The Air of Bloomsbury 3

The last part of an article found in a Times Literary Supplement from 1954 - a very lengthy anonymous review of J.K. Johnstone's The Bloomsbury Group. This part is good on on their attitude to mysticism (see Cambridge conviction). At the time there was still a debate as to whether the Bloomsbury Set actually existed. In Clive Bell's slightly irascible article in Century in February 1954 What was 'Bloomsbury'? he continually asks whether it actually existed - as far as he could see it was just 'a dozen friends..between 1904 and 1914 (who) saw a great deal of each other...' He names these '...the surviving members of the Midnight Society -Thoby Stephen (died in the late autumn of 1906) Leonard Woolf...Lytton Strachey (who actually lived in Hampstead) Saxon Sydney-Turner, Clive Bell. There were the two ladies. Add to these Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, H.T.J.Norton and perhaps Gerald Shove...certainly Desmond and Molly MacCarthy and Morgan Forster were close and affectionate friends but I doubt whether any of them has yet been branded with the fatal name..' Bell refers to these as the 'old gang' and names a few younger candidates: David Garnett, Francis Birrell, Raymond Mortimer, Stephen Tomlin, Ralph Partridge , Stephen Sprott, F.L. Lucas and Frances Marshall ((later Mrs Ralph Partridge). This review is anonymous but is certainly by someone who knew his (or her) stuff.

Yet as temperaments appear to run in families they retained a passionate individualist faith, though without obligations. 'We were,' says Maynard Keynes, 'in the strict sense of the word immoralists, we recognized no moral obligations on us, no inner sanction to conform or to obey.' It was this rejection of tradition, combined with 'comprehensive irreverence,' which made them suspect to the outer world. lt was 'I think a justifiable suspicion,' he says, and proceeds with admirable candour, wit and yet loyalty to show that there was something both brittle and far too narrow in their early views, and perhaps dubious about their later lives, when 'concentration on moments of union between a pair of lovers got thoroughly mixed up with the once rejected pleasure.'

Yet their revolt against tradition in religion and morals never extended to literature...they were innovators, and important ones, as all writers who are living and contemporary in the true sense must be. But they also represented, as Dr. F. R. Leavis, a somewhat hostile critic, admitted when their books were being published, the humane tradition o their time. The fact that several of the group happened to be born with literary silver spoons in their mouths gave them an un-laboured familiarity with European literature past and present. And they wrote, too, with the good manners of the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, as if for their peers who could naturally catch every shade of meaning, never with over-emphasis and never with condescension.

Having summarized Moore, Mr.Johnstone deals with Roger Fry's theories about painting, and shows them to be impregnated with the conceptions of Principia Ethica, shows, too, how all Fry`s general views are equally applicable to the art of writing. Indeed, the two arts were closely interwoven in Bloomsbury, painter discussing with writer, and writer learning from painter, so that it seems sad Mr. Johnstone does not find it within his province to deal with the two chief painters of the group, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, though he notices of course that Virginia Woolf had something of a painter's vision. and sense of colour and light. This is particularly evident, as he points out, in her luminous description of the dinner-table in To the Lighthouse. 'We experience before all works of art,' Fry says, 'a free, pure, and as it were disembodied functioning of the spirit,' thus referring straight back to Moore's timeless and passionate states of contemplation. Later Mr. Johnstone shows how many of Virginia Woolf's characters also experience these same timeless moments of vision and 'intense reality,' moments when things come together in peace. 'Fear no more, says the heart in the body, fear no more.' But sometimes she was afraid:--'Why is life so tragic, so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss,' she says in her diary, 'I look down, I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end.'Yet in those other moments the beauty and horror of life were reconciled, and death itself, she found, made sense of our vivid chaotic separate experiences, because dying is a return to a sea where there is no separateness. This is indeed the whole theme of her most elaborate novel-poem, The Waves.

'What is the thing,' she asks elsewhere, 'that lies beneath the semblance of the thing, and of which the painter is perhaps aware behind his eternal apples and immortal eggs.' The search for this 'thing' was fundamental to her being, and comes out most movingly in Mrs. Dalloway in her description of Septimus Warren Smith's delusions: 'I am_now in the thick of the mad scene in Regent's Park. I find I write it by clinging as tight to the facts as I can ...' she says simply in her diary. As he finishes this scene the reader knows that he has been altered a little, and given some new possession for always, and that a writer who is able to do this for him possesses what we call genius - or a touch of it. This power sets Virginia Woolf apart from the other two Bloomsbury authors, though Strachey always writes with outstanding talent, and Mr. Forster often with inspiration--above all in A Passage to India, where he creates the character of Aziz against his vast Indian background with such an exquisite marriage of devotion and amusement...his obvious dissatisfaction with the modern mechanized world and the vulgarity and timidity of middle-class civilization. But is it not nearly always fatal for a novelist to make one of his characters a conscious symbol in the greatest of all novels, War and Peace, there is only one character, Platon Karatiev the peasant, who is not entirely a living soul, because he is meant to stand for the Soul of Russia, and occasionally-with Mr.Forster we are not quite sure what his symbols do stand - these are his 'moments of imperfect symbolism' of which Virginia Woolf writes with such insight, 'which bring a curious unsubstantiality into his great scenes...but absent themselves entirely from his comedy.' For instance, she hazards that his echo in the 'Marabar caves may stand for the soul of India, while to others it would suggest that terrifying primordial indifference and negativity which is evil.

Evil with the Bloomsbury writers, perhaps because of their rationalism, is not accepted as an obvious part of existence. It is always just round the corner, something unforeseen and obscene, like the crushed snake in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts:Mr. Forster is above all occupied with personal relationships. Like Moore he holds that the love of love is by far the most important thin we know. He has 'detached the Christian teaching from the circumference of the churches,' says Stephen Spender, 'and concentrated it into the nucleus of personal relationship.' But his characters also have their moments of timeless passionate contemplation, as when old Mr. Lucas in The Road to Colonus enters the hollow plane-tree hung with votive offerings. Earlier he had been sunk in apathy; afterwards-

'...when he opened his eyes _ something unimagined, indefinable had passed over all things made them intelligible and good. There was meaning in the stoop of the old woman in her work, and in the quick motions of the little pig... A young man came singing over the streams on a mule and there was beauty in his pose and sincerity in his greeting.The sun made no accidental patterns upon the spreading roots of the trees .... To Mr Lucas there seemed nothing ludicrous in the desire to hang within the tree another votive offering- a little model of an entire man.'

But a votive offering to what? Here Bloomsbury will not help us, will only hint, and draw back. This is partly due to the group's integrity. They are determined, especially when dealing with the aesthetic experience, which they consider perhaps the most important in life, to accept no second- hand formulas, to go not one step farther than their own individual experience warrants. In this they seem to resemble even in maturity, all gallant-minded adolescents. Also they have the deep Cambridge conviction that if you want to believe in a thing, it is probably untrue. They are humanists who distrust any explanations smelling, however faintly, of mysticism, and above all in their case of dogmatic Christianity, especially of 'the sterilized public school brand.' But if there not some sort of timidity, or at least superficiality, in the fact that they rarely seem to ask themselves the characteristically Moore-ish question-What exactly do you mean by 'moments of vision,' by 'life itself,' by 'spirit,' by 'our spiritual life,' though they often use such phrases with approval.For might these not turn out on strict examination to be too deeply laden with a cargo of contraband old-fashioned religious, even mystical, associations. Certainly it would be a Bloomsbury group heresy, if, as artists, they became aware that rather than imposing pattern or significant form on a chaotic material universe, they were discovering it there. Yet to the outsider this appears to be just what Virginia Woolf is always doing, and Mr. Forster too, at least in the person of many of his characters, including, of course, old Mr. Lucas. But all that Mr. Forster will publicly admit is 'that the artist interprets the disappointing scene before him,and gives it a coherence and beauty life itself does not possess.' And Roger Fry tells us that the artist builds an orderly and appropriate world 'altogether beyond what nature herself provides,' suggesting 'the inevitability and orderlmess of our own intellectual life.' Mr. Forster. however, does go so far as to say:'Perhaps life is a mystery and not a muddle.' And perhaps that is as far as any sincere humanist can go. It is a phrase that might well have been used by Lowes Dickinson, the much-loved friend of both Mr.Forster and Fry, with his characteristic sigh, and humble,humorous shrug of the shoulders in face of the unknown.

But there is no ambiguity in the attitude of Lytton Strachey. He alone is quite clear that existence is a muddle, and that the artist`s job is simply to impose form, significant form, upon it, thus again harking straight back to Bloomsbury aesthetics. Naturally Strachey much admired Gibbon, who 'established a miracle of order' over the chaos of one thousand years. To-day his own stock is exceedingly low, partly because of his great contemporary success as a biographer of the Victorians, many o whose leading figures he was anxious to deflate. His admirable studies of 18th century characters, in whose company he was delightfully at home, are much less well known to the general public. His biographies appeared when it really was important to expose the Victorians' feet of clay beneath their shiny boots, but his example was followed by a host of third-rate professional debunkers (a phrase one imagines he would have fastidiously disliked) who throw discredit on his own distinguished work. However, Mr. Johnstone appreciates him and is cheeringly fair to him, though he seems to think, rather oddly that in Eminent Victorians Strachey had two distinct styles, the epic in miniature and the mock epic. Surely it is truer and simpler to say that Strachey loved and admired some of the people he wrote about (those who had passion and sincerity) and detested others, above all the pompous and sham. But through the treatment of all his characters runs the same civilized, delicately undermining irony, just as in Sir Max Beerbohm’s caricatures, whether Max is detesting Kipling or loving the entire English Art Club.

It seems that Mr. Johnstone can hardly believe that mockery can be used either with every shade of dislike or with half-concealed affection and indeed admiration. Strachey adheres to the original Bloomsbury doctrine that the Christians were the enemies. the representative; of convention and hocus-pocus. It is therefore a little surprising, till one remembers his deep respect for any really passionate conviction, to find him saying to Virginia Woolf that Gibbon was 'queer about the early Christians-didn't see anything in them at all.' To the present-day reader Strachey appears rather queer (and sometimes a little cheap) if often as entertaining as Gibbon about Christians of all centuries. Yet to his admirers it seems foolish to go on cavilling at his obvious limitations, and remain blind to his delightfully suave and ironic insight into human relationships and his superb gift of comedy in general. Yes, even if he does sometimes distort his evidence. Virginia Woolf helps us to understand why this happened. She tells us how the good biographer 'can give us the fertile fact, the creative fact, the fact that suggests and engenders.' What a temptation to Strachey, who would have liked himself to be the creative novelist, to leave out the fact that was not fertile for his immediate and always artistic purpose. The reader of his study of Elizabeth and Essex will remember that he was convinced, certainly with absolute sincerity, that Essex lacked brains, A friend met him once inCambridge, where he had returned to get a photograph of the original portrait of Essex hanging in Trinity Lodge. This he had intended for a frontispiece to his book. “ But," he said in his odd falsetto (imitations of which lingered in Cambridge long after he had left it), 'l can't possibly use it. He looks quite intelligent.' Mr. Johnstone, in spite of quoting Sir Max Beerbohm, gives a somewhat muted description of Strachey's extraordinarily elongated, distinguished appearance. Indeed, he looked like a new variation of Homo Sapiens slightly Mephistophelean, yet with human and lonely brown eyes. Mr. Johnstone's sketch of Keynes is also not very vivid. He writes of Keynes: decisive nose, which seems to hint at something Wellingtonian. Certainly it was long, but at the end slightly retroussé, and this, together with his full underlip, made him look as if Circe had attempted to wave her wand over him but had dropped it forever at one glance from his formidably amused and brilliant eyes.

Of the great beauty of the two Miss Stephens Mr. Johnstone does not speak. Mr. Forster has defined aristocrats as people who have a natural access to the wisdom of their ancestors. Vanessa and Virginia Stephen looked as if they had access to the beauty of theirs. and would carry it about with them to the end of their days with complete aristocratic unselfconsciousness. But Mr. Johnstone did not set out to write any sort of memoir of his Bloomsbury figures. though we may surmise a little sadly that even if he had done so he could not have succeeded. He would have looked at them through dark spectacles, inevitably smoked, as it were, by his separation from them in time, and perhaps still more in environment. is a rewarding book as it stands, written with integrity, and with dignity too. For he is quite right to ignore the many critics who attack the Bloomsbury Group, often for diametrically opposite reasons. and with the haziest and angriest notions of what it really stood for. Indeed as Mr. Clive Bell writes 'unless some of the Bloomsbury-baiters speak out and define what they mean social historians of the future are hound to wonder if there ever was such a thing. At last they may come to doubt whether Bloomsbury ever existed. And did it?' he ends provocatively. Mr.Johnstone answers conclusively that it did. And we must end by affirming in the words of the Group's original gospel, that his book is a complex whole possessing great intrinsic value or goodness.' [End]

2 thoughts on “The Air of Bloomsbury 3

  1. admin Post author

    Many thanks Tommi. She was a sort of fringe member herself although very much part of the Cambridge posse. It explains her remarks about Cambridge. I know her as the fine poet who wrote the immortal lines about the woman seen from a train: 'O fat white woman whom nobody loves,/Why do you walk through the fields in gloves…'


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