Love, Lust, and Laughter in Bloomsbury
The Bloomsbury Group was an influential gathering of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists active before and following the Great War. The best known members of the Group included: Virginia Woolf; John Maynard Keynes; E M Forster; and Lytton Strachey. It was a loose collective of friends and relatives who lived, worked, and studied in or around the residential squares of Bloomsbury in central London, near the British Museum. They were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts. Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.
As the American poet, writer, and raconteur Dorothy Parker once remarked, the Bloomsbury Group ‘lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.’
The English writer Stephen Spender noted that:
‘the positive qualities of Bloomsbury were shared not only by EM Forster andTS Eliot, but by nearly all the best talent of this period. Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and T S Eliot, in their different ways, introduced the influences of French impressionism, French prose, and[in poetry] the French symboliststo a wider audience. All these writers were preoccupied with re-examining and restating the principles and aims of art and criticism. They were interested in experiment, and
were among the first to discuss and defend James Joyce and [Marcel] Proust.’
The male members of Bloomsbury (except Duncan Grant) were all educated at Cambridge. (Few women were admitted to university in those days.) The Group, mostly from upper middle-class professional families, formed what has been called ‘an intellectual aristocracy’.
Over the years, Bloomsbury has become a very large subjectof research, publishing, and academic discussion. So large, indeed, that any attempt to describe and explain it would probably take some 40 to 50 Monday Forums. In any event, I don’t think we should attempt to re-hash such serious analyses. Instead, I want to take a more light-hearted look at Bloomsbury, its relationships, its achievements, and some of its shenanigans.
To begin,we should take a brief look at who these people were. And to do so it’s helpful to think of the membership of Bloomsbury as consisting oftwo concentric circles. An inner circle of the most long-standing members. And an outer circle consisting of people who were enormously influential in their own ways, but who engaged with the life of Bloomsbury only intermittently.
The inner circle included:
Clive Bell, art critic (1881-1964)
Vanessa Bell, painter (1878-1961)
Dora Carrington, painter (1893-1932)
E M Forster, writer (1879-1970)
Roger Fry, art critic (1866-1934)
Duncan Grant, painter (1885-1978)
John Maynard Keynes, economist (1883-1946)
Lytton Strachey, biographer (1880-1932)
Leonard Woolf, essayist (1880-1969)
Virginia Woolf, writer (1882-1941)
The outer, more fluid circle,included:
T S Eliot, poet (1888-1965)
D H Lawrence, writer (1885-1930)
Katherine Mansfield, writer
G E Moore, philosopher
Ottoline Morrell, socialite
Vita Sackville-West, poet, novelist, garden designer
In talking about Bloomsbury it’s important to remember that while its social and sexual practices may seem unexceptional today, they caused some consternation at the time. Queen Victoria had died in 1901, but the influence and strictures of the Victorian Age were still everywhere to be felt. It would take the horrendous events of the Great War to begin the erosion of Victorian morality. An event that Bloomsbury gladly assisted!
There were stable marriages and varied and complicated affairs among the members of Bloomsbury. Lytton Strachey and his cousin and lover Duncan Grant became close friends of the sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Duncan Grant had affairs with siblings Vanessa Bell and Adrian Stephen, as well as with David Garnett, Maynard Keynes, and James Strachey. Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1907, and Leonard Woolf returned from the Ceylon Civil Service to marry Virginia in 1912. As Strachey himself put it:‘I don’t know what the world has comeinto: women in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanizers’.
But it was not all about sex and incest. The opinions and attitudes of Bloomsbury were largely influenced by the views of the philosopher G E Moore (another Cambridge graduate), who wrote that:‘one’s prime objectives in life are love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience, and the pursuit of knowledge’.
Bloomsbury adopted Moore’s philosophical framework in which the principles (‘intrinsic worth’) and outcomes (‘instrumental values’) of human thought and activity be kept separate. This separation of principle (eg. truth, love, or happiness) from outcome (eg. work or marriage) allowedmembers of Bloomsbury to maintain an ethical high-ground independent of the consequences of their actions. This, of course, is not an unheard of strategy today, but it was certainly novel at the time.
It will probably not be surprising to learn thatBloomsburyreacted against the social rituals of the time, the inherited bourgeois habits and conventions of Victorian life. Bloomsbury championed a more informal and private focus on personal relationships and individual pleasure. It rejected those Victorian values that called for stoic self-denial, and the placing of Queen and State before the needs of the individual.As E M Forster put it, if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying a friend: ‘I hope I would have the guts to betray my country’.
In 1910, some four years before the start of the Great War, Britain was the most powerful nation in the world. It had an empire on which it was said that the sun never set. It took itself very seriously. And so it was that the Dreadnaught Hoax struck at the very core of that self-perception, at the very dignity of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. The Dreadnaught Hoax was a practical joke pulled by Horace de Vere Cole (a friend of Bloomsbury) and some youthful members of Bloomsbury in which they tricked the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, the battleship HMS Dreadnaught,to a fake delegation of Abyssinian royals.
The pranksters included: de Vere Cole; Virginia Woolf; her brother, Adrian Stephen; and the painter Duncan Grant. On 7 February 1910 the hoax was set in motion. The young pranksters disguised themselves using dark make-up, fake beards, and an assortment of Middle-Eastern clothing and turbans.
They sent a telegram to HMS Dreadnaught, then moored in Portland Harbour, Dorset. It said that the ship must be prepared for a visit by a delegation of Abyssinian princes. The telegram was purportedly signed by the Foreign Office Under-Secretary, Sir Charles Hardinge.
At Paddington Station de Vere Cole claimed that he was ‘Herbert Cholmondeley’ of the Foreign Office and demanded that a special train to Weymouth be provided for the delegation. The stationmaster arranged for a VIP coach to be provided.
In Weymouth the Royal Navy welcomed the princes with an honour guard. An Abyssinian flag could not be found, so the navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar’s national anthem. The delegation of princes inspected the fleet. To show their appreciation they communicated in a gibberish of Swahili, mixed with words from ancient Greek and Latin. They asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the ship’s officers.
The hoax might have gone undiscovered had de Vere Cole’s ego not got the better of him. For he contacted the press and sent a photo of the ‘delegation’ to the Daily Mirror. The group’s avowedpacifist views were considered a source of embarrassment, and the Royal Navy briefly became an object of public ridicule. The navy later demanded that de Vere Cole be arrested. However, Cole and his compatriots had broken no law, and so the whole episode was allowed to fade from the public memory.
There is one final and intriguing thing to be said about the Dreadnaught Hoax. When the ‘princes’ were aboard the battleship they had repeatedly voiced amazement or appreciation at what they saw by exclaiming ‘Bunga Bunga!’ Some years later during the Great War, HMS Dreadnaught rammed and sank a German submarine – the only battleship ever to do so. Among the telegrams of congratulation was one that simply read ‘Bunga Bunga !’
The novelist and critic Frank Swinnerton wrote of Lytton Strachey that:‘his excessive thinness, almost emaciation, caused him to appear endless. He had a rather bulbous nose, the spectacles of a British Museum bookworm, a large and straggly dark brown beard (with a curious rufous tinge) ; no voice at all. He drooped if he stood upright, and sagged if he sat down. He seemed entirely without vitality … Sad merriment was in his eye, and about him a perpetual air of sickness and debility.’
For much of his early life Strachey seemed unable to develop a clear idea of the kind of writer he wanted to be. Certainly, writing was his forté – but should he concentrate on poetry or on fiction (in which Virginia Woolf was beginning to excel), or on some other form of the written word ? It was hard to know which direction to take, especially since time was passing and he was not then a wealthy man – far from it. In discussing the dilemma with his Bloomsbury friends, and in the knowledge that he must make a decision soon, Strachey resolved to try his hand at historical biography. It was an inspired decision.
His original plan was to write a biography on some twelve Victorians, but this idea was put to one side in favour of a more succinct objective. Instead, he resolved to write a singular work comprising biographies on the following four ‘eminent’ Victorians :
Strachey’s choice of subject meant that he could cast the light of his inquiry across some of the most significant aspects of Victorian society: religion; health; education; and the military. Yet these are not biographies in the traditional sense; that is, 400-500 pages of minutely observed portraiture written in breathless prose. Far from it. Strachey had understood the mood of the Edwardian public, and it was clear that, like him, it had lost respect for the Victorians and their values, and was in the mood for some serious reputational surgery.
Lytton Strachey’s ‘Eminent Victorians’, as he titled it,took four years to research and to write. It was published at the end of the Great War on 9 May 1918, and became an immediate publishing sensation. The critics, newspapers, and journals were almost unanimous in their praise. Strachey responded rather archly to this unexpected success by claiming:‘It isn’t easy remaining calm in the face of excessive praise from The Daily Telegraph.’
The book’s wit and irreverance delighted the younger and infuriated the older generations of reader. The public could not get enough. In its first year of publication it was reprinted a further five times. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher and friend of Bloomsbury, was at that time serving a jail sentence in Brixton prison for his pacifist activities. It was in prison that Russell read ‘Eminent Victorians’ and, as he later recalled: ‘caused me to laugh so loud that the officer came to my cell, saying I must remember that prison is a place of punishment’.
So what had Strachey achieved with ‘Eminent Victorians’? Why was this slim volume such a publishing success throughout Britain, the Empire, and indeed the world? Well, as we’ve seen, it was published in the last year of the Great War, which Britain had won at very great cost. And the public was in the mood to find someone or something that would ‘explain’ Britain’s fall from grace. Strachey obliged by examining the lives of these four particularVictorians by alleging that they were not what previous biographies and popular legend had made them out to be.
Typically, the sprawling two-volume biographies of the day presented their subjects in the best possible light, ignoring any aspect that might tarnish the subject’s achievements. Strachey determined, however, that these large and tedious volumes, full of what he called:’ill-digested masses of material’ did a disservice to the art of biography. In contrast, he wrote short, pithy, artful biographies that told the truth about the subjects as Strachey understood it. As the biographer Leon Edel expressed it:
‘History is an art, not a compilation written by journeymen. Biography has to be analytic, lively, human, and composed with becoming brevity’. is
Strachey himself argued the case for a new approach to biography when he quipped that: ‘Discretion is not the better part of biography.’
The result of Strachey’s new approach is a series of radical reinterpretations. Cardinal Manning is presented as a scheming, ambitious man rather than a pious representative of God. Florence Nightingale as a woman maniacally obsessed with work, whose personality was acerbic rather than saintly. Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School, is portrayed as little more than a pompous, pedantic fool. While the portrait of General Gordon shows a man driven to his demise by the contradictions in his own personality and the vacillations of the British government.
There is not enough timeto give a précis of the biographies here, but I would like to share with you two or three of my favourite passages:
[On the issue of Cardinal Manning, the following passage refers to what Strachey saw as Manning’s self-serving conversion from the Anglican Church to the Church of Rome.]
‘Had[the Catholic Church] a place in its heart for such as Manning – a soft place, one might almost say ? Or, on the other hand, was it he who had been supple and yielding ? He who had won by art what he would never have won by force, and who had managed, so to speak, to be one of the leaders of the procession less through merit than through a superior faculty for gliding adroitly to the front rank ?
‘Everyone knows the popular conception of Florence Nightingale. The saintly, self-sacrificing woman, the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succour the afflicted, the Lady with the Lamp, gliding through the horrors of the hospital at Scutari, and consecrating with the radiance of her goodness the dying soldier’s couch—the vision is familiar to all. But the truth was different. The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancypainted her. She worked in another fashion, and towards another end; she moved under the stress of an impetus which finds no place in the popular imagination. A Demon possessed her. Now demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest. And so it happens that in the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable.’
‘The son of a respectable Collector of Customs, he had been educated at Winchester and Oxford, where his industry and piety had given him a conspicuous place among his fellow students. It is true that, as a schoolboy, a certain pompousness in the style of his letters home suggested to the more clear-sighted among his relatives the possibility that young Thomas might grow up into a prig; but, after all, what else could be expected from a child who, at the age of three, had been presented by his father, as a reward for proficiency in his studies, with the twenty-four volumes of Smollett’s History of England?’
Lytton Strachey was in the middle of researching and writing Eminent Victorians when his life took a strange and unexpected turn. During 1915 while visiting some of his Bloomsbury friends, he met another visitor, a young woman, a painter who had studied at the Slade School. She had golden bobbed hair (some said she originated the fashion), bright blue eyes and a saucy manner. Her name was Dora Carrington, [she was 22 years old at the time, Strachey was 35] but she called herself simply ‘Carrington’, as if she were a man. She hated being a woman. She was seductive, and managed to look like a Florentine page boy. Strachey liked her. He accepted her boyish side, and in a moment of delight as they walked on the Downs he quite forgot her gender, for he embraced and kissed her. Carrington bristled with indignation. ‘That horrid old man with a beard kissed me!’ she cried.
Indignation turned to anger. Carrington (as we know from the much-told story) vowed that she would have her revenge. At dawn the next day she stole into Strachey’s bedroom carrying a pair of large shears with which to amputate his offensive auburn growth. As she stealthily approached the bed, he opened his eyes. She saw them looking at her – gentle, kindly, hypnotic. It was enough, it seems, for Carrington to fall immediately and fatally in love.
During this time it became increasingly difficult for Strachey to make meaningful progress with ‘Eminent Victorians’. The attractions of London, the demands of family, and an increasing number of social engagements all conspired to make the process of research and writing difficult. And so discussions took place among someof Strachey’s friends to devise a strategy for helping him. The strategy involved five members of Bloomsbury, including Strachey himself, each putting up£20 a year to rent and maintain a property outside London in which Strachey could work. In exchange, Lytton and Carrington (who had become very close) would live permanently in the property, with Lytton acting as the nominal caretaker and Carrington as housekeeper. Members of Bloomsbury would be free to visit and stay in the property as social engagements required.
In the Autumn of 1917 Carrington found a suitable property. It was Mill House in the small village of Tidmarsh, a mile south of Pangbourne in Berkshire.‘It’s very romantic and lovely’, she wrote to Strachey. The property consisted of three large living rooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and six bedrooms all located on 1½ acres, including a small orchard, a sunken Roman bath, and a grass tennis court. It was reached by train from Paddington (a journey of 35 minutes), and was being offered on a three years’ lease at£52 per annum.
The property was leased, and Carrington devoted herself to improving it so that Lytton would feel at home. She became an excellent gardener, improving the orchard, adding to the vegetable beds, cultivating plants, and filling the place with tulips and dahlias, sunflowers, and anemones. She did much of the cooking. She prepared large and delicious country meals for Lytton and their friends – home-made wines, game, and raspberry jelly and good helpings of green vegetables from the garden. What struck Gerald Brenan (one of Carrington’s lovers) was the attention that Carrington lavished on Strachey. ‘Never have I seen anyone who was so waited on hand and foot as he was by her, or whose every word and gesture was received with such reverence. In a young woman who in all other respects was fiercely jealous of her independence, this was extraordinary.’
Of course, not everything was plain sailing. Although the Bloomsbury Group rejected what they saw as the straight jacket of Victorian morality and hypocrisy, there was still potential opposition to a domestic arrangement of this kind. Deception became the order of the day. In seeking to convince Clive Bell that setting up house with Carrington at Tidmarsh was nothing more than a commonsense arrangement of domestic convenience, Strachey wrote: ‘My plans for the future are quite devoid of mystery.’For her own part, Carrington told her parents that Tidmarsh was to be a retreat for Slade graduates where they could live cheaply and devote their time to painting.
It was not long, however, before this domestic arrangement became enriched and eventually troubled by the arrival of a young man of charm and physical presence. Ralph Partridge arrived at Tidmarsh in August 1918. He was a friend of Carrington’s brother. He was handsome, powerfully built, with light-blue eyes. He had left Oxford University early in the war before joining the army to fight at the front. He had been awarded the Military Cross, and had been promoted to the rank of Major at the young age of 23.
Strachey wroteto Carrington shortly before Ralph’s arrival that ‘the existence of Partridge is exciting…….’Early on, however, Carrington had a different view saying that Ralph Partridge was not very attractive, remarking that ‘he reminds me of a Norwegian dentist’. Nevertheless, things eventually settled down sufficiently that she was able to tell Strachey in May 1919 that ’I‘ve been drawing RPnaked in the long grass in the orchard [and that] I confess I got rather a flux over his thighs and legs so much so that I didn’t do very good drawings.’
Two months later she confided in Lytton that ‘there’s no denying that the Major with all his dullness is, in the Shakespearian use of the word, « A most excellent bed fellow »’Writing to her brother in December 1919, Carrington described Ralph Partridge and Lytton as being ‘great friends, and have long discussions on Einstein’s theory[of relativity] whilst I darn the socks’.
The sustainingdynamics of this ménage à trois were that the homosexual Lytton Strachey was in love with the heterosexual Ralph Partridge; who in turn was in love with the bisexual Dora Carrington; who was herself hopelessly in love with Lytton Strachey. To reinforce this circle, so to speak, Ralph Partridge had grown extremely fond of Lytton, respecting his intelligence, his wit, and his deep knowledge of culture and the arts. It was a finely poised and mutually satisfying arrangement. But it was an arrangement that could not stay poised for ever. Towards the end of the Winter of 1920 Ralph Partridge began to demand that Carrington marry him. This she resisted, while Lytton (who wished everything to remain unchanged) looked on anxiously.
For Carrington, the dilemma was that if Ralph were to leave the ménage à trois then Lytton might also wish to leave. She therefore proposed a compromise in which she would live with Ralph on a trial basis until Christmas of that year. Since he was then living and working in London on weekdays, she would spend Monday to Friday with him in London, and the two would then spend the weekends with Lytton in Tidmarsh.
But one problem was that Carrington hated living in London. She hated being shut in by all the buildings when she could have been painting in the countryside. Over time, Ralph also developed a growing dissatisfaction with the arrangement, and threatened that if Carrington would not marry him he would go to Bolivia and become a sheep farmer.
Carrington and Ralph were married on Saturday, 21 May 1921 at the St Pancras registry office. During thesubsequent honeymoon Carrington wrote four long letters to her friend Gerald Brenan. In one of which she explained that Ralph nearly always read her correspondence, so if Gerald wished to write her a love letter he must:‘put a red stamp on the outside upside down….. then the faithless wife can conceal it before [Ralph] reads it.’
And so it continued, this ‘Triangular Trinity of Happiness’, as Carrington put it. A ménage à trois finely balanced, in which the participants cleaved to a mutually gratifying social structure while simultaneously following their separate ‘infidelities’ – Ralph Partridge with a number of young women ; Carrington with Gerald Brenan, among others ; and Lytton Strachey with the occasional undergraduate that he might encounter in the dusty halls of Kings or Trinity College, Cambridge.
But things seldom stay the same for long. Or, as Virginia Woolf expressed it: ‘Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy’. And so it was that a new character arrived to threaten the stability of Carrington’s ‘Trinity of Happiness’. It arrived in the form of Miss Frances Marshall. She was twenty-three, slim, dark-haired, sparkling and intelligent. She had read philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge, and was then working in a bookshop in London. It was in that bookshop that she first met Ralph Partridge.
Over time, Ralph began to fall in love with Frances. And their growing intimacy began to be seen once again by Lytton and Carrington as a serious threat to the established social arrangement that they valued so much. Desperation ensued.
But neither Lytton nor Carrington could have foreseen how Frances Marshall would respond to their state of anxiety. Frances wrote to Carrington saying that:‘I never never never feel that if Ralph should live with me I should not want him to see you very often and go on being very fond of you….. it is to my interest that he should have to give up as little as possible of his happiness in order to live with me.’A very modern and, as fate would have it, a very prescient declaration.
As we have seen, there was about Lytton Stracheya‘perpetual air of sickness and debility’. And so it came to pass that at the beginning of the 1930s his health worsened dramatically. At first, his friends thought that this was merely business as usual; that a bout of lassitude would be followed by a complete recovery. But visits to doctors and the administration of all kinds of medication and treatment failed to achieve the hoped-for recovery. In what might be thought of as a tradition pioneered by Oscar Wilde, Strachey uttered his death-bed eulogy by exclaiming:‘If this is dying, then I don’t think much of it!’. On 21 January 1932 Strachey died from undiagnosed stomach cancer.
Six weeks later Carrington used a shotgun to end her own life.
Carrington’s death freed her husband, Ralph Partridge, to marry Frances Marshall, and this he did the following year. Frances Partridge, as she then became, lived a long and full life. She died on 5 February 2004, aged 104 years - our very last, and not so distant, link with a remarkable group of eminent Edwardians.