How a Group of Intellectual Outcasts Broke Barriers in Early 20th-Century London
Nino Strachey on the Revolutionary Found Family of the Bloomsbury Group
Some strange sort of alchemy seemed to have happened in the early 1900s, when Stephens and Stracheys had first come together in Bloomsbury, debating the nature of human existence, trying to find the best way to “be.”
It began when Vanessa and Virginia Stephen set up home with their brothers Thoby and Adrian at 46 Gordon Square. With both parents dead, and the vast Stephen home in Kensington put up for rent, the siblings clubbed their inheritances together to lease their own property. Occupying a whole building in Gordon Square might seem an impossible dream today, but in 1904, Bloomsbury rentals were more affordable. Middle-class families tended to lease rather than buy, flexing their space up and down to suit changing numbers, paying for housework as part of the package.
Like the Schlegel sisters in Forster’s Howards End, Vanessa and Virginia had escaped the grasp of disapproving older relatives, using their brothers as token chaperones, choosing a life of determined independence. Cambridge friends of Thoby and Adrian Stephen got an unexpected freedom pass: permission to hang out in a proper grown-up London house and talk to women of their own age, with no controlling parental presence.
The Stephens held a weekly “open house” on Thursday evenings; after a slow and bumpy start, conversation eventually began to flow. Virginia noted the point of transition as the young men grew more comfortable in female company, more confident in the expression of their secret desires: “Thoby and Adrian would have died rather than discuss the love affairs of undergraduates. When all intellectual questions had been debated so freely, sex was ignored. Now a flood of light poured in on that department too. We had known everything but never talked. Now we talked of nothing else.”
Although some of those who gathered in the light-filled rooms at Gordon Square were biologically related, the majority came together through choice. Thoby and Adrian’s circle was predominantly gay, and even those young men who had a sexual interest in women were full of Edwardian inhibitions. It was unusual to spend time unchaperoned with a female contemporary, let alone stray off a carefully proscribed set of socially acceptable topics. As intimacy grew, limits were gradually released: sexuality of all types became open for discussion, along with every form of intellectual or philosophical theory.
Traditional hierarchies were disrupted, gender divisions blurred, queer perspectives explored. As Virginia concluded, “There was nothing that one could not say, nothing that one could not do, at 46 Gordon Square… It may be true that the loves of buggers are not—at least if one is of the other persuasion—of enthralling interest or paramount importance. But the fact that they can be mentioned openly leads to the fact that no one minds if they are practiced privately. Thus many customs and beliefs are revised.”
What mattered most was the sense of a shared approach to existence, the long-term commitment to a loving connection.One of the most regular visitors to 46 Gordon Square was Lytton Strachey, whose influence on the early years of Bloomsbury Vanessa Bell remembered well: “Only those just getting to know him well in the days when complete freedom of mind and expression were almost unknown, at least among men and women together, can understand what an exciting world of explorations of thought and feeling he seemed to reveal. His great honesty of mind and remorseless poking of fun at any sham forced others to be honest too and showed a world in which one need no longer be afraid of saying what one thought, surely the first step to anything that could be of interest or value.” Lytton would riff provocatively on sodomy or semen, deliberately using bawdy language to spark a reaction; conversations begun at the secret Apostles society in Cambridge would continue unabated in Gordon Square.
Thanks to Lytton, Vanessa felt free to express her own feelings. Literary critic Desmond MacCarthy went further, suggesting that Strachey was the dominating influence on his generation of Cambridge graduates, fixing their attention on “emotions and relations between human beings.” Lytton was a master of “psychological gossip, the kind which treats friends as diagrams of the human species and ranges over the past and fiction as well as history, in search of whatever illustrates this or that side of human nature.”
For Vanessa, her Bloomsbury friends came to represent a community of shared feeling—people among whom you could “say what you liked about art, sex or religion,” safe in the knowledge that you could also “talk freely and very likely dully about the ordinary doings of life.”
Clive Bell saw the Stephen sisters standing at the center of a wheel in which Thoby and Adrian’s Cambridge friends acted as the spokes. When Thoby died tragically young from typhoid in 1906, and Vanessa married Clive, “the circle was not broken but enlarged,” as Virginia, with her surviving brother, Adrian, moved into a house in nearby Fitzroy Square, “thus instead of one salon, if that be the word, there were two salons.” Their houses began to fill with a distinctively Bloomsbury style of art—the work of Vanessa Bell herself, Lytton’s cousin Duncan Grant, and their older associate, the painter and curator Roger Fry. Aided and abetted by their many artist friends, the sisters were shaping spaces that could support and activate—acting as a catalyst for their own female creativity, providing opportunities for queer contemporaries to thrive.
It was from these surroundings that Lytton Strachey emerged as a biographer, Maynard Keynes as an economist, and E. M. Forster as a novelist. James Strachey and Adrian Stephen eventually found their vocations as Freudian psychoanalysts, while journalism provided a more immediate path for Clive Bell and Desmond MacCarthy. Egged on by Roger Fry, prewar Bloomsbury championed modernism in literature and the arts, with predictably explosive reactions from the more traditional sections of the press.
In the early years Bloomsbury was less of a mutual admiration society than a place of mutual aid.When Fry curated his controversial postimpressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, Bloomsbury friends rallied round. Desmond MacCarthy helped him with the first, and Leonard Woolf acted as secretary for the second. Audiences remained perplexed by the works on display, their boldness of color and liveliness of form—as Virginia concluded: “Once more the public exposed themselves to the shock of reality, and once more they were considerably enraged.”
Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912 reinforced another long-standing Cambridge connection. After seven miserable years in the colonial civil service, Leonard was drawn back into the Strachey-Stephen cortex in 1911, rejecting his safe salary in favor of love—and a chancy existence as a writer and journalist. Jealous literary and artistic rivals came to see the Bloomsbury Group as smug and self-absorbed, pursuing their own interests to the exclusion of others. But in the early years Bloomsbury was less of a mutual admiration society than a place of mutual aid. Something we might recognize today as a “family of choice”: a group of queer friends and allies, drawn together by affection, bound for life.
Later accounts tend to fetishize sexual connections between the friends, obsessing about who put what into whom at which date. Sexual contact was just one facet of a many-sided emotional equation, fidelity a restrictive illusion paraded by the sanctimonious bigots of the Victorian age. What mattered most was the sense of a shared approach to existence, the long-term commitment to a loving connection. Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, and Duncan Grant may all have slept with each other in the early 1900s, but these were brief interludes in relationships that lasted a lifetime, reinforcing rather than threatening their mutual bond.
Thinking of Virginia and Vanessa as Bloomsbury den mothers gives a dynamic twist to their role; a general term for female leaders who help and look after the less experienced, it takes on a special meaning in the context of chosen families, and has become a familiar part of modern drag culture. Presiding over an intricate network of nonhierarchical associations, Vanessa and Virginia nurtured queer creativity among their friendship group while developing their own professional careers.
Like modernist bowerbirds, they embellished successive homes with distinctive ornament, signaling difference, boosting confidence. Descriptive language changes slowly over time, gradually catching up with subtle changes in human behavior. If only the heteronormative Bloomsbury-bashers of the 1950s and ’60s had had more vocabulary to play with, then perhaps they would have been less critical of the tangle of sexual relationships and more appreciative of the human benefit.
What prewar Bloomsbury lacked in terms of earned income, they more than made up for in terms of bravura.In terms of thought and argument and articles and artwork, early Bloomsbury was intensely productive. In terms of financial rewards or critical acclaim, the results were less impressive. Ironically it was the least attached member of the group, E. M. Forster, who achieved an early hit in 1905 with his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Forster—christened Taupe (the mole) by Lytton—was famously elusive after Cambridge, popping in and out of Bloomsbury at will and producing a string of increasingly popular novels in between periods of travel. Lytton spotted Forster in the London Library just after Angels had gone into its second edition, and he sent a long letter to Leonard Woolf, musing on their own lack of progress and speculating on what the future might bring:
I went yesterday to the London Library, and saw something that seemed familiar burrowing in a corner. I looked again, and yes! It was the Taupe. We talked for some time…He admits he’s “successful,” and recognises, in that awful taupish way of his, the degradation that that implies. But he’s of course perfectly contented. The thought of him sickens me. I think if one really does want a sign of our lapse, the Taupe’s triumph is the most obvious. If we ever do boom, shan’t we be horribly ashamed?
What prewar Bloomsbury lacked in terms of earned income, they more than made up for in terms of bravura. Roger Fry and Clive Bell caught the public eye with their advocacy of French postimpressionist art, introducing shocked British audiences to the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse. Fry’s Omega Workshops, founded in 1913 with Grant and Bell as co-directors, made a bold attempt to drum up a market for their groundbreaking designs. Omega aimed to break down the false divisions between fine and decorative arts, allowing artists to experiment in every type of media, introducing the bold colors and abstract forms of modernism into all areas of the home. As Fry told the press: “It is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and into fabrics. We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious.”
Buoyed up by the enthusiasm of their compatriots, Bloomsbury figures tended to make an impression wherever they went, regardless of the state of their bank balance or the critical reaction to their work. Lytton Strachey’s unconventional appearance—maintained on a shoestring—surprised the Woolfs’ landlady that Christmas when she spotted him shopping in Marlborough in 1914. Leonard conjured up the eye-catching vision for a friend: “He has an immense and immensely beautiful russet beard, an immense black broad-brimmed felt hat, a suit of a maroon corduroy, and a pale mauve scarf fastened with a Duke’s daughter’s cameo brooch. He is the most charming and witty of human beings since Voltaire.” Hopeful that fame and recognition lay just around the corner, the friends boosted each other’s confidence and gave each other the courage to persist along an independent path.
Sources of quotations: Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, Triad, 1986, pp 200-201 · Vanessa Bell, Notes on Bloomsbury, reprinted in S.P. Rosenbaum (ed), The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary and Criticism, University of Toronto, 1975, pp 79-80 · Desmond MacCarthy, The Influence of Henry James: Lytton Strachey’s Cambridge, reprinted in ibid, p 32 · Clive Bell, Old Friends, Personal Recollections, Cassell 1988, p 129 · Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography, Vintage, 2003, p 178 & p 194 · Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf, 26 January 1906, Paul Levy (ed) The Letters of Lytton Strachey, Farrer, Strauss & Giroux, 2005, p 95 · Leonard Woolf to Janet Case, 27 December 1914, quoted in Victoria Glendinning, Leonard Woolf, A Life, Pocket Books, 2007, p 189.
Excerpted from Young Bloomsbury: The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England by Nino Strachey. Copyright © 2022. Available from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.