It seems that you never have to go far to run into a member of the Bloomsbury Group these days. Whether in the form of an exhibition (last year’s Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery), a new biography, a novel that fictionalizes events from the lives of its members, or a TV series (the BBC’s forthcoming ‘Life in Squares’) at least one of its members will be in the public eye and, as they are so interwoven in each other’s lives, where one is seen the others are never far away. Admittedly, I’m fortunate enough to divide my time between London and Sussex, so perhaps notice this more than I would if I lived elsewhere, but even so the blue plaques adorning those houses in Bloomsbury that survived the Blitz, together with the high numbers of visitors at Charleston Farmhouse and the Woolfs’ home at Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell seem to indicate that there are many who are curious about the group’s activities and, of course, the rich artistic legacy it left.
It’s hard, perhaps, to imagine such a brilliant cast of individuals all in the same, very narrow (to the point of being incestuous) social orbit, and to think of the ideas that they discussed and promoted in their respective fields. A group of friends who, on account of shared university affiliation or geographical proximity in London could, at any time, put writers like Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, artists like Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, art historians like Roger Fry and Clive Bell, economists like John Maynard Keynes and biographers like Lytton Strachey in the same room at the same time could hardly have failed to make an impact on the cultural life of early 20th century Britain. Whether it was championing Post-Impression painting, literary innovation, or the use of garlic in cooking, they were pushing the boundaries of what had up to that point been considered ordinary or expected. Rejecting those conventions that didn’t work for them, they established their own in their place and lived by them, unconventionally if they had to.
It is that sense of conventions rejected or redrawn, perhaps, that also gives them such lasting interest, as the brilliance of their thought cannot be wholly isolated from their often complex lives. Reviews of Richard Davenport-Hines’ recent biography of Maynard Keynes (in which the economist was seen as a man of seven ‘lives’ in one) seemed to find his love-life the most interesting part of all, and Priya Parmar’s recently published novel ‘Vanessa and Her Sister’ draws upon actual events as the basis for its imaginative insight into the damage inflicted on Vanessa Stephen’s marriage to Clive Bell by her sister Virginia’s interference and manipulation shortly after the birth of the Bell’s first child, Julian. If we are feeling judgmental (and the Bloomsbury mentality was always about making those outside of its confines feel provincial and ‘small’ in our inability to fully comprehend its rarefied atmosphere) then very few members of the Group emerge from works like this without some moral mark against them. But at the same time, it’s hard not to be impressed by the wonderful work that came out of that muddle, so perhaps our continued fascination with them reflects a sense of bemused respect that its members could have done what they did being in the state(s) that they were. As we are currently in the cultural and historical habit of marking centenaries from events in that early 20th century world it is, I’d say, not a fascination that is going to abate any time soon.