Monday, 10 August 2015

Bloomsbury in the Bathroom

The Bloomsbury group seem to be a popular subject at the moment.  No sooner had they featured in Victoria Coren’s series on Bohemianism (see my post from last month) than Vivien Whelpton was taking a group of Sassoon and Owen enthusiasts on a walk around that district of London, pointing out such sights as the location of the Poetry Bookshop.  Next thing you know, the BBC is showing a dramatisation of the careers of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell; perhaps this is not such a coincidence, “themes” being the broadcasting corporation’s latest big thing.

Then, purely by chance, Strange Meetings comes to the top of my bedside book pile and I find myself re-reading Harry Ricketts’ account of the historic encounter between Sassoon and Rupert Brooke at Eddie Marsh’s flat in Raymond Buildings.  The SSF has visited Raymond Buildings twice, but never been able to gain access (people must have thought we were bonkers, standing in such an unprepossessing side street reading poetry out loud).   Vivien’s group did somehow manage to get onto the premises, though I get the impression there was nothing particularly inspiring to be found within the walls; one would have to work hard to reproduce the atmosphere of those heady days, a century ago, when Brooke and his literary friends frequented the area.

Brooke was well-acquainted with Virginia Woolf, so much so that he once invited her to come skinny-dipping with him.  If Life in Squares is anything to go by, this was a bit of a trend for the family; Vanessa Bell was shown sharing the bathroom with her husband’s gay friend, the artist Duncan Grant, who later became her lover.  Brooke, despite – or perhaps because of – his angelic appearance, had relationships with many women (and some men) before his untimely death.  Like most of the writers who were part of the Bloomsbury Group, he also had a nice line in satire.  Having felt out of his depth in the discussion at Marsh’s breakfast, Sassoon went to the zoo and got an equally cool reception from the chimpanzees, which he then recorded in a poem that attempted to emulate Brooke’s style.
For the benefit of anyone who may have had as much difficulty as I did following the early scenes of Life in Squares, Vanessa and Virginia were the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen, who, besides being a writer and critic, was an accomplished mountaineer.  In addition, he was an Anglican clergyman with "strong opinions" (as Virginia put it), who believed in long walks and “muscular Christianity”.  In addition, he had two sons.  The older of these, Thoby, became the head of the family when Sir Leslie died, and is shown encouraging his sisters to follow their natural instincts now that their father is out of the way.  The younger brother, Adrian, shared in the Thursday night gatherings that formed the basis of the Bloomsbury Group, and had a homosexual relationship with Duncan Grant, whom he introduced into the gathering.  Great things were expected of Thoby Stephen, who shocked everyone by dying of typhoid, aged 26, and never fulfilling his promise.

You will already have gathered that the web of inter-relationships, both intellectual and sexual, is extremely complicated.  Bloomsbury must have been a little like Coronation Street, with every cast member at some stage becoming involved with every other cast member.  I think, however, that the general public has greater difficulty feeling any empathy with the Bloomsberries than it does with the fictional characters of popular soap operas.  George Simmers has already picked up on a lot of this in his blog so I need not elaborate further.

Naturally, the most interesting thing about the Bloomsbury Group, from my point of view, is their tenuous connection with Siegfried Sassoon, achieved partly through the activities of Lady Ottoline Morrell, who generously gave “jobs” on her estate to men like Duncan Grant and Clive Bell (Vanessa's husband) during World War I to save them from having to take the punishments handed out to other conscientious objectors. Ottoline, incidentally, is alleged to have tried to lure Grant to come nude bathing with her in a Garsington fishpond.

Siegfried Sassoon would become a friend of several other members of the Bloomsbury Group, including E M Forster and John Maynard Keynes; most had, like him, been undergraduates at Cambridge.  Sassoon was not, however, a man who would ever have accepted a labouring job (which would have been a piece of cake for someone of his physical attributes) rather than facing the music.  We can be thankful that he chose to make his protest against the war in other ways.

Siegfried also knew Lytton Strachey and another "Bloomsberry", the critic Desmond McCarthy, well.  He claimed that Strachey’s intellect and gentility made him feel inferior, like “a beefy young rowing blue”.  Was this the reason he did not become a member of the group?  I think not; they were a well-established clique, together since 1905 and not open to new members (apart from relatives) by the time Siegfried came into close contact with them.  Nevertheless, his sense of inferiority must have acted to prevent him getting onto intimate terms with the group as a whole, as shown by his reluctance to accept a dinner invitation from Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1923 because he feared a “rarified intellectual atmosphere”; he was greatly relieved to find himself taken into their fold – though Virginia’s affection for him seems to have been tempered with a lack of understanding of his character and experiences.  In this, no doubt, she resembled many people, especially women, who had had little or no direct contact with the reality of war.  Although herself a Modernist, she sympathised with his dislike of T S Eliot, but thought him behind the times, as did the Sitwells, with whom he had been friendly for some years.

Sassoon's relationship with the  Woolf family, however, continues through Cecil Woolf, his wife Jean Moorcroft Wilson, and their “War Poets” series of monographs as well as through Dr Wilson’s magnificent two-volume biography of Sassoon.  

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