The first book I finished for the 1968 Club was a book that is very much not about the 1960s – Bloomsbury by Quentin Bell, which looks back at the lore of the Bloomsbury Group. And he does this in something under 100 pages, rather bravely. But he is almost uniquely qualified to do so – being Vanessa Bell’s son, and thus Virginia Woolf’s nephew. (Incidentally, I’ve realised that much of my reading for the 1968 Club has been non-fiction looking back at earlier decades of the twentieth century. Whether that says more about me or about 1968, who knows…)
It’s clear that this isn’t an exhaustive biography of all members of the Bloomsbury Group – I’m going to assume you know what that is; in brief, it was the artistic and literary (and, er, economic) elite living in Bloomsbury, many of whom were related or had liaisons. But Quentin Bell quietly rails against the ways in which the group is depicted – which hasn’t really abated since 1968. As he points out, there was never such a thing as a homogeneous Bloomsbury Group – he even draws out a map/diagram of who was in the inner circle at which time. And he isn’t interested in gossip:
I am not required nor am I inclined to act as Clio’s chambermaid, to sniff into commodes or under beds, to open love-letters or to scrutinise diaries. On the present occasion I shall leave Bloomsbury linen, whether clean or dirty, unaired.
He sounds quite defensive, and indeed he is. He argues that Bloomsbury ‘has been criticised from a bewilderingly large number of points of view’, and he spends much of the first chapter defending them against accusations of elitism or taste that was too backward-looking or too biased. As he points out, with some examples, there was no unified taste or point of view from Bloomsbury. Intriguingly, he dwells for a while on what D.H. Lawrence thought of them all, tracing the individual relationships and commentaries that Lawrence made – challenging the idea that he hated them collectively. If it comes from a place of defensiveness, it is nevertheless well collated and argued.
Thus it is rather a surprise to come across, on p.61 of around ninety pages, ‘Nevertheless I think that the mistrust and dislike of Bloomsbury was very understandable.’ As a tangential outsider/insider, he can look back from 1968 and play roles on both sides of the courtroom. He puts it well with a comparison to an aristocratic family from Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day:
The Hilberrys are very sympathetic, despite their virtues, not simply because they have money and privilege but because they assume that they will, in the natural course of things, play a leading role in the cultural life of England. Members of Bloomsbury were accused of arrogance, of intellectual snobbery. But it was worse than that; they did not need to be arrogant; they could afford not to be snobbish.
He notes that his appearance on the scene of the Bloomsbury Group was towards its end, and he briefly describes how it disintegrated – his word – in a section that I wish could have been much longer. Perhaps the ends of such things are always harder to describe than their beginnings, if they do just slowly disintegrate – ending, appropriately enough, not with a bang but a whimper. The way that Bell describes it is the book’s most beautiful sentence:
The nineteen-twenties made it and broke it; it was then that it soared, burst in lazy scintillating splendour and slowly expired in still glowing fragments.
As I’ve mentioned, Bloomsbury is very short – only 89 pages of written text, though also a lot of extra sections of photos. These include some Vanessa Bell cover designs I haven’t seen before (though, frustratingly, in black and white) and his access to archives is certainly enviable.
Altogether, I could have wished Bloomsbury a bit longer, and maybe organised a bit more intuitively – but it’s a valuable part of a large puzzle that we lovers of the 1920s and ’30s are likely to be fascinated with forever.