(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Within the last decade, Bloomsbury has become a profitable cottage industry. The books on Virginia and Leonard Woolf seem unlimited. We now have five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters, three volumes of her diaries, three volumes of previously unpublished reviews and essays, two biographies, numerous critical studies of her fiction, five volumes of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, a reissuance of his novel, The Wise Virgins, and several accounts of their marriage and their publishing house, the Hogarth Press. Similarly, Michael Holroyd has written an unnecessarily lengthy two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey, and this same thoroughness is now being applied to the Bloomsbury painters, other members of the Bloomsbury circle, tangential Bloomsbury figures such as E. M. Forster, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Dora Carrington, and to miscellaneous personages and events conveniently labeled Bloomsburyana. With such a deluge of publications, many of which in all fairness have contributed significantly to our understanding of a group of people who shaped the modern movement in English letters, biography, painting, and economics, one might remark: “Not another book!”

To anyone already familiar with the jokes, anecdotes, gossip, bedroom histories, and general goings-on among the Bloomsbury set, such a remark could justifiably apply to Leon Edel’s Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Edel tells us in his Introduction that he began his study of Bloomsbury nearly twenty years ago, but his monumental work on the five-volume biography of Henry James kept him from finishing the book until well after Bloomsbury had been discovered as a popular literary commodity, and others had already told Edel’s tale. But for those who are uninitiated Bloomsburyites, or who enjoy watching a master biographer apply his considerable skills to a familiar story, or who wish to know more about the less well-known Bloomsbury figures, Edel’s book will serve as a well-organized, nearly always interesting introduction to his subject. In it Edel provides a Bloomsbury chronology; a Bloomsbury checklist which, like the price of gold, seems to change daily; a section devoted to those who were and were not “Bloomsbury”; a set of wonderful pictures heretofore unpublished; and a neatly woven series of psychological portraits of the circle as it unfolded. It is, on the whole, an enjoyable if not very original effort.

Edel argues that what has come to be known as Bloomsbury developed over three phases. The first, he rightly states, began at Cambridge in 1900. For it was here, amidst the dining halls, bedrooms, classrooms, and walkways of King’s College and Trinity College, that the male members of Bloomsbury—Leonard Woolf, the righteous, hard-working, social-minded Jew on scholarship; Clive Bell, the robust, easygoing landed gentleman who early displayed a keen eye for visual details; Desmond McCarthy; Lytton Strachey, the gangling homosexual whose fondness for history foreshadowed his career in historical biography; John Maynard Keynes; and Thoby Stephen, the son of Sir Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography—first met. They studied together, exchanged ideas as well as boyfriends, and dedicated their lives to the principles of G. E. Moore, the British philosopher and adviser to the Apostles, a secret society to which all but Clive Bell belonged. In fact, Edel suggests, Moore became the cornerstone of Bloomsbury: “that of a cultivation of the art of friendship, made possible by a certain homogeneity of mind that invites closeness yet safeguards independence—and ’social’ awareness, and a desire to probe the common enjoyment of the Beautiful.”

By 1906, the male core of Bloomsbury had graduated, and Thoby Stephen decided to re-create the weekly Apostles’ meeting with a mini-Cambridge in London. On Thursday nights, he and his friends would congregate in Bloomsbury at No. 46 Gordon Square, the townhouse he now shared with his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen. It was here amidst the haute bohème world of the Stephen household that the center of Edel’s story takes hold: “No. 46 Gordon Square very quickly became the center, the heart of the Bloomsbury of our story.”

Two factors contributed to the successful perpetuation of the Cambridge life in Bloomsbury. First, the majority of the group had modest, independent incomes which gave them the freedom from all responsibility except that to which they were all homogeneously most interested: a passionate involvement with ideas, conversation, rebellion against Victorian standards and modes of behavior, laughter, a narcissistic sense of their own self-importance, and a commitment to art and social reform. Equally important, however, were the talents and personalities of the Stephen girls, who, at first reluctantly but then enthusiastically, turned the post-graduate Apostle group into a coeducational experience.

Vanessa Stephen was blessed with a wonderful gift of energy and a single-minded purpose in life: to turn whatever she saw, felt, or experienced into plastic expression. It was this passion for art as well as her monolithic presence, her careful attention to domestic details, and her thorough enjoyment in being a well-rounded emancipated woman which made her, almost inevitably, the earth-mother figure for the Bloomsbury group. Her sister Virginia, by contrast, was ethereally beautiful, psychologically fragile, nervous around men, and uncertain about her womanhood. Yet she possessed a talent for words which made her by 1906 a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and a conversationalist equal to any among the group for her cleverness, intelligence, and bitchiness. Although at first uncomfortable around Thoby’s friends, Virginia gradually became a central part of the Thursday night gatherings. Edel’s discussion of Vanessa’s character and the role she played in the early stages of Bloomsbury makes for enjoyable reading and is one of the few original portraits in his story. His summary of Virginia’s psychological development, on the other hand, though always perceptive and well-written, suffers from the constraints he has set for himself. Too much of the material pales in range and critical insight by comparison to other biographical portraits of Virginia Woolf, in particular Phyllis Rose’s Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. Nevertheless, Edel describes the nascent years of Bloomsbury with obvious fondness and a clear understanding of its personalities.

If the...

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