Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Virginia Woolf, Downton Abbey & the Bloomsbury Group

Early in Season 4 of Downton Abbey, Lady Edith takes the train to London to see Michael Gregson. He is throwing a party to introduce her to his literary friends, including Virginia Woolf. (Right, Christina Carty as Woolf, featured all too briefly for my taste—if you blinked you missed her!)
It is 1922, the year in which Woolf published Jacob's Room and began her affair with Vita Sackville-West. The Bloomsbury Group, as Woolf and her circle later came to be known, were unabashedly open in their sexual mores—although more discreet than many give them credit for. (You can test your BG IQ with my quiz here. Let us know how you do!)
The interrelationships among the Bloomsburys were famously labyrinthine. Equally tricky was exactly who was included in the group and what they stood for. Ian Sansom tried to disentangle the skeins in an article in The Guardian:
The Bloomsbury group was not exactly a group. Nor was it merely a clique. There was no clear set of members, and no manifesto. It was, according to FR Leavis, merely a sort of coterie – of an inferior kind. DH Lawrence famously described various individuals associated with the group as "little swarming selves". He imagined crushing them.
Leonard Woolf – a founding member – claimed that they were in fact "a largely imaginary group of persons with largely imaginary objects and characteristics".... Another way of looking at the Bloomsbury group is to see it as the coming together of two extraordinary families, the Stephens and the Stracheys, around whose effulgence a constellation of others gathered.
Virginia Stephen,1902; photo by George Beresford
Leslie Stephen was a literary critic. His first wife, Harriet Marian, was the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. His second wife, Julia Prinsep Jackson, was the niece of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. His father was a permanent undersecretary in the British colonial office. His brother was a judge. With Julia, Leslie Stephen had four children: Vanessa, Thoby, Adrian and Virginia. Julia Jackson died young, and when Leslie Stephen died in 1904 the siblings moved to 46 Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury, London, where they began to receive guests "at home".
Some of those guests included the friends that Thoby Stephen had made when he was at Cambridge. One of these friends was Lytton Strachey. While the Stephens were solid members of the Victorian upper middle-class, the Stracheys were eccentric adventurers. Jane Strachey, the matriarch, was a pioneering feminist....
Family and friends of Vanessa Bell at Charleston. © Tate Archive, 2003
Lytton Strachey's friends and associates included Leonard Woolf, EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes, the writer Clive Bell, the painter Roger Fry, and the critic Desmond MacCarthy. They too became drawn into the Bloomsbury set. Thoby Stephen died of typhoid fever in 1906, but by then many of the important alliances between friends and families had been established. In 1907, Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell, with whom she had two sons. In 1912, Leonard Woolf married Virginia Stephen, at Lytton Strachey's urging; Strachey had already proposed to Virginia himself, before quickly realising his mistake. "I think there's no doubt whatever that you ought to marry her," he wrote to Leonard. "You would be great enough, and you'd have the advantage of physical desire."
Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf; below, Vita Sackville-West
The plots thickened. The roots became ever more tangled. Vanessa had an affair with Duncan Grant, who was Lytton Strachey's cousin, and with whom she had a child. Lytton Strachey was also in love with Duncan, though he lived in a menage a trois with the painter Dora Carrington and their friend Ralph Partridge. Virginia enjoyed a famous affair with Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. Somehow, the whole thing hung together. Bloomsbury, according to Virginia, consisted of a group of friends who shared an outlook on life that "keeps them dining together, and staying together, after 20 years; and no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this."
OK; I guess we have that sorted out, sorta! Follow this link for our fact-and-fiction showcase of Bloomsbury authors, including Woolf, Forster, and Woolf's grandniece, Virginia Nicholson.

1 comment:

  1. Why do they always go too far with the nose? Yes, it was a larger nose than most, but it wasn't really bumpy, and they always put a bump on it. The Nicole Kidman nose was ridiculous, Oscar or no.

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