The New York Times
Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939by Virginia Nicholson
They ate garlic and didn't always bathe; they listened to Wagner and worshiped Diaghilev; they sent their children to coeducational schools, explored homosexuality and free love, vegetarianism and Post-impressionism. They were often drunk and broke, sometimes hungry, but they were of a rebellious spirit. Inhabiting the same England with Philistines and Puritans,
They ate garlic and didn't always bathe; they listened to Wagner and worshiped Diaghilev; they sent their children to coeducational schools, explored homosexuality and free love, vegetarianism and Post-impressionism. They were often drunk and broke, sometimes hungry, but they were of a rebellious spirit. Inhabiting the same England with Philistines and Puritans, this parallel minority of moral pioneers lived in a world of faulty fireplaces, bounced checks, blocked drains, whooping cough, and incontinent cats.
They were the bohemians.
Virginia Nicholson -- the granddaughter of painter Vanessa Bell and the great-niece of Virginia Woolf -- explores the subversive, eccentric, and flamboyant artistic community of the early twentieth century in this "wonderfully researched and colorful composite portrait of an enigmatic world whose members, because they lived by no rules, are difficult to characterize" (San Francisco Chronicle).
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Among the Bohemians
Experiments in Living 1900-1939
Paying The Price
Why is poverty so romantic? -- Why do artists despise money? -- How does one survive while producing something that no one will buy? -- What does an artist do who runs out of money? -- Does being rich disqualify one from Bohemia? -- If being Bohemian means being poor, is the gain worth the pain?
A couple of years after their marriage in 1918, the writer Robert Graves and his painter wife Nancy found themselves unable to make ends meet. They were living on the outskirts of Oxford at Boars Hill, and had two small children; Graves had sworn, after the war experiences described later in his famous book Goodbye to All That (1929), never to be under anyone's orders again. He was determined to live by his pen -- an inadequate resource with which to pay for the needs of his household. It was Nancy's idea to start a shop.
At first 'The Poets' Store' seemed too good to be true; a carpenter erected a charming hut to Nancy's design and outside it they hung an attractive Celtic sign. The shop was to be a general store, and they stocked it with all the necessities from washing powder to tea leaves. The community in which they lived brought them some valuable publicity, for their closest neighbour -- and landlord -- was the poet John Masefield, then at the height of his fame, and Mrs Masefield could buy her soapflakes from them. Another poet, John Nichols, also lived nearby; and there was a sprinkling of Oxford writers and academics in the village, all of whom could be supplied with back bacon, pipe tobacco and cheese. The Daily Mirror duly carried a headline 'ShopKeeping on Parnassus', which Graves hoped would encourage custom.
It soon proved to be a disastrous enterprise. Robert had to abandon his writing in order to serve behind the counter. Nancy quarrelled with the nursemaid and sacked her, so she had both to look after the children and bicycle round the area taking and delivering orders. The Graveses' humanitarian instincts were bad for business -- they undercharged their poorer customers and allowed them to run up debts. The book-keeping was hopelessly mishandled, and Robert went down with influenza. 'We decided to cut our losses.' They tried to sell the whole business to a local firm of grocers. However, here Mrs Masefield proved intransigent. The shop was on her land, and although she had been sympathetic to Robert and Nancy as struggling artists, she appeared reluctant to allow her neighbourhood to become tainted by vulgar commerce. The shop's depreciating stock was sold off at bankruptcy prices to wholesalers, and the charming hut was taken apart and sold for timber at a loss of £180. After a lawyer had worked to mediate their debts, they were left owing £300. The family were now faced with homelessness and destitution. Graves's father-in-law helped as best as he could with a gift of £100. The remainder came to them from the extraordinary generosity of Graves's friend T. E. Lawrence. He gave them the first four chapters of his great account of the Arab Revolt, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and the sale of these for serial publication in America fetched the final £200. They were out of debt, but penniless, and the whole episode had proved an unmitigated calamity.
Optimism, impracticality, and in the end, terrifying dependency all feature in this cautionary tale of a pair of artists utterly unsuited for a commercial venture. The Graves's salvation came not from social security or unemployment benefit, but from helpful friends and relatives; in the 1920s the Poor Law provided assistance only for those who could not support themselves by any other means, including friends, family and charity. Robert and Nancy's improvident behaviour had brought them to the brink of starvation.
There is something improbable about the story of the Poets' Store which tempts one to laugh. But beneath the absurdity lies a simple fact of life for those who wanted to live and work as artists before the Second World War: it took courage to make such a choice, and sacrifices had to be made. When the artists and would-be artists who are the subject of this book set out on their chosen career, none of them knew whether those sacrifices would prove to be justified in terms of their work. Fifty years on we may judge that Dylan Thomas's poverty was noble, while Nina Hamnett's was senseless. But a minor artist with no money goes as hungry as a genius. What drove them to do it?
I believe that such people were not only choosing art, they were choosing the life of the artist. Art offered them a different way of living, one that they believed more than compensated for the loss of comfort and respectability. They reinvented daily life, and brought about changes that are with us to this day.
The image of the starving Bohemian artist did not originate in the twentieth century. The prototype had been laid down in Paris in the 1840s, in Henri Murger's hugely successful book, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème.
Scènes de la Vie de Bohème was autobiographical. Born in Paris in 1822 Of humble origins, Murger struggled to turn himself into a writer. He shared rooms with three artist friends in the rue des Canettes. They lived in unutterable poverty: 'We are aching with hunger,' he wrote in 1843. 'We are at the end of our tether. We must find ourselves a niche, or blow our brains out.' When they could scrape together twenty sous the group would gather at the Café Momus, which soon became the centre for a group of Bohemians attracted by cheap coffee and stimulating conversation.
In 1845 Murger drew on his experiences with the Café Momus crowd to produce a series of short articles for the magazine Le Corsaire ...Among the Bohemians
Experiments in Living 1900-1939. Copyright © by Virginia Nicholson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Virginia Nicholson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After studying at Cambridge University she lived in France and Italy and then worked as a documentary researcher for BBC television. Her first book, Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden -- written in collaboration with her father, Quentin Bell -- was an account of the Sussex home of her grandmother, the painter Vanessa Bell -- Virginia Woolf's sister. She is married, has three children and lives in Sussex, England.
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Amusing, erudite and hard to put down. Nicholson writes with great charm about the joys and pitfalls of leading an unconventional life. I loved the book and had to ration myself to one chapter at a time.