Bloomsbury Masculinity and Its Victorian Antecedents

Article excerpt

As the almost ceaseless flow of biographies, essays and critical analyses of the Bloomsbury group show, there is a continuing and even expanding interest in the art, ideas, ethics and ways of life associated with them. Debate and disagreement amongst those interested in analyzing various aspects of Bloomsbury and its importance continues, but it has changed its form in the last decade or so. Thus where once this debate centered on the precise membership of the Bloomsbury group and on their long-term significance, there is now rather more interest in the question of their modernity. Bloomsbury has long been seen as playing a significant part in the emergence of many aspects of English modernity in the early twentieth century, and many members of the Bloomsbury group saw themselves as distinctly modern, not only in their enthusiasm for modern art and literature, but also in terms of their ideas about the nature and importance of intimacy in domestic life and social relationships and their distinctly modern ideas about and attitudes toward both sexuality and gender. Recently, however, a number of historians and literary critics have questioned the depth and the meaning of Bloomsbury modernity, pointing rather to the strong continuities with Victorian values and codes of behavior that underlay some of the new forms of domestic life and the apparently new approach to intimate relationships (see, for example, Joyce, 2004; Taddeo, 2002).

I want to take up this question of continuity and change in this article, focusing on questions about gender and sexuality and more particularly on the distinctive form of masculnity that was associated with Bloomsbury. I am seeking here to explore whether there was a distinctive form of Bloomsbury masculinity, and if so what it meant and how it was made manifest. I want also to consider the extent to which the codes of behavior and the assumptions of the men connected to Bloomsbury differed from--or resembled--the Victorian masculinity against which so many members of Bloomsbury seemed to be reacting.

In doing this, I hope both to contribute to an ongoing debate about the nature of Bloomsbury and its assumptions and to point to the complexity involved in understanding masculinity and to the need to see it from various different vantage points. Against the supposition that the history of masculinity is best understood as a series of "revolutions" or crises that propelled men toward late twentieth century modernity--a claim countered in the American context by James Gilbert (2005)--it is important to remember what men preserved and defended. So, while it is important to recognize what was new in the general approach to desire and sexuality and especially in the overt homosexuality of some of those closely connected to Bloomsbury, this rejection of Victorian heterosexual norms did not by any means entail a rejection of all forms of masculine privilege. On the contrary, female service from mothers, sisters and women friends was deemed quite as much a masculine prerogative by both the homosexual and the heterosexual men of Bloomsbury as it had been by their forebears. Moreover. both the relationship between new approaches to sexuality and styles of masculinity and that between those who became the centre of Edwardian Bloomsbury and their Victorian fathers are very complex ones. As many recent scholars have pointed out, there were a number of different forms of masculinity evident in Victorian Britain--and there was quite as strong a sense of not quite meeting the dominant masculine norms amongst even very successful men in the mid nineteenth century as there was at its end--and this was clearly the case in a number of what one might refer to as the central Bloomsbury families (see, for example, Adams, 1995; Hall, 1994).

For both contemporaries and for many of those involved in Bloomsbury, one of its most distinctive features was its particular, and in many ways highly idiosyncratic, form of masculinity. …