Why I ...believe the British should celebrate Bloomsbury

June 25, 2004

My clippings files are stuffed with Bloomsbury satires: a floor of the New York Public Library collapses under the weight of books by and about the Bloomsbury Group; to rival Dallas , a new soap brings you "Bloomsbury", a series full of "suicide, incest, bastardy, adultery and homosexuality". Even when the intent is not mockery, the tone is melodramatic: "Beyond the Boundaries of Convention, Beyond the Rules of Society, Came a Love Unlike Any Other." That was the tag-line for Christopher Hampton's 1995 film Carrington . More recently, we have been treated to Nicole Kidman's nasally enhanced Virginia Woolf and Miranda Richardson's representation of Vanessa Bell as a kind of society matron with two oafish sons in tow in The Hours .

Woolf wrote in her diary in 1918 that "the dominion that 'Bloomsbury' exercises over the sane and the insane alike seems sufficient to turn the brains of the most robust". She was prescient. Bloomsbury has come in for more than its fair share of abuse over the years. Even Vita Sackville-West's son Ben accused the group of living in a fools' paradise, to which Woolf replied that they had "done their very best to make humanity in the mass appreciate what they knew and saw".

This is the nub of the case against Bloomsbury: that phrase "humanity in the mass" opposed to their privilege, which, in the eyes of many, insulated them from "real life". This was the crux of F. R. Leavis' case against Woolf and of his acolytes' arguments against Lytton Strachey, and the Leavisite influence on British and colonial English departments was deep.

In 1959, Leonard Woolf declined David Garnett's proposal for a picture book on the grounds that it "would be met by the usual chorus of anti-Bloomsburiansis". That chorus has been sung loud and clear in the pages of book reviews and colour supplements, swelling whenever something new catches its attention: Laura Ashley's "Bloomsbury" collection, a new biography, a film. But all the while, the work of the gay and godless Bloomsbury Group has gone on attracting new readers and viewers in defiance of its critics. Woolf's global appeal is attested to by translations in Korea and Japan, Turkey and Russia, Germany and Portugal, and by conferences and symposia there and in many other countries.

Bringing the annual conference on Virginia Woolf "Back to Bloomsbury" this year is another sign of the rehabilitation of the Bloomsbury Group in Britain. Art historian Christopher Reed, one of the group's most eloquent defenders, will chair a session there on some of the controversies and myths that have surrounded the group up until now. Defining the chronology of myth creation, Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, says: "First comes literature, then death, then biography, then popular culture, and then cultural history." While the "myths" of Bloomsbury's influence and antics might survive any attempt at scholarly correction, we can add another stage to the list: revaluation.

New editions of Woolf's works, exhibits of Bloomsbury art and a growing body of scholarly work continue to introduce the group's achievements to new audiences.

There will always be those who snipe at "Bloomsbury", using the term as a facile shorthand for perceived upper-middle-class pretensions, or who get apoplectic at the public's interest, as historian Andrew Roberts did in a review of Carrington (the Bloomsbury Group was "responsible for many of the worst ills that have beset modern Britain", he wrote in the Daily Mail ).

But while devotees of Woolf and her circle might occasionally wish for the respect accorded to the far larger Joyce, Shakespeare or Bront "industries", they can take comfort in what Woolf told an inquiring US researcher in 1932: "The Bloomsbury Group is largely a creation of the journalists."

  • "Back to Bloomsbury" takes place at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, until June 26.

Mark Hussey is professor of English, women's and gender studies ay Pace University, New York.

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