BOOK REVIEW / Second sitting at Bloomsbury's endless soiree: Edwardian Bloomsbury - S P Rosenbaum: Macmillan, pounds 47.50

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The Independent Online
THE Bloomsbury group, out of Trinity, Cambridge, by British Library, is a thoroughbred of the English literary scene. It has sired many a north London poet, novelist and intellectual. But now the blood-line is weak, the ideas pretentious and the notion of Bloomsbury culturally defunct. Why does Bloomsbury still fascinate the British? Because snobbishness and mild outrageousness are what people like to read, and biography or social archaeology are what people are prepared to write. Enter volume two of S P Rosenbaum's Bloomsbury trilogy, Edwardian Bloomsbury, which follows his useful 1987 Victorian Bloomsbury and anticipates Georgian Bloomsbury.

Rosenbaum's books set out to find 'the historical sequence of Bloomsbury's early interrelated literary texts for the purpose of interpreting them analytically and comparatively'. There is enough talk of 'intertextual connections' to please academia, and enough biographical insight to satisfy the other readers.

The book divides between early and late Edwardian Bloomsbury, and then into biographical chapters which draw on the group's novels, essays and journals. The key players were Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, E M Forster and Desmond MacCarthy. After the first world war, Bloomsbury's table had a second sitting as Ottoline Morrell, David Garnett and T S Eliot joined the rolling soiree.

One of Virginia's unpublished letters to Leonard relishes the arrival of the punctilious Eliot for tea 'in a four-piece suit'. The jokes and jibes are Oscar Wilde for snobs, all wit and no wisdom, and the Bloomsbury socio-literary fringes teem with interesting but minor figures, such as Dora Carrington, letter writer, artist and lover of Strachey. Bloomsbury's philosophical captain, G E Moore, the Geoff Boycott of moral philosophy, was wonderfully stuffy about the group's motives: 'One's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge.'

This approach gave the world a couple of great books and bundles of unremarkable letters. America in the 1920s and 1930s, in contrast, had a cluster of bright particular stars, individualists such as Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Pound and Stein. And unlike the Bloomsbury group, they wrote rugged, gritty verse and prose. They were wild and never genteel, and allowed their successors to be untamed and unpredictable. Bloomsbury, meanwhile, accepted Lawrence as a kept non-conformist.

The English adore Bloomsbury because it offers the intellectual ease and social achievement so coveted by the literary culture this century. Rosenbaum is parti pris, rarely critical of his subjects while everywhere subjecting them to his criticism. It makes stultifying reading. There is a useful chapter on Leonard Woolf's Ceylon writings, a gallop through Strachey's work for the Spectator and a handy bibliography.

Rosenbaum's message still seems overwhelmed by the industry-load of material that confronts any Bloomsburian critic. He chooses the safe literary rather than the radical social approach. He rations the excitement: 'the Group never accepted in their literary theory the modernist separation of the aesthetic from the cognitive.'

As a group, Bloomsbury had the access, time and intelligence to make the most of its privilege. In that Bloomsbury style - in art history, biography, philosophy - was quintessentially literary, its influence has been damaging. Pretention became synonymous with intelligence. But where Bloomsbury style eased the 19th century into the 20th - and Rosenbaum is best at this side of the group's activities - it made a cultural contribution. The incompleteness of many Bloomsbury writings testifies to a search for the right way to say things which has made the journey easier for others.