Praising and Burying Bloomsbury

By Shone, Richard | History Today, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Praising and Burying Bloomsbury


Shone, Richard, History Today


BLOOMSBURY IS AN ELUSIVE TERM, difficult to define, complex in character, burdened with decades of misinterpretation. It is discussed at the highest academic levels and used as an emotive catch-phrase in the most superficial journalism. The history of its critical fortunes moves through distrust and suspicion, to adulation and hatred. But the term is nearly always used inaccurately or with a looseness that denies it any effective meaning. I was forced to think anew about my definition when I was asked to curate `The Art of Bloomsbury' -- a major exhibition at London's Tate Gallery this autumn.

But the more Bloomsbury is studied, its primary sources scrutinised and its reputation assessed, the more a definition escapes into cumulus clouds of cultural history. Each commentator has their private notion of Bloomsbury which presumably satisfies their own tastes and prejudices. Was it, asked Bloomsbury `member' Clive Bell, `beyond meaning something nasty ... a point of view, a period, a gang of conspirators or an infectious disease?' Was it, as one of the group's most implacable foes, Wyndham Lewis, suggested in 1913, a family party of strayed and Dissenting Aesthetes'? Or does a later historian, Andrew Roberts, hit the mark more accurately when he found that Bloomsbury was more or less responsible for `just about every ill to have afflicted English society since 1945'?

And so we have at least two parallel interpretations of anything connected with Bloomsbury. Is Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves a remarkable and innovative fictional account of a group of friends that stands almost alone in modern literature? Or is it a tiresomely restricted book by a tiresome Bloomsbury figure? Is John Maynard Keynes' post-Versailles polemic The Economic Consequences of the Peace a powerful and prophetic tract written with European vision? Or a pro-German, pacifist grumble, Strachey-esque in its satirical tone, by an arch Bloomsbury bugger? Between these polar opposite points of view resides a huge variety of opinion colouring present-day assessments of Bloomsbury. This naturally leads to the question of whether its members would be half so well remembered today if they had never formed that circle of friends in the first decade of this century. I think it would be true to say that Keynes and Virginia Woolf were the outstanding figures of the group. But in personality, ambition and achievement they could hardly be more distinct and any definition of Bloomsbury must take this difference into account. I think Roger Fry one of the very few working art critics whose writings, read years later, remain fruitful and suggestive. People tend to single out his limitations (due, of course, to his Bloomsbury prejudices) rather than admire his range and enthusiasms. His 1927 book on Cezanne is a classic in that its virtues far transcend any period limitations it contains. For the rest, they were conspicuously adventurous within the confines of British culture (Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's work in 1914-15); they were far-sighted in some of their political and social views (E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf); and Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians remains a landmark in biography (sharing several similarities with Keynes's Economic Consequences). But even in listing these achievements, which go some way towards a definition of Bloomsbury, I am still conscious of the ineffectuality of the term. In part this is attributable to Bloomsbury being a publicly manufactured entity growing out of an accidental set of private circumstances.

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