were still disciplined to putting their thoughts on paper. They would write to each other often twice a day. They filled their diaries each night."

And how they wrote! No fictional muse proved as inspiring as their own lives. Sometimes they wrote biographies of each other. But generally they wrote about themselves. Not only did Virginia write six volumes of letters and five of diaries, but husband Leonard, whose life was probably marginally less eventful than Emma Thompson's, wrote a five-volume autobiography.

These people's lives can, it seems, be contemplated only in volumes. Frances Partridge, never a major player in the Bloomsbury set, has three volumes of diaries being published next March. And they are not even the first three.

And these people's lives can be contemplated, it seems, only in the most dramatic superlatives. Michael Holroyd argues: "In the early years of the 20th century, the Bloomsbury Group stood for everything that was progressive. They introduced Post-Impressionism into Britain before the First World War, and the writings of Sigmund Freud between the wars. They reformed the novel, revolutionised biography and, through the work of Maynard Keynes, altered our concept of economics, making it an art rather than a science."

Marilyn Butler, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, is not so convinced: "Recently they have been claimed to have been more influential than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Virginia Woolf has become more fashionable because women writers have become of very much greater interest in the last generation. There are only a handful of major women writers who have been truly innovative. But Lawrence and James Joyce were contemporaries of the Bloomsbury Group, and I would argue that Joyce is correctly much more admired than Virginia Woolf.

"She and Keynes are pretty big figures in their fields, but I'm not sure that any of the visual artists in the Bloomsbury Group are that major."

Dr Butler recognises why there is such interest in the group. They fit wonderfully into that most treasured and convenient university discipline, studies in intellectual cross-currents. Here was a group where literature, the visual arts, philosophy and economics inter-reacted. Never mind the quality, imagine the cross-curricular possibilities. "It's certainly partly the attraction of an interactive group," says Dr Butler. "It's exactly the same with the pre-Raphaelites. There has been much more interest in studying intellectual cross-currents in recent years."

It was, of course, not just writers such as Joyce and Lawrence who were contemporaries of the Bloomsbury set. The period saw a renaissance in English poetry and the emergence of political thinkers such as the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and George Bernard Shaw.

The political and collectivist thrust of the Fabians did not commend itself to the artistic individuality of the Bloomsbury Group. "I cannot get over my distaste for the Fabian type," wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary, and her judgement seems to have informed subsequent generations. When have the Fabians had the glamour or mystery of the Bloomsbury Group?

Candia McWilliam, Review


THE Bloomsbury Group met from 1905 onwards in the Bloomsbury home of the then unmarried Stephen sisters, later to be Virginia Woolf, novelist, and Vanessa Bell, painter. It included, among others, J M Keynes, economist; Lytton Strachey, biographer and essayist; David Garnett, novelist and critic; E M Forster, novelist; and Roger Fry, art critic and painter. Dora Carrington flitted in and out but derived greater inspiration from the countryside. Bertrand and Dora Russell were also on the edges of the Group, as was Ralph Partridge, husband of Carrington and later of Frances Partridge. The Group's philosophy was derived from fellow-Bloomsburyite G E Moore who wrote in his Principia Ethica: "By far the most valuable things ... are ... the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects; ... it is they ... that form the rational ultimate end of social progress."