Victorian Bloomsbury

Article excerpt

Victorian Bloomsbury. By Rosemary Ashton. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 380. $40.00.)

In searching for rented accommodations for her annual summer research trip to London this year, this reviewer was struck by the way in which the geographic designation "Bloomsbury" automatically conferred a premium in terms of the weekly cost. This suggests that foreign visitors to London are well aware of the intellectual cachet of the area, which for most derives largely from its association with the "Bloomsbury Group" who lived there in the early twentieth century. In this study, Rosemary Ashton seeks to trace how Bloomsbury became "the undisputed intellectual quarter of London" over the previous century, a period, she argues, during which it acquired its "distinctive, important and above all progressive role in the life of both London and the nation" (ix, 1).

Its history in this role began in the decades after 1800, when the demolition of the Duke of Bedford's London house led to the development of the area north of Bloomsbury Square and the construction of Robert Smirke's new British Museum provided an intellectual hub. The subsequent decades saw rapid growth and expansion, though careful planning to attract "wealth and respectability" faced continual "encroachment" from "pockets of poverty" (5). It was the arrival of a number of "progressive institutions," however, that shaped Bloomsbury's character as "the intellectual and cultural centre of London"; these included the University of London [1826], the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge [1827], University Hall [1849], the Ladies' College [1849, and renamed Bedford College in 1859], the Working Men's College [1854], the Working Women's College [1864], and the London School of Medicine for Women [1874] (8). …