What Did the Bloomsbury Group Ever Do for Us? the Case against ; Arty Snobs or Creative Visionaries? Monied Idlers or Radical Bohemians? as the Hours Approaches, DJ Taylor and Suzi Feay Fight over the Legacy of the Woolf Pack
Taylor, Dj, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Nearly a century since the then Miss Virginia Stephen's first unsigned appearance in the Times Literary Supplement, the pictures have grown sepia-tinged. Sepia-tinged yet rife with glamour. Carrington (for some reason I can never visualise Carrington, only her filmic alter ego Emma Thompson in her pudding-basin haircut) romps through the Ham Spray gardens. Lady Ottoline Morrell glides serenely past the peacocks - real and human - of the Garsington lawns, while Clive Bell uncoils himself languorously from a deckchair. Meanwhile, down at the conscientious objectors' tribunal, Lytton is briskly informing the bench that if a German tried to rape his sister he would "interpose his body", and the high, curiously disconnected voices twitter on endlessly into the summer sky.
"Bloomsbury", the fragile but oddly resilient cargo of intellectuals, art theorists, novelists and wife-swappers who between them exerted such a sinewy grasp on early to mid-century English culture, represents perhaps the most desperate example yet of the reading public's tendency to admire literary people for non- literary reasons, for personality and peculiarity rather than what exists on the page.
Look at what Bloomsbury achieved, in terms of books written and ideas entertained, and with a few marked exceptions (Woolf's The Common Reader, Strachey's Queen Victoria) the trophy cabinet is conspicuously bare. Posterity - if posterity takes a view - will remember Virginia Woolf for her literary criticism rather than her stream of self-conscious fiction.
E M Forster's novels are no more than an exposure of the early 20th-century liberal sensibility that fashioned them, transfixed by their own moral inanition. Clive Bell and Roger Fry's musings on art are as dead as the passenger-pigeon, and I never yet read a page of Lytton Strachey's carbolic prose without thinking it the spiritual equivalent of someone holding their nose in case a bad smell seeps into the room.
This is an exaggeration, of course, born of too many Bloomsbury films (the latest, The Hours, opens on 14 February) and too many gossip-ridden diaries. Quite a lot of individual Bloomsbury artefacts, it scarcely needs saying, will exultantly survive - bits of Strachey, A Passage to India, even Carrington's paintings. But so, unhappily, will that fatal Bloomsbury influence, which wreaked such havoc on British intellectual life in the inter-war era and, suitably disguised and refashioned, continues to wreak it in our own.
In philosophical terms - if such garnishes are appropriate to what ultimately transformed itself into a series of style preferences - Bloomsbury offered a modern variant of that old late- Victorian liberal high-mindedness (the key text was G E Moore's Principia Ethica) based on the absolute sanctity of personal relationships. All too often, though, the personal relationships descended into a kind of high-brow fais ce que tu voudras, and all that remained was a kind of bastard liberalism founded on "taste" rather than morality, hugely elitist (people wrote about Maynard Keynes "as if he were an ordinary man", Noel Annan once complained, as if Keynes didn't eat, sleep and defecate like the rest of us) and practically incompetent.
Even such a committed anti-imperialist as George Orwell could be found muttering that an India governed on the principles advocated by Forster would have lasted approximately a week.
Like many another self-aggrandising cultural movement, Bloomsbury - exclusive, conspiratorial, jealous of its privileges - had an equally depressing effect on the writers and artists who didn't happen to be a part of it. Converted at an early stage in its posthumous development into a marketing phenomenon - this process is amusingly documented in Regina Marler's Bloomsbury Pie - fed as PhD fodder to impressionable American academics, Virginia, Lytton, Vanessa and co …
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Publication information: Article title: What Did the Bloomsbury Group Ever Do for Us? the Case against ; Arty Snobs or Creative Visionaries? Monied Idlers or Radical Bohemians? as the Hours Approaches, DJ Taylor and Suzi Feay Fight over the Legacy of the Woolf Pack. Contributors: Taylor, Dj - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: February 2, 2003. Page number: 1,2. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.