Beth Carole Rosenberg Special Commissioned Essay on the Bloomsbury Group Essay - Critical Essays

Special Commissioned Essay on the Bloomsbury Group, Beth Carole Rosenberg


Special Commissioned Essay on the Bloomsbury Group Beth Carole Rosenberg

This special topic entry, written by Beth Carole Rosenberg of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, presents an overview and analysis of the Bloomsbury Group. For more information on the Bloomsbury Group, see TCLC, Volume 34.

The following chronology offers an overview of the Bloomsbury Group. The events presented here are discussed in greater detail in the critical essay that follows.

1866: Roger Fry is born.

1877: Desmond MacCarthy is born.

1879: E. M. Forster is born.

Vanessa Stephen is born.

1880: Lytton Strachey is born.

Thoby Stephen is born.

Saxon Sydney-Turner is born.

Leonard Woolf is born.

1881: Clive Bell is born.

1882: Virginia Stephen is born.

1883: J. M. Keynes is born.

Adrian Stephen is born.

1885: Duncan Grant is born.

Roger Fry enters King's College, Cambridge.

1894: Desmond MacCarthy enters Trinity College, Cambridge.

1895: Mrs. Leslie Stephen dies.

Virginia Stephen experiences her first breakdown.

1897: E. M. Forster enters King's College, Cambridge.

Desmond MacCarthy leaves Trinity College.

1899: Clive Bell, Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Leonard Woolf enter Trinity College, Cambridge.

The Midnight Society—a “reading society”—is founded at Trinity by Bell, Sydney-Turner, Stephen, and Woolf.

1901: Vanessa Stephen enters the Royal Academy Schools.

E. M. Forster leaves Cambridge.

1902: Duncan Grant attends the Westminster Art School.

Woolf, Sydney-Turner, and Strachey are elected to “The Apostles” (older members include Fry, MacCarthy, Forster).

Clive Bell conducts historical research in London after leaving Cambridge.

Adrian Stephen enters Trinity College, Cambridge.

J. M. Keynes enters King's College, Cambridge.

1903: G. E. Moore publishes Principia Ethica.

J. M. Keynes is elected to “The Apostles.”

1904: Leslie Stephen dies, and the Stephen children move to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

Clive Bell lives in Paris and conducts historical research.

Leonard Woolf leaves Cambridge, takes the Civil Service examination, and sails for Ceylon as a cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service.

Lytton Strachey works on a fellowship dissertation.

Virginia Stephen experiences her second breakdown.

1905: Adrian Stephen leaves Trinity College.

Virginia Stephen teaches at Morley College, London.

Thoby Stephen begins Thursday evenings at Gordon Square for his friends.

Vanessa Stephen organizes the Friday Club, which is concerned with the arts.

Lytton Strachey leaves Cambridge.

1906: Roger Fry becomes curator of the department of painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.

Duncan Grant studies art in Paris.

The Stephens tour Greece.

Thoby Stephen dies of typhoid fever.

1907: Vanessa Stephen marries Clive Bell.

Virginia and Adrian Stephen move to 29 Fitzroy Square; Thursday evenings begin again.

Virginia Stephen works on her first novel.

1908: Julian Bell is born.

1909: Duncan Grant moves to 21 Fitzroy Square.

Lady Ottoline Morrell comes to Thursday evenings in Fitzroy Square.

J. M. Keynes is elected to a fellowship at King's College, Cambridge.

1910: The Dreadnought hoax takes place.

Roger Fry meets Duncan Grant and the Bells; talks to the Friday Club; is dismissed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art by J. P. Morgan.

Virginia Stephen does volunteer work for women's suffrage.

Lytton Strachey and Lady Ottoline Morrell meet.

Quentin Bell is born.

Roger Fry organized the first post-impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries with Desmond MacCarthy as secretary.

1911: Leonard Woolf returns from Ceylon.

J. M. Keynes becomes a lecturer in economics at Cambridge.

Virginia and Adrian Stephen move to 38 Brunswick Square, where they share a house with Woolf, Keynes, and Grant.

1912: Leonard Woolf resigns from the Colonial Service.

Virginia Stephen marries Leonard Woolf; they live in Clifford's Inn, London, and at Asheham House, Sussex, after traveling in France, Spain, and Italy.

Roger Fry organizes the second post-impressionist exhibition organized with Leonard Woolf as secretary.

1913: Roger Fry founds the Omega Workshops with Duncan Grant as co-director.

Virginia Woolf suffers another breakdown and attempts suicide.

1914: Clive Bell publishes Art.

Leonard Woolf publishes The Wise Virgin.

J. M. Keynes joins the British Treasury.

The Woolfs move to Richmond, Surrey, from Clifford's Inn.

1915: Virginia Woolf publishes The Voyage Out.

The Woolfs move to Hogarth House, Richmond.

1916: Lytton Strachey's claim of conscientious objection to conscription is denied, but he is granted exemption for medical reasons.

Leonard Woolf is exempted from conscription for medical reasons.

Clive Bell does alternative service on the Morrells' farm at Garsington.

Vanessa Bell, her children, Duncan Grant, and David Garnett move to Wissett in Suffolk so that Garnett and Grant can do alternative service on a farm; later in the year they move to Charleston, Firle, Sussex, where the Bells and Duncan Grant live permanently.

J. M. Keynes and friends take over 46 Gordon Square.

1917: The Woolfs buy a printing press.

Leonard Woolf becomes secretary to the Labor Party Advisory Committee on Imperial and International Questions, a position he will hold for more than twenty years.

Virginia Woolf begins keeping a regular diary.

Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington set up housekeeping at the Mill House, Tidmarsh, Berkshire.

1918: Lytton Strachey publishes Eminent Victorians.

The Woolfs' Hogarth Press publishes Katherine Mansfield's Prelude.

At the suggestion of Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, J. M. Keynes persuades the Treasury to purchase works of art from the Degas sale in Paris.

Angelica Bell is born.

1919: Virginia Woolf publishes Night and Day.

Hogarth Press publishes Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens and T. S. Eliot's Poems, but is unable to publish James Joyce's Ulysses, offered to the press the year before.

J. M. Keynes travels to Paris as the principal representative of the British Treasury at the Peace Conference; he resigns in June and writes The Economic Consequences of Peace, which is published at the end of the year.

The Woolfs move from Asheham to Monk's House, Rodmell, Sussex.

1920: Roger Fry publishes Vision and Design.

Leonard Woolf publishes Economic Imperialism.

Omega Workshops close.

First meeting of the Memoir Club.

Duncan Grant has his first one-man show in London.

1921: Lytton Strachey publishes Queen Victoria.

Virginia Woolf is ill and inactive for four months.

Ralph Partridge marries and Carrington.

1922: Virginia Woolf publishes Jacob's Room.

Leonard Woolf is defeated as the Labor candidate for the Combined University constituency.

1923: Hogarth Press publishes T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

J. M. Keynes becomes chairman of the board of the Nation and Atheneum; Leonard Woolf becomes literary editor.

1924: E. M. Forster publishes A Passage to India.

Hogarth Press publishes Sigmund Freud's Collected Papers.

Strachey, Carrington, and Partridge move to Ham Spray House, Berkshire.

The Woolfs and the Hogarth Press move to 52 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury.

1925: Virginia Woolf publishes The Common Reader and Mrs. Dalloway.

J. M. Keynes marries Lydia Lopokova.

Virginia Woolf is ill for three months.

1927: Virginia Woolf publishes To the Lighthouse.

Leonard Woolf publishesEssays on Literature, History, Politics.

1928: Virginia Woolf publishes Orlando: A Biography.

Lytton Strachey publishes Elizabeth and Essex.

1929: Virginia Woolf publishes A Room of One's Own.

Duncan Grant presents a retrospective exhibition (1910-29).

Roger Fry lectures at the Royal Academy.

1930: Roger Fry publishes Henri Matisse.

Vanessa Bell presents an exhibition of her paintings in London.

1931: Virginia Woolf publishes The Waves.

Desmond MacCarthy publishes Portraits.

Leonard Woolf publishes After the Deluge.

Roger Fry presents a retrospective exhibition of paintings.

1932: Virginia Woolf publishes The Common Reader: Second Series.

Lytton Strachey dies; Carrington commits suicide.

Roger Fry lectures at Queen's Hall.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant exhibit recent paintings in London.

1933: Roger Fry appointed Slade Professor at Cambridge.

Clive Bell becomes art critic of the New Statesman & Nation.

1934: Roger Fry dies.

Vanessa Bell's paintings are exhibited.

1936: Virginia Woolf is ill for two months.

1937: Vanessa Bell exhibits paintings.

Duncan Grant exhibits paintings.

Julian Bell is killed in Spanish Civil War.

1938: Virginia Woolf publishes Three Guineas.

John Lehmann rejoins Hogarth Press as general manager and partner, buying out Virginia Woolf's interest in the press.

J. M. Keynes reads “My Early Beliefs” to the Memoir Club.

1939: The Woolfs and the Hogarth Press move to Mecklenburgh Square.

1940: Virginia Woolf publishes Roger Fry: A Biography.

Angelica Bell celebrates her twenty-first birthday, which is deemed “the last Bloomsbury party.”

Hogarth Press is bombed in Mecklenburgh Square and moves to Hertfordshire.

1941: Virginia Woolf publishes Between the Acts.

Virginia Woolf commits suicide.

Vanessa Bell presents an exhibition of paintings.

1942: Angelica Bell marries David Garnett.

1946: J. M. Keynes dies.

Leonard Woolf sells John Lehmann's interest in Hogarth Press to Chatto and Windus.

1948: Adrian Stephen dies.

1952: Desmond MacCarthy dies.

1953: Mary MacCarthy dies.

1956: Vanessa Bell presents an exhibition of paintings.

The Memoir Club meets for the last time.

1957: Duncan Grant exhibits paintings.

1959: Duncan Grant presents a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery.

1961: Vanessa Bell dies; memorial exhibition of her paintings.

1962: Saxon Sydney-Turner dies.

1964: Clive Bell dies.

1969: Leonard Woolf dies.

1970: E. M. Forster dies.

1978: Duncan Grant dies.


Beth Carole Rosenberg (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Rosenberg, Beth Carole. “The Boomsbury Group.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 138, edited by Allison Marion and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In following original essay, Rosenberg provides an overview of the Bloomsbury Group, focusing on its history, representative writers, hallmark works, and critical response.]


Bloomsbury is a district in the center of London that includes the British Museum; Bernard Street; and Bedford, Brunswick, Gordon, Russell, Tavistock, and Woburn Squares. It is also the name given to a group of friends who lived in and around that neighborhood during the first part of the twentieth century. They were born during the last three decades of the nineteenth century and were, therefore, raised in the conservative and repressed Victorian culture. As children often tend to rebel against their parents to establish their own identities, however, the Bloomsbury Group rejected the strictures of the Victorian period and helped to usher in the more open and experimental values that prevail in the twenty-first century.

The Bloomsbury Group was not a literary or artistic movement, since no overarching theory or belief system held its members together. It is even difficult to pinpoint exactly who the members were or when the group existed. Most scholars agree, however, that the group went through various phases, beginning with the original figures known as the first generation or “Old Bloomsbury,” including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, E. M. Forster, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, and Duncan Grant.

The Bloomsbury Group made an impact on modern culture and society not only in Britain but also in Europe, the United States, and Asia. For example, John Maynard Keynes was responsible for the economic theory that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used in the 1930s to try to bring the United States out of the Great Depression.

Lytton Strachey was a pioneer in biographical writing that presents its subjects as fallible and flawed human beings rather than as idealized icons. His brother James, who is not considered a member of the Bloomsbury Group, went to Vienna with his wife Alix, and was psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud. After returning to England, James produced the first English translations of Freud's works, which were published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press.1

Roger Fry, an art critic, traveled across the Atlantic during the first decade of the twentieth century to become curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; he was responsible for putting together the museum's first permanent collection. After disagreements with the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who served on the museum's board of directors, Roger went to France where he met impressionist and postimpressionist painters. He introduced the British art world to their works by organizing the first and second postimpressionist exhibitions in 1910 and 1912, respectively.

Virginia Woolf was a major modernist writer who, along with James Joyce and others, helped redefine the form of the novel through narrative experimentation and the stream-of-consciousness technique. Woolf is also viewed as the mother of twentieth-century feminism; her treatise A Room of One's Own (1929) has been translated into many languages and has been appropriated by the feminist movement in England and the United States. Her husband Leonard was an avid critic of British imperialism and influenced the formation of the League of Nations.

The novels of E. M. Forster, including A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924), have been brought to millions of moviegoers through the extravagant movie productions of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell; Vanessa's husband Clive Bell; and Duncan Grant helped to introduce modern painting to England and the United States. They also participated in the Omega Workshop organized by Fry in 1913, which stemmed from William Morris's arts and crafts movement and helped artists enter commercial enterprises by creating, decorating, and painting furniture and fabrics.


The Stephen family is often considered the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group. Leslie Stephen came from a long line of writers and social reformers. His great-grandfather James Stephen (1758-1832) was a member of the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical philanthropists who lived at the end of the eighteenth century on Clapham Common in London and who worked to abolish the slave trade. Clapham families intermarried, and though each generation rebelled against the ideas of its elders, all had a sense of belonging to a special and privileged group. The Bloomsbury Group can be considered the fourth generation of Clapham Sect.

Leslie Stephen was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1855 he was ordained a deacon by the Church of England. In 1856 he returned to Trinity College as a junior tutor, a position that was open only to clergymen. He was ordained a priest in 1859, but his doubts about the truth of Christianity led him to resign in 1862. During the Civil War he traveled to the United States, where he met President Abraham Lincoln and poet James Russell Lowell. Leslie wrote ardently in support of the North. He went on to become editor of the Cornhill Magazine in 1871, and the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) in 1882. He edited the first twenty-six volumes of DNB and wrote 378 of the biographies. One of the most important men of letters of the last half of the nineteenth century, Leslie counted among his close friends Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and George Meredith. He was knighted in 1902.

In 1867 Leslie married Harriet Marian “Minny” Thackeray, the youngest daughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. They had a daughter, Laura, who suffered from mental illness; in 1890 she was placed in an asylum, where she died in 1945. Minny died in 1875; three years later Leslie married Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth.

Julia was born in India, the third daughter of Dr. John Jackson and Maria Pattle Jackson. She married Herbert Duckworth in 1867, after rejecting proposals from painter Holman Hunt and sculptor Thomas Woolner. Herbert and Julia had three children: George, Stella, and Gerald. Shortly after Gerald's birth, Herbert Duckworth died, at which time Julia lost her religious faith. She began reading Leslie's essays on agnosticism, and developed a close friendship with him.

When Minny Stephen died, Julia helped Leslie and his sister-in-law Anne Isabella Thackeray move from 8 Southwell Gardens to a home near her own at 13 Hyde Park Gate South. She and Leslie were married in 1878, and Leslie and his daughter Laura moved into Julia's home with Julia her three children. Together the Stephens had four children: Vanessa in 1879, Julian Thoby in 1880, Adeline Virginia in 1882, and Adrian Leslie in 1883. In 1884 the Stephen's house address was changed to 22 Hyde Park Gate. Julia died of influenza in 1895, precipitating Virginia's first mental breakdown and first suicide attempt.

Some critics claim the Bloomsbury Group began at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Leonard Woolf, and Clive Bell met in 1899 and founded the Midnight Society, a reading club that met on Saturdays in Bell's rooms. The society dissolved in 1902 when Lytton, Leonard, and Saxon were elected to the Apostles.

The Apostles, or “Conversazione Society,” was started in 1820 by a group of friends who wanted to work out a philosophy of life. Confined to two colleges at Cambridge—Trinity and King's—the Apostles had extremely high admission standards. Clive and Thoby, for example, were denied membership. E. M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes were Apostles from King's College. Former Apostles who had left Cambridge, such as Desmond MacCarthy and Roger Fry, frequently returned to attend meetings of the group.

The publication of Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica in 1903 moved Apostle discussions from theological concerns to ethical ones. Influenced also by nineteenth-century science, the Apostles sought to establish a moral code based on utilitarian grounds rather than religion. Thoby later brought the Apostles to London by inviting his Cambridge friends to 22 Hyde Park Gate.

Adrian joined Thoby at Trinity in 1902. Meanwhile, the Stephen sisters remained at 22 Hyde Park Gate: Leslie, though generally liberal in his outlook, did not believe in university education for women. Vanessa was trained as a painter, while Virginia was allowed to read freely in Leslie's extensive library. In “Notes on Bloomsbury,” Vanessa describes the home at 22 Hyde Park Gate as “pitch dark, Virginia Creeper hung down in a thick curtain over the back drawing room window, the kitchen and other basement rooms could only be seen by candle or lamp light and most of the paint was black.”2 Virginia describes it in more detail in “Old Bloomsbury”:

It was a house of innumerable small oddly shaped rooms built to accommodate not one family but three. … One never knew when one rummaged in the many dark cupboards and wardrobes whether one would disinter [her stepbrother] Herbert Duckworth's barrister's wig, my father's clergyman's collar, or a sheet scribbled over with drawings by Thackeray. … Old letters filled dozens of black tin boxes. One opened them and got a terrific whiff of the past. …

The house was dark because the street was so narrow [and] because my mother who had been brought up in the Watts-Venetian-Little Holland House tradition had covered the furniture in red velvet and painted the woodwork black with thin gold lines upon it. … When I look back upon that house it seems to me so crowded with scenes of family life, grotesque, comic and tragic; with the violent emotions of youth, revolt, despair, intoxicating happiness, immense boredom, with parties of the famous and the dull … with passionate affection for my father alternating with passionate hatred of him, all tingling and vibrating in an atmosphere of youthful bewilderment and curiosity—that I feel suffocated by the recollection....

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Representative Members Of The Bloomsbury Group

The major Bloomsbury figures were diverse in backgrounds, interests, and talents. Though friendship bound them together, they were individuals. Some were art critics or artists, others political and economic theorists; still others were novelists or literary critics. Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and Leonard Woolf met as undergraduates in Cambridge. Lytton and Leonard were admitted to membership in the secret Cambridge discussion society known as the Apostles; Roger Fry and Desmond MacCarthy had also been Apostles. As women, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were excluded from the Cambridge experience. Lytton, Clive, Vanessa, and Virginia came from upper-middle-class backgrounds, although Clive did not grow up in the...

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The Literary Relevance Of The Bloomsbury Group

To understand the relevancy of the Bloomsbury Group must be placed within their intellectual context. As already discussed, Bloomsbury had a deep connection with its Victorian predecessors. The most significant Victorian influences were Leslie Stephen and G. E. Moore. Other important Victorian influences include critic Walter Pater, philosopher Bertrand Russell, and novelist Henry James. However, the contemporary context in which Bloomsbury worked and lived also gives great insight into their goals and perceptions.

The time in which Bloomsbury created its work is known as the modernist period. Other important modernist writers include H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, E. M. Forster, D. H....

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Bloomsbury's Hallmark Works

The hallmark works of the Bloomsbury Group are as varied as its members. Each work made its unique impact on the field in which it was written. The major subjects are art theory and criticism, economic and political theory, biography, fiction, and the essay. Common elements in the works include irony and humor, social commentary, and orientation in the aesthetics of G. E. Moore, who stated that the origins of good are in the love between friends and the contemplation of beautiful objects. Though Bloomsbury members would never have claimed that they shared beliefs and theories that would make them into a “movement,” it is not difficult to find their similar preoccupations and to understand the influence they had on...

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Other Modernists Studied With The Bloomsbury Group

The first quarter of the twentieth century in England might very well be called the “Bloomsbury Era.” It is easy to perceive them as a tightly knit group of friends, isolated from other cultural movements and disinterested in what was happening around them. This was hardly the case. Writers and intellectuals of the period frequently crossed paths, some as tangential members of the Bloomsbury Group and others who interacted with the group for only a brief moment in time. Lady Ottoline Morrell, Dora Carrington, Vita Sackville-West, and Katherine Mansfield all had an important impact on some aspect of Bloomsbury. To gain a greater sense of how Bloomsbury interacted with, influenced, and was influenced by culture, it...

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Further Reading


Bell, Clive. Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1914; New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1914.

———. Pot-Boilers. London: Chatto & Windus, 1918.

——— Poems. London: Hogarth Press, 1921.

———. Since Cézanne. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922.

———. The Legend of Monte della Sibilla; or, Le Paradis de la reine Sibille. London: Hogarth Press, 1923.

———. On British Freedom. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1923.

———. Landmarks in...

(The entire section is 2655 words.)