Beth Carole Rosenberg Special Commissioned Essay on the Bloomsbury Group Overviews


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 4373 words.)