Members of Bloomsbury Set
Aldous HuxleyVirginia WoolfJohn Maynard KeynesE. M. ForsterLytton StracheyLady Ottoline MorrellMaria NysLytton StracheyDuncan GrantVanessa Bell.
The Bloomsbury Group — or Bloomsbury Set — was an enormously influential group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, the best known members of which included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. This loose collective of friends and relatives lived, worked or studied together near Bloomsbury, London, during the first half of the 20th century. According to Ian Ousby, "although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts". Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. Much about Bloomsbury appears to be controversial, including its membership and name: indeed, some would maintain that "the three words 'the Bloomsbury group' have been so much used as to have become almost unusable". The group did not hold formal or informal discussions on particular topics, but talked about a range of topics at all times. Identifications of the membership of the circle have varied considerably depending on who drew up the lists, and when.
"Leonard Woolf, in the 1960s, listed as 'Old Bloomsbury' Vanessa and Clive Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Adrian and Karin Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Roger Fry, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, with Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell, and David Garnett as later additions". However, the claim has been made that (though factually accurate) Woolf's formulation is "a little too dogmatic and definite and contributes to the false view that Bloomsbury was an entity, almost a formal body", as opposed to "an informal group of friends, and nothing more".
Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were sisters, and their brothers, the older Thoby and the younger Adrian, can also be considered original members of the group, (as were some other Cambridge figures - indeed, to some, "Bloomsbury was really Cambridge in London"). Lytton Strachey and Duncan Grant – later Vanessa’s partner – were cousins, so that a web of kinship, intellectual, social, sexual and amicable ties bound the group, while throughout the group’s history there were various (and complicated!) affairs among the individual members, most of whom lived for considerable periods of time in the West Central 1 district of London known as Bloomsbury.
An historical feature of these friends and relations is that their close relationships all predated their fame as writers, artists, and thinkers. Yet close friends, brothers, sisters, and even sometimes partners of the friends were not necessarily members of Bloomsbury: Keynes’s wife Lydia Lopokova was only reluctantly accepted into the group, and there were certainly "writers who were at some time close friends of Virginia Woolf, but who were distinctly not 'Bloomsbury': T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Hugh Walpole". Members cited in "other lists might include Ottoline Morrell, or Dora Carrington, or James and Alix Strachey"; but even such a close associate as Virginia Woolf's long term lover Vita Sackville-West - "Vita would be the Hogarth Press's best-selling author" - belonged to a different literary grouping. Shared ideas The lives and works of the group members show an overlapping, interconnected similarity of ideas and attitudes that helped to keep the friends and relatives together, reflecting in large part the influence of G. E. Moore: "the essence of what Bloomsbury drew from Moore is contained in his statement that 'one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge'".
Bloomsbury reacted against the social rituals, "the bourgeois habits ... the conventions of Victorian life" - its valorisation of the public sphere - in favour of a more informal, private-oriented focus upon personal relationships and individual pleasure: E. M. Forster lauded for example "the decay of smartness and fashion as factors, and the growth of the idea of enjoyment". His famous (or infamous) assertion that "if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country" belongs here.
The Group "believed in pleasure ...They tried to get the maximum of pleasure out of their personal relations. If this meant triangles or more complicated geometric figures, well then, one accepted that too". Yet at the same time, theirs was a sophisticated, civilized, and highly articulated shared ideal of pleasure: as Virginia Woolf put it, their "triumph is in having worked out a view of life which was not by any means corrupt or sinister or merely intellectual; rather ascetic and austere indeed; which still holds, and keeps them dining together, and staying together, after 20 years".
Politically, Bloomsbury held mainly left-liberal stances (opposed to militarism, for example); but its "clubs and meetings were not activist, like the political organizations to which many of Bloomsbury's members also belonged", and they would be criticised for that by their Thirties successors, who by contrast were "heavily touched by the politics which Bloomsbury had rejected".
Their convictions about the nature of consciousness and its relation to external nature, about the fundamental separateness of individuals that involves both isolation and love, about the human and non-human nature of time and death, and about the ideal goods of truth, love and beauty – all these were largely shared . These "Bloomsbury assumptions" are also reflected in members' criticisms of materialistic realism in painting and fiction, influenced above all by Clive Bell's "concept of 'Significant Form', which separated and elevated the concept of form above content in works of art": it has been suggested that, with their "focus on form ...Bell's ideas have come to stand in for, perhaps too much so, the aesthetic principles of the Bloomsbury Group".
Origins The Bloomsbury Group came from mostly upper middle-class professional families; formed part of "an intellectual aristocracy which could trace itself back to the Clapham Sect". E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell had independent incomes. Others such as Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, the MacCarthys, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry needed to work for their living. Of the "set", perhaps only Clive Bell could be called wealthy . Of the male members of the early Bloomsbury Group, all but Duncan Grant were educated at Trinity or King’s. At Trinity in 1899 Strachey, Woolf, Sydney-Turner and Bell became good friends with Thoby Stephen, who introduced them to his sisters Vanessa and Virginia in London, and in this way the Bloomsbury Group came into being. All the Cambridge men except Clive Bell and the Stephen brothers were also members of "the exclusive Cambridge society, the 'Apostles'"; there they met older members such as Desmond MacCarthy and Roger Fry as well as E. M. Forster and J. M. Keynes, who were all from King’s College.
Through the Apostles they also encountered the analytic philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell who were revolutionizing British philosophy at the turn of the century. Distinguishing between ends and means was a commonplace of ethics, but what made Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903) so important for the philosophical basis of Bloomsbury thought was Moore's conception of intrinsic worth as distinct from instrumental value. As with the distinction between love (an intrinsic state) and monogamy (a behavior), Moore's differentiation between intrinsic and instrumental value allowed the Bloomsburies to maintain an ethical high-ground based on intrinsic merit, independent of, and without reference to, the consequences of their actions. For Moore, intrinsic value depended on an indeterminable intuition of good and a concept of complex states of mind whose worth as a whole was not proportionate to the sum of its parts. For both Moore and Bloomsbury, the greatest ethic goods were "the importance of personal relationships and the private life", as well as aesthetic appreciation: "art for art's sake". But more important than these for the group’s values was the recurrent questioning of human behaviour in terms of instrumental means and intrinsic ends .
Old Bloomsbury Left to right: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (neither members of Bloomsbury), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell.When they came down from college, the men of Cambridge began to meet the women of Bloomsbury through the Stephen family. Thoby’s premature death in 1906 brought them more firmly together. Lytton Strachey became a close friend of the Stephen sisters as did Duncan Grant through his affairs with Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, and Adrian Stephen. Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1907, and Leonard Woolf returned from the Ceylon Civil Service to marry Virginia in 1912. Cambridge Apostle friendships brought into the group Desmond MacCarthy, his wife Molly, and E. M. Forster. Except for Forster, who published three novels before the highly successful Howards End in 1910, the group were late developers. It was also in 1910 that Roger Fry joined the group. His notorious post-impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 involved Bloomsbury in a second revolution following on the Cambridge philosophical one. This time the Bloomsbury painters were much involved and influenced. Bloomsbury was also part of Fry’s extension of post-impressionism into the decorative arts with his Omega Workshops, which lasted until 1920. Bloomsbury artists rejected the traditional distinction between fine and decorative art, as can be seen at Charleston Farmhouse near Lewes in Sussex where Vanessa Bell, her children and Duncan Grant moved in 1916 for the rest of their lives. (Charleston is now open to visitors, as is Monk's House, the Rodmell cottage the Woolfs moved to in 1919, now owned by the National Trust.)
The establishment’s hostility to post-impressionism made Bloomsbury controversial, and controversial they have remained. Clive Bell polemicized post-impressionism in his widely read book Art (1914), basing his aesthetics partly on Roger Fry’s art criticism and G. E. Moore’s moral philosophy; and as the war came he argued provocatively that "in these days of storm and darkness, it seemed right that at the shrine of civilization - in Bloomsbury, I mean - the lamp should be tended assiduously". The campaign for women’s suffrage added to the controversial nature of Bloomsbury, as Virginia Woolf and some but not all members of the group perceived the connections between the politics of capitalism, imperialism, gender and aesthetics .
Old Bloomsbury’s development was inevitably impacted on, along with just about everything else in modernist culture, by the First World War: indeed, "the small world of Bloomsbury was later said by some on its outskirts to have been irretrivably shattered", though in fact its friendships "survived the upheavals and dislocations of war, in many ways were even strengthened by them". None of the men fought in the war. Most but not all of them were conscientious objectors, which of course added to the group’s controversies. Politically the members of Bloomsbury were divided between liberalism and socialism, as can be seen in the respective careers and writings of Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf. But they were united in their opposition to the government that involved them in the war and then in an impermanent peace.
Though the war dispersed Old Bloomsbury, the individuals continued to develop their careers. E. M. Forster followed his successful novels with Maurice which he could not publish because it treated homosexuality untragically. In 1915 Virginia Woolf brought out her first novel, The Voyage Out. And in 1917 the Woolfs founded their Hogarth Press, which would publish T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and many others including Virginia herself along with the standard English translations of Freud. Then in 1918 Lytton Strachey published his critique of Victorianism in the shape of four ironic biographies in Eminent Victorians, which added to the arguments around Bloomsbury that continue to this day, and "brought him the triumph he had always longed for ... The book was a sensation". The following year came J. M. Keynes’s influential attack the next year on the Versailles Peace Treaty: "The Economic Consequences of the Peace immediately established Maynard as an economist of international eminence".
Later Bloomsbury In March 1920 Molly MacCarthy began a club to help Desmond and herself write their memoirs; and also "for their friends to regroup after the war (with the proviso that they should always tell the truth)", thus bringing the members of Old Bloomsbury back together. The comedy of a group of friends in their forties reading one another their memoirs was not lost on Bloomsbury. Many of the ensuing memoirs, such as Virginia Woolf on her Hyde Park Gate home and Maynard Keynes on his early beliefs, are ironic in ways not always recognized by later commentators. The Memoir Club testifies to the continuing cohesion of Bloomsbury. For the next thirty years they came together in irregular meetings to write about the memories they shared in growing up together, at college, and later in Bloomsbury. The members of The Memoir Club were not quite equivalent to those of Old Bloomsbury, however; the club did not include Adrian Stephen, for example, or Sydney-Turner, who certainly belonged to Old Bloomsbury. Yet all but one of the other members belonged to Old Bloomsbury, and indeed Old Bloomsbury itself became a popular subject for the Club’s memoirs.
The 1920s were in a number of ways the blooming of Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf was writing and publishing her most widely-read modernist novels and essays, E. M. Forster completed A Passage to India which remains the most highly regarded novel on British imperialism in India. Forster wrote no more novels but he became one of England’s most influential essayists. Duncan Grant, and then Vanessa Bell, had single-artist exhibitions. Lytton Strachey wrote his biographies of two Queens, Victoria then Elizabeth (and Essex). Desmond MacCarthy and Leonard Woolf engaged in friendly rivalry as literary editors, respectively of the New Statesman and the Nation and Athenaeum, thus fuelling animosities that saw Bloomsbury dominating the cultural scene. Roger Fry wrote and lectured widely on art; while Clive Bell applied Bloomsbury values to his book Civilization (1928), which Leonard Woolf saw as limited and elitist, describing Clive as a "wonderful organiser of intellectual greyhound racing tracks". Leonard, who had helped formulate proposals for the League of Nations during the war, offered his own views on the subject in Imperialism and Civilization (1928). In many respects throughout its history Bloomsbury’s most incisive critics came from within.
In the darkening 1930s Bloomsbury began to die: "Bloomsbury itself was hardly any longer a focus". A year after publishing a collection of brief lives, Portraits in Miniature (1931), Lytton Strachey died; shortly afterwards Carrington shot herself. Roger Fry, who had become England’s greatest art critic, died in 1934. Vanessa and Clive’s eldest son, Julian Bell, was killed in 1937 while driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. Virginia Woolf wrote Fry’s biography but with the coming of war again her mental instability recurred, and she drowned herself in 1941. In the previous decade she had become one of the century’s most famous feminist writers with three more novels, and a series of essays including the moving late memoir “Sketch of the Past”, It was also in the Thirties that Desmond MacCarthy became perhaps the most widely read – and heard – literary critic with his columns in The Sunday Times and his broadcasts with the BBC. John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) made him the century’s most influential economist. He died in 1946 after being much involved in monetary negotiations with the United States.
The diversity yet collectivity of Later Bloomsbury’s ideas and achievements can be summed up in a series of credos that were done in 1938, the year of Munich. Virginia Woolf published her radical feminist polemic Three Guineas that shocked some of her fellow members including Keynes who had enjoyed the gentler A Room of One’s Own (1929). Keynes read his famous but decidedly more conservative memoir My Early Beliefs to The Memoir Club. Clive Bell published an appeasement pamphlet (he later supported the war), and E. M. Forster wrote an early version of his famous essay “What I Believe” with its choice, still shocking for some, of personal relations over patriotism: his quiet assertion in the face of the increasingly totalitarian claims of both left and right that "personal relations ... love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State".
Posthumous Bloomsbury This section does not cite any references or sources. (August 2011)The Memoir Club continued meeting intermittently until Clive Bell’s death in 1964. Younger members of the group and the club included the writer David Garnett, and later his wife Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Her half-brother the artist and writer Quentin Bell eventually became the club’s secretary, and later wrote his aunt’s biography. Sister and brother wrote very different memoirs about Bloomsbury, Angelica’s being Deceived by Kindness (1984) and Quentin’s Elders and Betters (1995). Among other younger members were Lytton’s niece the writer Julia Strachey, and the diarist Frances Partridge who had married into Lytton Strachey’s ménage in the thirties.
Following Virginia’s death Leonard Woolf began editing collections of her writings including a selection from her diaries, A Writer’s Diary (1953), which revealed publicly for the first time what the Bloomsbury Group had been like. Leonard’s own volumes of autobiography in the 1960s (he died in 1969) gave the fullest account, but he remained reticent about the sexual lives of the members, as had the excerpts from Virginia’s diary. Subsequent biographies of Strachey then Virginia Woolf, Forster, Keynes, Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Grant removed all veils. Indeed much of the interest in Bloomsbury has been biographically driven, yet it is their achievements as writers, artists, and thinkers that have ultimately made their lives biographically interesting. The case of Virginia Woolf provides an example. There have now been more than half a dozen biographies of her, yet a good deal of the basic scholarship of locating and editing her work remains unfinished; significant unpublished writings of hers are still being found in library archives.
The Bloomsbury Group has featured in many works of fiction, including, notably, Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Susan Sellers' Vanessa and Virginia.
Criticism If "the contempt or suspicion - the environment that a person or group creates around itself - is always a kind of alter ego, an essential and revealing part of the production", there is perhaps much to be learnt from the (extensive) criticism that the Bloomsbury Group aroused. Early complaints focused on a perceived cliquiness: "on personal mannerisms - the favourite phrases ('ex-quisitely civilized', and 'How simply too extraordinary!'), the incredulous, weirdly emphasised Strachey voice". After World War I, as the members of the Group "began to be famous, the execration increased, and the caricature of an idle, snobbish and self-congratulatory rentier class, promoting its own brand of high culture began to take shape": as Forster self-mockingly put it, "In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts".
The growing threats of the Thirties brought new criticism from younger writers of "what the last lot had done (Bloomsbury, Modernism, Eliot) in favour of what they thought of as urgent hard-hitting realism"; while "Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God, which called Bloomsbury élitist, corrupt and talentless, caused a stir" of its own. The most telling criticism, however, came perhaps from within the Group's own ranks, when on the eve of war Keynes gave a "nostalgic and disillusioned account of the pure sweet air of G. E. Moore, that belief in undisturbed individualism, that Utopianism based on a belief in human reasonableness and decency, that refusal to accept the idea of civilisation as 'a thin and precarious crust' ... Keynes's fond, elegiac repudiation of his "early beliefs", in the light of current affairs ("We completely misunderstood human nature, including our own")".
After the outbreak of war, with the group accused of "intellectual elitism its reputation faltered in the 1940s and 1950s, but from the 1960s critical interest in their achievements began to revive". However controversy continues to accompany Bloomsbury wherever it goes. Much work on Bloomsbury continues to focus on the group’s class origins and alleged elitism, their satire, their atheism, their oppositional politics and liberal economics, their non-abstract art, their modernist fiction, their art and literary criticism, and their non-nuclear family and sexual arrangements.
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