S. P. Rosenbaum Moreover, if you go in for appreciation instead of understanding you will find that you are not quite sweet natured as you think. Spurts of irritability will arise, directed against the harpies who wo

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Preface to a Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group
S.P. Rosenbaum

Moreover, if you go in for appreciation instead of understanding you will find that you are not quite sweet natured as you think. Spurts of irritability will arise, directed against the harpies who would disturb your banquet, and you will find yourselves making remarks about Bloomsbury that are peevish rather than profound.

E.M. Forster
Reasons, he said, in Aesthetics, are “of the nature of further descriptions”…and all that Aesthetics does it “to draw your attention to a thing,” to “place things side by side.”

G.E. Moore on Wittgenstein’s lectures1

The need for a literary history of the Bloomsbury Group is not self-evident. The very existence of the Group has been questioned, almost since its inception and sometimes by the members themselves. But with the deluge of biographies, autobiographies, letters, and diaries that has been going on for some twenty years and has yet to stop, it now seems that if the Group did not exist it would have to be invented. Bloomsbury’s existence has been called into questions of its own nature, which has allowed polemical misinterpretations of its membership and purposes, or by essentialist definitions that have futilely tried to locate commonly held beliefs in the Group.

The deluge of books about the members of the Bloomsbury Group raises a more insistent question: is there really a need for more books about Bloomsbury? The many books that have been written about the lives of the Group are outnumbered by the multitude of critical studies devoted to the work of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster (but not Lytton Strachey). What is there left to say about life or literature in Bloomsbury that could possibly warrant a literary history so long it may have to be published in two volumes? The answers lie in the incongruity of the kinds of books that have been written about the Group and its members. Books about the lives of the Group and their interrelations have had little to say about their writings, whereas studies of the individuals’ writings of other members.1 Only two of all the books about Bloomsbury or its members have dealt in any detail with the connections between the works of the Group, and they both were written before the flood.2 With the extensive biographical and bibliographical information now available, it is surely time to begin using both of what T.S. Eliot called the writings of Bloomsbury.3 And where should such comparisons more logically start than in the Group itself?

Even if it is acknowledged that a comparative study of Bloomsbury’s writings has its uses, there is still the question of why such a study should be historical in form. The existence of the Bloomsbury Group may be taken as established these days, but the same cannot be said for literary history. A generation ago Wellek and Warren asked, “Is it possible to write literary history, that is, to write that which will be both literary and a history?”4 Though the question has not yet been either resolved or abandoned, the balance inherent in literary history has shifted heavily from chronicle to criticism since then. The editor of New Literary History has argued persuasively that “the historical study of literature is a necessary condition for any literary analysis,”5 but how much or what kind of literary history this commits us to is not completely clear. Many scholars today are sensibly sceptical about the casual connections between historical conditions and creative processes, about the critical significance of sources and the logic of influences: it is not that these relations are denied so much as that their complexity makes the literary significance of them difficult to judge. And now many critics have also begun to have doubts about the logic of critical processes and readers’ responses, about the structural functions of texts and the referentiality of language. It appears nowadays that if there are reasons for questioning the meaning of literary history, they also apply to all history and to literary criticism as well. But if history and criticism are possible, so is literary history.

As a result of these questionings, some recent literary history has become more self-conscious about its assumptions and methods, and more restricted in its purposes. Whether this history is also becoming more rigorous and illuminating remains to be seen. What follows in this preface can be taken as an illustration of a certain kind of limited literary history. I will try to outline a conception of Bloomsbury’s literary history that aims at interpreting their writing by concentrating on descriptions of their interconnected texts in a historical sequence.

It must be admitted, however, that Bloomsbury’s is a rather special type of literary history. It is not mainly about the evolution of forms, styles, conventions, or themes; it is not the history of a period, or a country, or-despite its name-a place. It is not even the history of a movement, though it may be closer to that than anything else. The primary materials of the literary history of Bloomsbury are a series of texts written by a group of friends, and the most reasonable way to begin studying these writings would seem to be in the order in which they were written. Proceeding chronologically also allows one to distinguish more easily the personal and public conditions and circumstances that accompanied the composition of those writings. The literature of Bloomsbury can certainly be ordered by many other means, but they will still all refer, implicitly at least, to the temporal order of the texts. The freedom of criticism depends on recognizing the necessity of chronology. The way things actually happened has its value for literature, even if it is only the scientific one of disconfirmation.
The basic premise of a literary history of the Bloomsbury Group is that their writings are historically interrelated in ways important if not essential to their interpretation. The basic purpose of such a history is to describe a sequence of interconnected texts in order to interpret them analytically. The descriptions will focus on correspondences of similarity and contiguity, on analogies and conjunctions, and they will be both synchronic and diachronic. “Only connect…” could serve as the motto for a literary history that also aspires to be a literal history. The interpretation will reflect the eclecticism of the Group; their end is understanding rather than appreciation or depreciation. The critical means will be the analysis and comparison of texts to discover what their most significant elements are, how these relate to one another, to the texts as a whole, and to other texts.

The descriptions and interpretations that a literary history of Bloomsbury entails can be clarified by defining more precisely what is meant by a sequence of interconnected texts, and in the following sections I shall try to indicate first what is meant by a Bloomsbury text, then what kinds of interconnections these texts display, an finally what historical periods make up the sequence of these interconnected texts. Before doing this, however, it is necessary to return to the meaning of the Bloomsbury Group and be more precise about its nature.

The Bloomsbury Group was a collectivity of friends and relations who knew and loved one another for a period of time extending over two generations. Because friendships were the original and enduring bonds of the Group, it is somewhat misleading to think of Bloomsbury as a movement based on philosophical, moral, artistic, or political affinities. The Group had such affinities, and understanding them is essential to its history, but the affinities came with the friendships, not the other way round. The difficulty of mapping a network of friendships is one explanation of the controversial nature of Bloomsbury. Friends of the friends were not necessarily members of the Group. It was not obvious from the outside who belonged, and the uncertain outlines of Bloomsbury allowed their enemies to associate all sorts of unlikely people with the Group. Bloomsbury’s easiest defense was to deny their own existence, and this was rather frequently done until the Group’s complex nature became clear with the publication of the members’ lives. Other difficulties in defining Bloomsbury have to do with the “marriage and death and division” that Swinburne says “make barren our lives.”6 The membership of the Group altered somewhat with marriages of one kind or another, the coming of the younger generation, and the dying of the older.

I have tried to show in a collection of documents by and about the Bloomsbury Group how Bloomsbury described themselves and were seen by their contemporaries.7 Perhaps the simplest way of identifying the Group here is to look at the Memoir Club that they founded in 1920 to commemorate-ironically and otherwise-the Old Bloomsbury that began at the turn of the century in Cambridge and in the district of West Central London from which the Group took its name, and ended with the First World War until 1956, when the last meeting was held. According to Leonard Woolf, the most detailed and reliable historian in and of the Group, the original members of the Memoir Club, in addition to himself and his wife Virginia, were Vanessa and Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Mary and Desmond MacCarthy, E.M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner, and Adrian Stephen. There is room for disagreement and qualification in this as in all Bloomsbury lists, but for the purpose of literary history, the only writer missing who later became a member of the Memoir Club and married into Bloomsbury is David Garnett.

“Division” in Bloomsbury has influenced definitions of the Group as much as anything. Because, according to Leonard Woolf again, “we had no common theory, system, or principles which we wanted to convert the world to,” it has been assumed that there was no intellectual basis of the Group.8 Such an assumption has been reinforced by the unsparing criticism that the members directed at one another’s life and work. This mutual criticism, along with the mutual admiration that the Group is so often accused of, is among the most important types of interconnection that a literary history of Bloomsbury needs to trace in their texts. As for the absence of common ideas, Leonard Woolf himself said just before the passage quoted above that the color of his mind and the minds of his Cambridge friends had been given by the intellectual climate of Cambridge, especially the philosophy of G.E. Moore. The color changed its hue when Bloomsbury encountered in London the aesthetic climate of Post-impressionism and the political climate of suffragism, socialism, and pacifism. It is nevertheless true that none of these influences can be considered a defining characteristic of Bloomsbury. Still, Bloomsbury does exhibit a similarity of convictions about philosophy, art, and society. There is, in Wittgenstein’s metaphor, a family resemblance among the Bloomsbury Group that appears not in their common features but in their overlapping and crisscrossing similarities.9 Bloomsbury’s writings display such a similarity, and one of the main functions of a literary history is to describe this resemblance.

Another philosophical comparison that can clarify the nature of the Bloomsbury Group is G.E. Moore’s notion of an organic whole. For Moore it is a whole that bears no regular proportion to the sum of its parts.10 Moore applied his idea to the assessment of value, and it is relevant to Bloomsbury’s literary texts; they have a value for the literary history of Bloomsbury as a whole that has no regular relation to their intrinsic value. Leonard Woolf’s novels, for example, or Desmond MacCarthy’s reviews are not among the monuments of English fiction or criticism, but in the literary history of Bloomsbury they are invaluable. It is important to emphasize, however, that Wittgenstein’s and Moore’s analogies do not suggest any necessary unanimity in Bloomsbury. Unfortunately, there is no convenient term for referring to only some of the members of Bloomsbury. (Bloomsberries really will not do). But Bloomsbury can be a collective noun taking either the singular or plural, and I have tried to use this distinction when describing their views in order to suggest when they were in complete agreement and when they were only more or less so.

The organization of the Bloomsbury Group is not particularly usual. There are innumerable groups without leaders or goals wt basis is friendship and whose membership is not easily definable.11 What makes the Bloomsbury Group uniquely significant is the work they achieved. Their lives are best understood, finally, as they enacted in and through their work. But the work was not exclusively or even primarily literary; painting and political economy were as important as writing in Bloomsbury. Sometimes this is felt to be an objection to studying their literary history. Certainly it is not the only kind of history that could be written of them, as the books on their lives or their paintings show. But it might be the most comprehensive, depending on how widely one construes the primary materials literary history that are its texts.

The term text is a rather pedantic one, suggesting some kind automatic writing purged of all human origins, yet it includes more types of writing and begs fewer questions about form or purpose than the word work does. Often the terms are interchangeable, but the greater exclusiveness of text is especially important for the study Bloomsbury’s writings. Much modernist literary theory still holds that there is a crucial disjunction between works of poetry, fiction and drama on the one side, and on the other what is lumped together and defined merely negatively as nonfiction. Whatever this separation does for literary study elsewhere, it obscures the understanding of Bloomsbury's literary achievement. The literary history of Bloomsbury is, to an unusual extent, a history of prose. Except for Lytton Strachey, the members wrote little poetry or drama, and none of them published much of it. To dichotomize their writing into fictive and nonfictive categories and then to interpret the former as proper literary works and the latter as something else leads to the misinterpretation and devaluation of both. Thinking of Bloomsbury’s works simply as texts or writings helps to avoid this split.

I am not trying to suggest that there are no distinctions between fiction and nonfiction in Bloomsbury. There are many distinctions, but they cannot be adequately subsumed under a single binary system. One of the most salient features of Bloomsbury’s modernism is the mixing of genres in their writing. Forster's novels contain essays, and his essays contain fictional settings and characters. The most widely read of all Bloomsbury texts today, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, synthesizes the forms of lecture, short story, critical essay, polemical tract, mystical meditation, research paper, and even literary history. To ask whether it is fiction or nonfiction seems irrelevant, yet the work is often misinterpreted by readers assuming it has to be one or the other. As for her novels, it has taken modern feminist criticism to challenge interpretations by critics who did not understand how her significant forms expressed deeply felt cognitive contents. Revaluation still awaits the biographies of Lytton Strachey. Whether he was a historian, a satirist, or a liar continues to exercise those who write about him. But there has been little analysis of the literary means he used to obtain the pervasively ironic ends of his texts, whether they are biographies, essays, or letters. Strachey's imagery and syntax, his use of clichés and indirect discourse, the structure and rhythm of his narrative are all part of his careful literary intention. Even in Bloomsbury studies Strachey is not much thought of as a writer, yet the frequent quotations from his texts present a literary voice as distinctive as his physical one. Voice is an important and complex literary feature of the writing of Strachey, Forster, and Virginia Woolf; enlightening comparisons are to be made here, but they cut right across fictive and nonfictive boundaries.

One result of the hierarchical separation of prose into Fiction and nonfiction is a reluctance on the part of many contemporary readers to respond to literary beauty except in forms of exalted fiction. Bloomsbury took beauty in writing more seriously and less seriously than is fashionable today. They expected it in great fiction, but they also welcomed it in essays, biographies, and histories. Nor did they feel any incompatibility between beauty and humor in writing. One perceptive critic of Bloomsbury has nicely described their prose as aiming it at “a beautiful amusingness.”12 Those who deplore the frivolous aestheticism of Bloomsbury's literary art might well agree. For Bloomsbury, however, there was no reason why prose in any form could not be beautiful and funny and serious at the same time. Contemporary taste does not seem to be as catholic as Bloomsbury's, but if readers of Bloomsbury's writing clothe their literary inhibitions in evaluative theories of genre, they will be unable to interpret its texts properly. Kenneth Clark once observed that in Roger Fry's company, “the proper answer to Tolstoy’s question ‘What is Art?’ was the counter question, ‘What isn’t?’”13 In the company of Bloomsbury's texts, the answer to the question "What is literature?" ought to be, 'What isn't?" And involved in the answer are considerations having to do with the purposes of the writers and the expectations of readers-with form, organization, style, imagery, and the blending of fiction, drama, poetry, history, memoirs, and criticism. The authors of the Bloomsbury texts that raise such considerations are not only Virginia Woolf, Forster, and Strachey. They also include Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Desmond and Mary MacCarthy, anc J. M. Keynes. Their novels, autobiographies, biographical essays, letters, and criticism have not made them into anything but minor writers in Bloomsbury's literary history. Yet when they are recognized as writers, their texts can be related to others in Bloomsbury, including the Group's greatest works of fiction. Thus a wide conception of Bloomsbury literary text could enhance rather than diminish Bloomsbury's literary value.

The primary reason for a literary history of the Bloomsbury Group is to be found in the interconnectedness of its texts. The interconnections are both analogous and contiguous: the texts resemble each other in various ways and they are conjoined in various contexts. And both kinds of interconnection are directly relevant to the interpretation of those texts. The interconnectedness of Bloomsbury’s writing most immediately apparent in the dedications of a number of their works. Leonard Woolf dedicated The Village in the Jungle to Virginia Woolf and The Wise Virgins to Desmond MacCarthy. Virginia Wool dedicated The Voyage Out to Leonard Woolf and Night and Day to Vanessa Bell. Lytton Strachey dedicated Queen Victoria to Virginia Woolf and Books and Characters to John Maynard Keynes. Virginia Woolf then dedicated The Common Reader to Strachey; later she regretted not having dedicated To the Lighthouse to Roger Fry. Clive Bell dedicated Civilization to Virginia Woolf, and Forster dedicated Rede lecture on Virginia to Leonard Woolf. These dedications suggest interrelations that go beyond friendship to the interpretation of the dedicated text. So also do the Bloomsbury books that contain characters with traits resembling those of some of the Group’s members. Intimations of Lytton Strachey can be found in four of Virginia Woolf’s novels and three of Forster’s. The Wise Virgins and Night and Day have numerous correspondences, including characters in each, book modeled on the authors of both. And The Waves is a novel profoundly about the Bloomsbury Group’s relationships.

The interconnectedness of Bloomsbury’s texts originates in the friendships of their authors and in their shared backgrounds, experiences and convictions. All but one of the members came from professional upper middle-class families, several of which were very large. The wealth of the Bloomsbury Group has been exaggerated but several of the members did have enough independent means not to have to work very steadily for a living; eventually all the writers became financially successful through their writing. In religion the Victonan patriarchies and matriarchies from which Bloomsbury came were in a very general sense (general enough to take in Quakers and Jews) puritan; in politics they were liberal. Their Bloomsbury offspring reacted strongly against the Victorian family as a means of social organization and made their inherited puritanism compatible with atheism and their liberalism with socialism. Central to these adaptations was the philosophy that constitutes the intellectual foundation of the Bloomsbury Group and makes its literary history something of a philosophical history as well. Two of Bloomsbury’s fathers were Cambridge Utilitarian philosophers, and all the men of Bloomsbury but one went to Cambridge; there all but one became members of what now must be the most famous undergraduate society in the world, the Cambridge Apostles. Through the Apostles, Cambridge philosophy in general and G. E. Moore’s in particular had a deep influence on Bloomsbury. This influence appears in the epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic interconnections of their texts: Bloomsbury’s writers were commonsense realists in theory of perception, consequentialists and pluralists in ethics, and formalists in aesthetics. Their rationalism was qualified by a quasi-neo-Platonic mysticism that might be traced back to the Cambridge Platonists, and their aestheticism, which under Roger Fry’s guidance was Postimpressionist, never subordinated love or truth to art. The importance of Cambridge philosophy for Bloomsbury’s writings is to be located not so much in their topics as in their assumptions—assumptions about the nature of consciousness and its relation to external nature, about the irreducible otherness of people that makes isolation necessary and love possible, about the human and nonhuman realities of time and death, and about the supreme goods of truth, love, and beauty. The philosophy also underlies the Group’s criticisms of capitalism, imperialism, and war, of materialistic realism in painting and literature and of sexual inequality, discrimination, and repression.

The social and philosophical lines along which Bloomsbury’s texts are interconnected can be illustrated quite specifically. The significance of private rooms as symbols of consciousness in the writings of Forster and Virginia Woolf is strikingly similar. Moore's means/ends analysis of ethics is reflected in the metaphors of journeys that appear in the titles of a number of Bloomsbury works. The settings of Bloomsbury texts in Cambridge, London, and the country, the economic independence of many of the characters, the books they read, the sculptures and paintings and buildings they contemplate, the discussions they have, the points of view through which these are rendered are all interrelated in their intellectual and social implications. Sometimes entire texts are related to others in Bloomsbury. Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace is something of a sequel to Strachey’s Eminent Victorians; Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room is a postwar and Postimpressionist Bildungsroman that can be compared with Forster’s more impressionistic, prewar The Longest Journey. Virginia Woolf’s Flush is a parody of Strachey's Victorian biographies; her Between the Acts incorporates a pageant play like Forster’s England’s Pleasant Land.

A different type of interconnection, but one just as important the interpretation of Bloomsbury’s texts, is to be found in the Group’s extensive mutual criticism. Bloomsbury’s writing is most reflexive here. The reception of their work began in Bloomsbury, and it was Bloomsbury’s judgments that were taken most seriously. For the interpreter of Bloomsbury’s writing, this criticism is frequently the most interesting that has been written. It is not the most favorable, often, but it is directed more consistently to the central concerns, achievements, and difficulties of the text being commented on. The Group’s mutual criticism takes two general forms, personal and public. The personal is contained in letters and diaries. Except for Virginia Woolf’s, most of it is still unpublished. Some of the most interesting letters are direct commentaries on the texts—Strachey and Forster on Virginia Woolf’s novels, for instance. But quite a bit of this kind of criticism is not only personal but confidential, either confined to diaries or written in letters to people other than the author. Virginia Woolf’s comments in her diaries on Strachey's biographies (some of it a record of conversation with him) is one illustration; the criticism Forster’s early novels in the correspondence of Strachey and Leonard; Woolf is another. The public literary criticism that Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Forster, MacCarthy, and Bell wrote of the Group works is only partly known because comparatively little Bloomsbury’s extensive journalism (especially Leonard Woolf’s and Desmond MacCarthy’s) has been collected. Yet this criticism, because it is sympathetic without being adulatory, often makes the most important discriminations. It was certainly among the most careful criticism that they wrote.

Bloomsbury’s literary criticism exhibits other textual interrelations besides direct commentary. Sometimes the members of the Group reviewed the same books or wrote on the same authors or subjects. The various opportunities for comparison here are quite relevant to the interpretation of Bloomsbury’s writing, and they include diverse kinds of disconnection. Silence was one of Bloomsbury’s most effective critical reactions, and they did not spare one another in the use of it. There are also possibilities for interpretive comparisons in the spatial and temporal contiguities of Bloomsbury’s writing. In all the criticism that has been devoted to Virginia Woolf’s writing, no one, as far as I know, has looked carefully to see what Leonard Woolf was writing in his weekly literary columns for the Nation while his wife was writing her essays and novels. Then there are the decades of weekly reviews that MacCarthy wrote for the New Statesman and then the Sunday Times, not to mention the magazines he edited from time to time. The literary history of Bloomsbury cannot be told apart from the extensive periodical writings of the Woolfs, Forster, MacCarthy, and Strachey—writings that were necessarily shaped by the conditions of literary journalism in England in the earlier part of this century.

As important were the conditions of book publication. The history of the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press is inseparable from the history of Bloomsbury. Unlike almost all modern authors, Virginia Woolf published her major novels unedited. The dust jackets that were designed for them by Vanessa Bell and the way the books were authorially described by the Press are important comments on the text. Vanessa Bell’s designs, especially, are, in Henry James’s phrase, optical echoes of the books that a literary history of Bloomsbury should listen to.14 Throughout Bloomsbury’s writings there are connections between picture and text that need to be made. And, of course, the five hundred or so texts that the Hogarth Press published are all interrelated with the writings of the publishers—texts by Forster, Keynes, Fry, and Bell, and by T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, H. G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Edith Sit-well, Christopher Isherwood, and many others, including translations of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Rilke. Bloomsbury’s writings cannot, in other words, be logically isolated from their context in modern English literature and history. This becomes even clearer when Bloomsbury’s interconnected texts are examined in their chronological sequence.

To describe Bloomsbury’s texts in their temporal order is to go against Bloomsbury's own inclinations. “Time, all the way through, is to be our enemy,” wrote Forster in Aspects of the Novel, and most of Bloomsbury would have agreed with his formalistic dictum, “History develops, Art stands still.”15 The historian of literature, Strachey said in an early essay, “is little more than a historian of exploded reputations... His business is with the succeeding ages of men, not with all time.”16 Yet Strachey’s first book was in fact a literary history, as was Virginia Woolf’s last projected one. Though in some respects she was more of a formalist than Forster, Virginia Woolf knew that there was no escaping history for women writers. When Bloomsbury’s texts are looked at through succeeding ages, it is possible to describe not only how they developed in relation to one another but also how they are conjoined with contemporary events, including the publication of other texts. Nor do the ages of Bloomsbury’s development have to be imposed by the historian. The “periodization” of Bloomsbury’s literary history falls quite reasonably into six phases because of the way the lives of the Group intersected with the principal historical events of their time. A very brief outline of the shape of these periods may help to illustrate how a literary history of the Bloomsbury Group can be organized around descriptions of a chronological sequence of interrelated writings for the purposes of interpretation.

Old Bloomsbury’s home, school, and college experience was late Victorian. (Only Roger Fry began his career in the nineties) Cambridge was the most important educational influence on Bloomsbury’s men, and Virginia Stephen was educated in the library of the eminent Victorian man of letters who happened to be her father. Between Bloomsbury’s coming of age around the turn of the century and the apocalypse of the First World War lies the period of time usually identified as Edwardian. Bloomsbury’s significant but diffuse literary beginnings during this period include all but one of Forster s novels, Leonard Woolf’s two novels, Virginia Woolf’s first novel, Desmond MacCarthy’s Court Theatre drama criticism, Clive Bell’s most influential book Art, and the early literary journalism of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey (not to mention all his unpublished poems and plays). The crucial historical developments that impinged Bloomsbury’s consciousness during their Edwardian years had to with imperialism, women’s suffrage, and Postimpressiomsm. During the Georgian or war period of Bloomsbury’s literary history principal literary developments were Virginia Woolf’s and Lytton Strachey’s revolts against the form and content of Edwardian fiction and Victorian biography, respectively. Although scattered by the war, the Group was brought together by their opposition to the war a conscription; but not everyone in Bloomsbury was a pacifist, Virginia Woolf once remarked that the history of Bloomsbury would have to have a chapter on Lady Ottoline Morrell; that chapter belongs to Bloomsbury’s Georgian years.17 She was the most important social focus of those years. The most important literary event was the founding of the Hogarth Press. The two brought Bloomsbury into relation with such texts as The Waste Land, Women in Love, and Ulysses.

New, postwar Bloomsbury flourished in that period between the Armistice and the Depression that is called the Twenties. In their early middle age, Forster, Strachey, and Virginia Woolf all produced the works on which their reputations mainly rest. It was also.a period in which Bloomsbury wrote a good deal of literary criticism; Desmond MacCarthy and Leonard Woolf became competing literary editors for the New Statesman and the Nation (which Keynes controlled). With the increasing prominence of Bloomsbury’s fiction, biography, and criticism, the reaction to Bloomsbury became increasingly noticeable. The reaction developed in the late Edwardian and Georgian years at Fry's Omega Workshops or Lady Ottoline’s Garsington. It continues to this day and is a part of their literary history, just as that history is part of it. In the Thirties—that period beginning with the Depression and ending in the Second World War—Bloomsbury began to die: Strachey in 1932, Fry in 1934. The later middle age of Bloomsbury saw an increasing interaction between the work of Forster and Virginia Woolf and those younger writers, mainly poets, over political as much as literary questions; indeed, the distinction itself was questioned. Keynes became a world figure, and this drew more attention to the Bloomsbury values that he had been expressing in various essays since the Twenties. Desmond MacCarthy succeeded Edmund Gosse on the Sunday Times and became the most influential newspaper critic of the day. Virginia Woolf alone wrote major literary works, but she too was as distressed as the others in Bloomsbury over fascism, communism, and appeasement, which she related to feminism. Her suicide in 1941 marks the end of Bloomsbury for some.

The long literary aftermath of Bloomsbury has extended over almost another half century. MacCarthy continued to write actively through the forties, Forster through the fifties, and Leonard Woolf nearly through the sixties. The posthumous publication of Virginia Woolf’s work has been going on since her death, as has Forster’s since his. With the appearance of Keynes's Two Memoirs and Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, there began to be published a series of autobiographical Bloomsbury texts by Clive Bell, Forster, and most extensively Leonard Woolf. It now appears that Bloomsbury’s writing will not be exhausted until all of the early versions of Virginia Woolf’s and Forster’s novels, most of Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries, substantial portions of Forster’s letters and diaries, and much of Strachey’s poetry, plays, and correspondence have finally seen print. And this will take us easily past all their centenaries.

A hundred years of Bloomsbury’s literary history—is it worth it? The question cannot really be answered before the fact. What I have tried to show here is that a literary history of Bloomsbury, conceived in a limited way as concentrating on the descriptions of a sequence of interconnected literary texts for purposes of interpretation, is possible. How its worthwhileness is to be assessed depends on both extrinsic and intrinsic considerations. Extrinsically, the justification for such, a detailed literary history of Bloomsbury is to be found in its relevance to modern English literary and cultural history. We are now well into the third generation of the twentieth century, yet with a very few exceptions there are still no literary histories of the time. Modern literary study continues to exhibit what Roman Jakobson has identified as a “contiguity disorder.” Our studies are preoccupied wit what he calls the metaphoric pole of verbal process, with the similitudes of literary art; the metonymic pole of contiguity, of spatial and temporal context, remains unattractive.18 And most of the modern contextual literary studies have been confined to critical biography. The theory of their literary history has been of the great-man variety: the earlier twentieth century is the age of Joyce or Lawrence, Eliot or Pound. (Even a great-woman theory of literary history might be an improvement on these simplifications; the failure of historians and anthologists of modernism to recognize, until quite recently, the movement for the emancipation of women as a defining characteristic of modernism shows what can happen when historical contexts are ignored.) The Bloomsbury Group offers a very good opportunity for what might be called metonymic literary study. The ways its texts can be ordered in space and time bring out the contiguities so important to the comprehensive interpretation of them. The fact that prose was their medium reinforces the metonymic character of the Group’s writing, including Virginia Woolf’s. (So far the criticism of her has stressed only its metaphoric character.) The noncontiguous similarities must be brought out too, of course, and here the usefulness having a group of works to compare becomes apparent.

The density of the Bloomsbury Group’s interrelations and the scope of their connections with English culture make their literary history an invaluable part of modern literary history. Because we can know so much about the lives and works of the Group through their writings, we can also learn much, directly and indirectly, about other writings of the time. The literary history of Bloomsbury is not a microcosm of modern English literary history; without poetry it could not be. But here again contiguities are needed as well as analogies, and Bloomsbury’s writing connects with the literary history of its time at innumerable points.

Intrinsically, the justification for Bloomsbury’s literary history must rest on the worth of their creative achievement. Good literary history is not just the history of masterpieces, but it ought to be more than the history of exploded reputations. Ultimately, the value of a literary history of the Bloomsbury Group may depend on our response to certain kinds of value aesthetically embodied in their texts. Bloomsbury’s writing combines two broadly different clusters of value one of which is usually sacrificed for the other in much modern literature. The terms for these kinds of value are necessarily vague, but one of them might be identified as liberal; it can be recognized by a profound belief in egalitarianism, individualism, toleration, pluralism, secularism, truth, reason, and analysis. The other cluster of values is harder to label, but it has to do with the visionary; it is to be discovered in an equally profound faith in love, art, beauty, ideality, imagination, intuition, synthesis, mysticism, and reverence. How these two different types of value complement each other in Bloomsbury’s writing can be seen in some of their most familiar texts—Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own, Forster’s A Passage to India and the essay “What I Believe.” They are also to be found in such different texts as Keynes’s “My Early Beliefs,” Leonard Woolf’s Sowing, Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Clive Bell’s Art, and Roger Fry’s Vision and Design.

The complementarity of these kinds of value in Bloomsbury’s writing allows us to read their work as we can read the work of very few of their contemporaries—without finding our responses inhibited by the presence of the positivistic or authoritarian attitudes that appear when only one of these types of values is asserted. But in order to read Bloomsbury’s texts well, it is necessary to accept a wide notion of what a Bloomsbury literary text is, to see the ways in which these texts can be interrelated, and to understand the historical sequence in which the texts developed. Then we may be able to read Bloomsbury’s writing both metonymically and metaphorically and therefore be able to interpret both its liberal and its visionary significance.


1 The epigraphs are from E.M. Forster’s “The Creator as Critic,” unpublished lectures given in Cambridge in 1931 and now at King’s College, Cambridge (© 1981, The Provost and Scholars of King’s College and quoted by permission of King’s and The Society of Authors), and G.E. Moore’s “Wittenstein’s Lectures in 1930-33,” Philosophical Papers (London, 1959), p. 315.

1 Of the Standard literary biographies of the Group, only Michael Holroyd’s on Lytton Strachey attempted to deal systematically with the writings; but when Holroyd revised the biography he separated off the criticism.

2 See Irma Rantavaara, Virginia Wolf and Bloomsbury (Helsinki, 1953), and J.K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group (London, 1954).

3 T.S. Eliot, “Imperfect Critics,” in The Sacred Wood (London, 1920), p. 33.

4 René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York, 1949), p. 263.

5 Ralph Cohen, “Historical Knowledge and Literary Understanding,” Papers on Language and Literature, 14 (Summer 1978), 227.

6 Dolores, ll. 159-60.

7 The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary, and Criticism, ed. S.P. Rosenbaum (Toronto, 1975).

8 Leonard Wolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years1911-1918 (London, 1964), p. 25.

9 Ludwing Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford, 1963), Part I, Sec. 67.

10 G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge, 1903), p. 27.

11 See the chapter “Coalitions” in Jeremy Boissevain, Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions (Oxford, 1974), pp. 170-205.

12 P.N. Furbank, “Forster and ‘Bloomsbury’ Prose”, in E.M. Forster: A Human Exploration. Centenary Essays, ed. G.K. Das and John Beer (London, 1979), p. 161.

13 Kenneth Clark, Introduction to Roger Fry’s Last Lectures (Cambridge, 1939), pp. x-xi.

14 Henry James, “Preface to The Golden Bowl,” in The Art of Novel: Critical Prefaces, introd. R.P. Blackmur (New York, 1953), p. 333.

15 E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, ed. Oliver Stallybrass (London, 1974), pp. 5, 13.

16 Lytton Strachey, “Voltaire’s Tragedias,” in Books and Characters, French and English (London, 1922), p. 177.

17 Virginia Wolf, “Old Bloomsbury,” in Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (London, 1976), p. 177.

18 Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” in Fundaments of Language, ed. Jakobson and Morris Halle (S-Gravenhage, 1955), pp. 81-82. David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977) interestingly applies Jakobson’s distinction of the analysis of modern texts, but in a metaphoric not metonymic way since he is not concerned with the contexts of those works.

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