YOUNG BLOOMSBURY – THE GENERATION THAT REIMAGINED LOVE, FREEDOM AND SELF-EXPRESSION
By Nino Strachey
John Murray 2022
ISBN: 978 1 529 3694 1
RRP: $34.99 (PB)
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
What today’s pronoun obsessed and gender reassignment Woke groups might make of the bohemian Bloomsbury personalities in Britain’s early twentieth century is anybody’s guess. In days when risqué really did mean risk, a tightly knit but loosely controlled collective hung together socially, a mixture of sexual persuasions and ambitions, protected by the largesse of several of the most prominent names among them – Virginia Woolfe, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Ottoline Morrell to name just a few. Night club life, including queer club life, took off in the twenties, but for the older Bloomsbury set, born in the late nineteenth century, it was the availability of country retreats and Bloomsbury houses which meant their nefarious lifestyles could be given freedom, free spirit and free expression.
Much has been recorded of the Bloomsbury set – the individuals and their creative output in the arts and literature, the stories of their relationships and so on. With Nino Strachey’s Young Bloomsbury, a further layer has been added. Nino Strachey is a descendant of the Strachey family of Sutton Court. What began as the personal connections between members of two families (the Stracheys and the Stephens) and their various partners, friends and relationships, developed into a second generation as children born to some of Bloomsbury set and their generational acquaintances connected the older members to more modern times. Nino Strachey’s account not only ties the different generations together but also shows, as if in an extended family, how they interacted and affected each other.
The Bloomsbury set had its origins in both time and physical circumstance. It was the early years of the twentieth century when the strictures of Victorian England had been modified slightly in middle class thinking by a king known among the aristocracy for his libertine ways. The Stephen siblings – Virginia, Vanessa and brothers Thoby and Adrian who were students at Cambridge – had inherited well from deceased parents and together took over the lease of 46 Gordon Square at a time when Bloomsbury rents were cheaper than that of the Stephen home in Kensington. Here then was a group of young adults, with an economic freedom many could only envy and without the need to answer to any parent. Meanwhile, the sisters had the (then) necessary chaperone protection of brothers. It was an independence not easily to be found at the time, especially for women. Moreover, with male and female siblings sharing as equals, the house became a meeting place for friends and acquaintances to mix, male and female alike, free to discuss matters together unlike at other social settings on offer.
Into this mix came Lytton Strachey, about whom Vanessa Bell recorded:
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 and value.
Nino Strachey adds that the honesty to which Vanessa Bell referred was the way 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”.
The circle begun at Gordon Square could only grow. Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell after Thoby’s death in 1906 and Virginia married Leonard Woolfe who was chancing his hand as a writer. Names like Maynard Keynes (economist), Roger Fry (artist), E M Forster (novelist), James Strachey and Adrian Stephen (psychoanalysts), Desmond MacCarthy and Clive Bell (journalists) and, of course, historian Lytton Strachey emerged from the collective. Names that would in time become prominent but names that, at this stage, were just starting out. As Nino Strachey writes:
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. … a “family of choice”: a group of queer friends and allies, drawn together by affection, bound for life. … Sexual contact was just one facet of a many-sided emotional equation, fidelity a restrictive illusion … 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.
Nino Strachey admits in her introduction that she writes with more than just an interest in the unusual community her relatives founded. She says, “As the mother of a child who identifies as gender-fluid and queer, I have learnt some sad truths about the ongoing impact of prejudice.” The secret world of the Bloomsburies – young and old – was a haven of safe living in so many ways for those who wished to explore their sexual impulses much less their sexual identity. After the First World War, as the original group reached a more mature age, they fostered that haven for the next generation. Nino Strachey brings it back to life through charting a network of couplings, the mentoring that was feely given and many pure fun times.
There are down moments along the way; relationships, marriages even, under the strain of such free expression and its experimentation, aside from momentary sexual encounters. Julia Strachey, working her way to becoming a successful novelist, marries sculptor Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin. The formality of marriage was in some ways foisted on them by family but it also came with a handsome settlement of money from both sides. But translating a heart of the moment sexual affair into any sort of heterosexual marriage, what Bloomsbury types labelled a “minority interest”, had its traps. Tommy broke out of the husband role in drunken rages at parties and took male lovers at will while Julia became “frustrated by Tommy’s anguished sense of remorse, which she found deeply wearing”. Inevitably, Julia found herself a lover – Gilbert Debenham, son of the millionaire founder of Debenham stores. In the midst of this dysfunction, and in part as Julia tried to escape the muddle, the support she received from her uncle Lytton, shortly before he died, and from artist Dora Carrington at Ham Spray helped her produce her first novel which she titled Cheerful Weather for The Wedding. It proved a success.
It is Nino Strachey’s closeness to so many of the stories and characters in the Bloomsbury set that makes her account warm and entertaining. She understands the close knit nature of the otherwise loosely formed network. It crossed many boundaries; it nurtured so many talented young people. In the post war world of the 1920s, it also offered a safe passage to what was then regarded as outrageous behaviour in those seeking outright freedom to think and create. They lived at the edge in so many ways. Artists and writers who left their footprints on walls, buildings, manuscripts, literature, sculptures and even photographs.
The cover of Nino Strachey’s book says it all – there dressed and painted as shepherds and shepherdesses (male and female as one, in knee breeches and stockings), “carrying baskets of flowers, willow wands and dangling straw hats”, are six of artist Stephen Tennant’s male and female guests posed against the background of his house, Wilsford Manor. It was the spring of 1927 but looked like something from an eighteenth century pastoral painting; Tennant and his partner Cecil Beaton were creating new ways to discuss dressing and gender. Along with an immense amount of rollicking fun on the day – discussed in a spray of conversations afterwards. The only one who refused to pose was poet Siegfried Sassoon who fell in love with Tennant that weekend, later taking him to Bavaria for life saving treatment for tuberculosis. Such a mix of outrageous behaviour, narcissism, inspiring creativity and love-filled sacrifice haunts this book.
The younger set also pushed up at their mentors and relatives. The post war world of the 1920s took risqué entertainment beyond private venues. Virginia Woolfe might be back in London creating her drawing room gatherings but many young Bloomsburies were clubbing away, men with men and women with women, into the late night hours in what many upright citizens would call dens of iniquity. Virginia Woolfe and Duncan Grant joined the Gargoyle Club set up by David Tennant, older brother of Stephen. It was the top three floors of a Soho print-works and sought to attract artists both struggling and successful. It was arrived at by a metal lift on the outside of the building. The older Bloomsburies were by now earning well and Grant used his membership to attract a younger audience for his exhibitions. Some of the older set, such as 57-year old Ottoline Morrell, found they seemed out of place during the cocktail hour and Virginia Woolfe preferred the Gargoyle at lunchtime. But the money supporting the club lifestyle of Young Bloomsbury was very often from older Bloomsbury members such as David Tennant.
Nino Strachey quotes Scott Fitzgerald as dating the death of the Jazz Age as October 1929 or the great financial Wall Street market crash. The ostentatiousness of the bright young things nurtured by Bloomsbury had a short life. The 1930s brought on not just financial deprivation but a new cause driven clash of extremes that would lead to the Second World War. The book’s “Epilogue” is set around the deaths of Lytton Strachey in January 1932 and Dora Carrington’s suicide less than a month later. Bloomsbury can really only be understood in the devotion of Carrington and Lytton to each other. An initial affair that became another family. Carrington had married Ralph Partridge in 1921, creating her vast collection of art. But she had also remained the den mother at Ham Spray where she and Partridge lived, devoted to the extended Bloomsbury family. In the splitting up of the estates of Lytton and Carrington and in the mourning for them that followed, Nino Strachey outlines the legacy that unfolded. The treasures tell the stories. As do where those treasures went. To become the Bloomsbury collection.
Nino Strachey is the last of the Strachey family to have grown up at the Strachey family’s Sutton Court. In giving the world a new take on the Bloomsbury set, her book is a fine contribution to the Bloomsbury legacy.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.