From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War
By Peter Stansky William Abrahams
Stanford University Press
Copyright © 2012 Peter Stansky
All right reserved.
A BLOOMSBURY CHILDHOOD
Bloomsbury has its international fame. Studious visitors from abroad know it as the area of the British Museum and the university of London. Readers of fiction feel an immediate familiarity with its Georgian squares—each having a fenced-in bit of green park at its center—and streets, lined with well-proportioned, tall-windowed houses, large but not ostentatious, that served as homes for professional and merchant families throughout the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century Bloomsbury had been increasingly vandalized, in part by the destruction of the Second World War, in part by the constructions of the university of London. In 1940 Max Beerbohm was complaining that there seemed to be no limits to the university's "desire for expansion of that bleak, bland, hideous, and already vast whited sepulcher, which bears its name." He was referring to the university's Senate House, the model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. But in 1904, the year of the "birth" of Bloomsbury, the changes that war and the university were to effect had not yet occurred: past and present were still harmoniously conjoined.
Early in that year, and nine years after the death of his second wife, Julia Jackson Duckworth, Sir Leslie Stephen had died of cancer. He was seventy-two years old. In his time he had been the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, essayist, literary critic, biographer, religious doubter, and a celebrated mountaineer and Alpinist—he was the first to climb the Schreckhorn. Soon after his death, the four children from his second marriage, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian Stephen, sufficiently grown up and with sufficient money, settled upon themselves to do as they pleased and moved from the family house in Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, across London to Bloomsbury, where they took a house together in Gordon Square, No. 46. Nevertheless, relatives disapproved; it was considered shocking that four young people should live on their own. The move was an early indication that these four were determined to go their own way and make their own decisions. For them, it was a highly agreeable arrangement, but it had never been thought of as other than provisional, and indeed it was soon altered: first, tragically, in the summer of 1906, by the sudden death of Thoby Stephen from typhoid, contracted while traveling in Greece. Though known by his second name, Thoby, his actual first name was Julian. His death played a central role in the story of Bloomsbury (as did the death of his namesake, Julian Bell, thirty-one years later). Thoby's death was an important factor in precipitating major changes in his sisters' lives. His close Trinity College, Cambridge, friend, Clive Bell, married Vanessa Stephen a year later, in 1907, and in 1912 another close Trinity friend, Leonard Woolf, married Virginia. Indeed, in the correspondence after Thoby's death between Lytton Strachey and Leonard, at the time in the civil service in Ceylon, Lytton argued that Leonard should marry Virginia, whom Leonard knew but far from well. in the new arrangement of things, Virginia and Adrian Stephen moved to a house of their own nearby in Fitzroy Square, and the Bells kept No. 46. It was there, on February 4, 1908, that Julian Heward Bell, their first child, was born: "Julian," after his late uncle, and "Heward," a Bell family name.
Bloomsbury, however, is not merely a place. It has a figurative as well as a physical existence. It stands for an idea, a philosophy, a style. It serves as a word of praise or deprecation. It provides an occasion for disagreement, for nostalgia, for condescension or approval. In all these aspects it would play an important part in Julian Bell's life, from his earliest childhood even to the circumstances leading up to his death—that he went out to Spain as an ambulance driver rather than as a fighter in the international Brigade. Julian was always conscious of Bloomsbury, of its values and standards, from which he knew he was not to be exempted, and conscious also of its high expectations for him: that he was to be not less than its son. Of course, something of this sort would never be said; it would simply be taken for granted. But the pressure was there, the possibility of tension and opposition. And if he were to be a writer, there would be the complicated question of his relationship with his aunt Virginia. She loved him deeply, but as she was fully aware, she could be in a state of rivalry with writers, and at times that might influence her relationship with Julian. There is no question that Julian loved and admired Bloomsbury, and respected it, and even believed in it; yet at the same time, although only rarely explicitly and openly, he was in rebellion against it.
But how is this Bloomsbury, which figures now in literary histories as the "Bloomsbury Group," to be described? Since the shorter telling of Julian's life—Journey to the Frontier—was published, in 1972, Bloomsbury has been the subject of ever increasing attention, to a significant degree driven by the intense interest in Virginia Woolf. almost without number have there been scholarly studies and more popular books, and innumerable biographies. of the many biographies of Virginia Woolf herself, the two most important are one of the earliest, by her nephew Quentin, Julian's brother, in 1972, and one of the more recent, the magisterial work by Hermione lee in 1996. Not to be forgotten are the six volumes of her letters and the five volumes of her diary.
There is something rather daunting, or at least cautionary, about the statement by Clive Bell, one of the founding members, that Bloomsbury never really existed, that it was an invention of outsiders. of course, he did not expect (perhaps not even want) to be believed; still, one does well to go cautiously. To speak of "members" where Bloomsbury is concerned is more than a little misleading, for it never was a formal Group, never issued a manifesto or declaration of principles, was never a movement (Bloomsburyisme) in the style of the Continent, and was not even, as its detractors darkly imagined, a conspiracy for self-advancement or a mutual admiration society. on the whole, one does best to conform to Bloomsbury's own usage and describe it simply as a group (lowercase) of very close friends, many of them living in the same district of London (Bloomsbury), who saw a great deal of one another (in the early days frequently on Thursday evenings after dinner) either there or in the country (usually Sussex), and who gained imposing reputations in the various arts they practiced during the period 1910–1940: painting (Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant); the novel (Virginia Woolf, and in a sense slightly tangential to the group, E. M. Forster); art criticism (Clive Bell, Roger Fry); political theory (Leonard Woolf); biography (Lytton Strachey); and economics (John Maynard Keynes). Quite a few others would also be close friends, but these were at the group's very center, with the possible exception of Forster, and were the members who achieved the greatest renown. They made extraordinary contributions to the culture of the twentieth century. Yet at the emotional heart of the group were Virginia and Vanessa, the Stephen sisters, and by extension, Vanessa's children, Julian, Quentin, and angelica.
Let us make a first approach to Bloomsbury—and to Julian—by way of an exchange of letters. It is April 1908. on Wednesday the 22nd, Virginia Stephen, who is on holiday in Cornwall, writes to Lytton Strachey in London. She has taken rooms at Trevose House, Draycot Terrace, St. Ives, a town she knows well as the Stephen family in earlier years had vacationed there frequently. She has been attempting to write a review, for the Cornhill Magazine, of a life of John Delane, a famous nineteenth-century editor of the Times. But the conditions are not favorable:
My landlady, though a woman of 50, has nine children, and once had 11; and the youngest is able to cry all day long. When you consider that the family sitting room is next mine, and we are parted by folding doors only—what kind of sentence do you call this?—you will understand that I find it hard to write of Delane "the Man".... I spend most of my time, however, alone with my God, on the moors. I sat for an hour (perhaps it was 10 minutes) on a rock this afternoon, and considered how I should describe the colour of the Atlantic.
On Thursday the 23rd, Strachey replies:
I went away last friday, partly to get rid of my cold, to the Green Dragon, on Salisbury Plain, where James [his brother] and Keynes and others were for Easter. of course it finally destroyed me—the coldest winds you can imagine sweeping over the plain, and inferior food, and not enough comfortable chairs. But on the whole I was amused. The others were Bob Trevy [Trevelyan] ... Moore ... and a young undergraduate called rupert Brooke—isn't it a romantic name?—with pink cheeks and bright yellow hair—it sounds horrible, but it wasn't. Moore is a colossal being, and he also sings and plays in a wonderful way, so that the evenings passed pleasantly.
This letter leads us to the early years of Bloomsbury, but before we follow it there, let us attend to Virginia's reply, written five days later. It is Tuesday, April 28, and she is still at Trevose House in St. Ives.
Your letter was a great solace to me. I had begun to doubt my own identity—and imagined I was part of a sea-gull, and dreamt at night of deep pools of blue water, full of eels. However, Adrian came suddenly that very day.... Then Nessa and Clive and the Baby [Julian, age three months] and the nurse all came, and we have been so domestic that I have not read, or wrote. My article upon Delane is left in the middle of a page thus—"But what of the Man?" ... A child is the very devil calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents—and the aunts. When we talk of marriage, friendship or prose, we are suddenly held up by Nessa, who has heard a cry, and then we must all distinguish whether it is Julian's cry, or the cry of the 2 year old—the landlady's youngest—who has an abscess, and uses therefore a different scale.... We are going to a place called the Gurnard's Head this afternoon—and now I look up and behold it pours! So we shall sit over the fire instead, and I shall say some very sharp things, and Clive and Nessa will treat me like a spoilt monkey, and the Baby will cry. However, I daresay Hampstead is under snow. How is your cold? I got a stiff neck on the rocks—but it went.
A certain acerbity in this need not be taken seriously—in fact Virginia would prove to be the most affectionate of aunts, devoted to her sister's three children, Julian, Quentin, and angelica, and they were devoted to her. But that is the future, to be looked at as it happens. Now we must go back, a few years at least, to the past, to where Bloomsbury has its origins: to Cambridge. In the autumn of 1899, Lytton Strachey, next-to-youngest son amongst the ten children of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard and lady Strachey—a family long associated with the administration of India—went up to Trinity College. Very soon there formed about him a circle of young men almost as brilliant as himself. There was Leonard Woolf, from St. Paul's School, the son of a London barrister. There was Clive Bell, from Marlborough, of a Wiltshire "huntin'-shootin'" county family who had got their money a generation back as owners of Welsh coal mines. and there was Julian Thoby Prinsep Stephen. Thoby Stephen died too early to fulfill the promise that his family and friends had recognized in him, but he would be remembered glowingly—especially by his sisters, who had worshipped him, and who looked for him, as it were, in the next generation, in Julian. He was truly a founder of Bloomsbury as a group, for he introduced Clive Bell to his sister Vanessa, and Leonard Woolf to his sister Virginia. The marriages that grew out of these introductions would give the group a center, a coherence, and a strength that came with family interconnection, which it would not otherwise have had. (in all this there is a resemblance between Bloomsbury and the Clapham Sect, that important evangelical group or movement of a hundred years earlier, among whose members had been the great-grandfather of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, the great-great-grandfather of E. M. Forster, and the great-grandmother of Lytton Strachey.)
Strachey and his friends at Trinity—Bell, Woolf, Thoby Stephen, as well as a. J. Robertson and Saxon Sydney-Turner—were caught up in the prevailing Cambridge passion for "little groups" and formed an informal one of their own, the Midnight Society, which met on Saturdays at midnight in the rooms of Clive Bell. It was dedicated to the reading aloud of plays of a rather formidable character—The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, Bartholomew Fair—but the meetings were not as austere as this may suggest. The members fortified themselves with whisky or punch and meat pies, and when the last speech was spoken—usually at about 5 A.M.—they would sally forth, still exhilarated, to listen to the nightingales and sometimes to chant passages from Swinburne as they perambulated through the cloisters of Neville's Court in Trinity.
There was another "little group," distinguished in lineage and ostensibly secret, to which Strachey and Woolf—but not Clive Bell nor Thoby Stephen—also belonged, and which also met on Saturday evenings but a good deal earlier. (indeed, the Midnight Society chose the midnight hour not only for its drama but simply to allow others to attend both meetings.) founded in about 1820 by a future bishop of Gibraltar, this was the Conversazione Society, or the Society, or—to use the name by which it is best known—the apostles. over its history, the apostles had had as members many of the most brilliant Cambridge undergraduates, from Tennyson and Hallam on, and most of them, as it happened, were at Trinity College. In 1899 the form was much as it had been since the beginning of the Society: weekly meetings, at which a paper was delivered by one of the members and discussed (dissected) by the others. Tradition provided that there should be a full and frank response to any question, objection, or speculation that might be raised, even at the risk of hurt feelings. On the whole, Apostolic papers were dedicated to abstract, or metaphysical, or political, or poetical, or ethical problems; the apostolic aim was to pursue the truth with absolute devotion and personal candor. (On occasion, however, the aim seems to have been simply to amuse, as when Lytton Strachey addressed himself to the question "ought the father to Grow a Beard?" Since Victorian fathers were usually bearded, one presumes that the correct, Stracheyan answer would have been no. Strachey himself, in the later years of his life, grew a luxuriant beard, though he never married.) The concerns of the Society had always been more philosophical than literary; now, at the turn of the century, the inclination and professional interests of certain of its older members strengthened the claims of philosophy. At this time the number of undergraduate members was comparatively small: only about six. (Here a latecomer must be mentioned: John Maynard Keynes, who did not arrive in Cambridge as an undergraduate until the autumn of 1902, and who so impressed Strachey and Woolf when they went to call that he was brought into the Society in the winter of his first year.) But the membership as a whole had never been limited to the biblical number of apostles, and there were still many active members who had already received their degrees. These included not only men still at Cambridge (usually as dons) but a few others—future literary figures in the very early stages of their careers, men like Desmond MacCarthy and E. M. Forster—who might come up from London to attend meetings. In Cambridge the most eminent of the older members, who of course were still young men at the time, were Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand russell, G. E. Moore (the Moore mentioned in Strachey's letter to Virginia Woolf), and Goldsworthy lowes Dickinson. It is hardly surprising then that the bent of the Society should have been philosophical.
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