Mrs Webb and Mrs Woolf

Michael Holroyd

When I signed the contract for my Life of Lytton Strachey, I was allowed by way of an advance on royalties the sum of 50 pounds. Though this reflected my own lack of status as a biographer, it was also, I think, some measurement of where Bloomsbury stood in the scheme of things. Twenty-five years ago, Strachey’s books were not in paperback and Virginia Woolf was not the feminist idol she has since become. The reputation of E.M. Forster was in decline. The paintings of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were not privately collected and had been demoted to the cellars of many public galleries. The art criticism of Roger Fry and Clive Bell was no longer considered significant, and few people knew the name of Carrington. The best-known of the Bloomsburgians was probably Maynard Keynes – the man Bloomsbury had sent into the political world to represent their interests during the great changes – revolutions maybe – that were to take place in the 20th century. Nothing was known of his homosexuality, which was concealed in Roy Harrod’s authorised biography; and his literary abilities were not often celebrated. He was the property of economists – a brilliant crisis economist, as I think of him, which is one reason why we hear so much about him today.

But if Bloomsbury seemed out of fashion, the Fabians were moving out of sight. Though none of us knew it in 1960, the Bloomsbury Group was about to have its revival. The Fabians had had their revival in the years of austerity following the Second World War. But after we had been told by Macmillan in the summer of 1957 that Britain had never had it so good, a wind of change swept over the country. Distribution of wealth, it was felt, would take care of itself by means of massive and inevitable economic growth, so we didn’t really have to think about it. The predictions of Beatrice Webb, to the effect that Britain would go down in trade and wealth, that there would be a brain drain to America (on whose military strength we would become dependent), that we had too high a standard of leisure and pleasure, and that the nation as a whole was consequently slipping down the slope of sloppy thinking into a period of great hardship – all that seemed inaccurate as to fact, mean in spirit and unattractive in its puritanical implications. The Webbs were well-known for their lack of political instinct and this appeared to be a fine example of that disability. What, for example, could have seemed more wide of the mark than her prediction of 1925 that the Liberal Party would only re-emerge as a force in the country once it had formed an entirely new party by allying itself to disaffected Labour supporters, creating a rift among Socialists and bringing in Conservatives. The trouble with Beatrice in political terms was that, as she herself expressed it, ‘I am conscious of the past and I am conscious of the future; I am wholly indifferent to the present.’ In other words, she was an intellectual. Those people who lived in the present, the party politicians, were saying something different. They might have no sense of history, no prevision of the period in which we ourselves are currently living, but they did reflect the confidence of the moment. In a book published in the mid-Sixties, a Conservative Minister of Education wrote: ‘Such small pockets of poverty as remain in Britain will be cleared up within a few years.’ This gentleman was shortly afterwards made Minister for the Arts and was to play a part in the creation of a new breed of quasi-poor. But what Lord Eccles said chimed with what other people, including economists, were saying. And with this easy elimination of poverty from the mind, it seemed wilfully pessimistic to go grinding on about the have-nots in society – indeed, there was no need to do so. People identified themselves with the new haves, the haves-to-be. It was plausible; it felt exciting. Such was our confidence in ‘Supermac’, that there really was an opportunity to effect a radical change in British society at this time: the country would probably have accepted it from Macmillan. But changes of that sort are produced in periods of discontent and bitterness – such as we enjoy now. Fifteen years after the war we were living in a land of plenty.

In such times we saw the Fabians very much as Virginia Woolf saw them: drab, earnest, sallow, dull, dreary, joyless. ‘I cannot get over my distaste for the Fabian type,’ Virginia wrote in her diary. The Fabian type seemed to have no appetite for life. In one of his later, fantastical plays, Bernard Shaw, both teetotal and vegetarian, had looked forward to the perfect diet to which human evolution aspired: an intake of air and water. Beatrice, who used to weigh herself each week at Charing Cross Station and luxuriate over the loss of each half-ounce, seemed to live off little more. What an anorexic crew the Fabians were! Poor Sidney Webb was not even allowed marmalade for his breakfast. The Webbs ‘eat quickly & efficiently & leave me with hunks of cake on my hands,’ complained Virginia Woolf to whom Beatrice appeared ‘as bare as bone’. Was it any wonder, then, that the ascetic Fabian philosophy had blossomed during a period of stringent food rationing? There seemed no arts of seduction, no aesthetic principle, in the Fabian policy of political permeation. Why, asked Virginia Woolf, ‘should right pursuits be so entirely hideous’? But were they right pursuits? In matters of religion, sex and politics, Bloomsbury and the Fabians differed profoundly. ‘I always find myself admiring the Woolfs without agreeing with them!’ Beatrice wrote to Virginia. And this has seemed to be the way of it. An age that favours Bloomsbury will downgrade the Fabians, and vice versa. Certainly in the late Fifties and early Sixties, after National Service had come to an end, when employment was reasonably high, and when the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality was in preparation, the Fabian programme of collectivism, national efficiency, and compulsory civilian service for everyone, was seen as a threat to the liberty of the individual just as that individual was about to enjoy new liberties. I doubt if a book on Beatrice Webb by an unknown biographer would have secured an advance on royalties of much more than a fiver in 1961.

A few months before I presented my cheque for 50 pounds to my bank, the first volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, Sowing, was published. It covered his own origins and early years, as well as the origins of the Bloomsbury Group in Cambridge and among that famously secret society known as the Apostles. The fifth and last volume of this autobiography appeared in 1969, by which time the renewal of interest in Bloomsbury was fully under way. But Leonard Woolf was a curious figure within the Bloomsbury Group – a sort of hybrid. He was, in fact, a Fabian member of Bloomsbury. He joined the Fabian Society in about 1914, and was put in charge of their foreign policy – a subject in which the Fabians notoriously took no interest. Sidney Webb found it impossible to conceal his irritation with the intolerable interruptions which the Boer War, and then the Great War, inflicted on his plans for the municipalisation of the gas supply and tramways. It was a great relief to hand all this foreign matter over to Leonard Woolf, whose work on international government, and on the causes of war, contributed to the formation of the League of Nations. But Bloomsbury was sceptical of this work. Keynes thought it a waste of time; and Virginia Woolf blamed the Webbs for having clawed Leonard into such a huge job.

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[*] The Diary of Beatrice Webb, Vol. IV, 1924-1943: The Wheel of Life (Virago, 508 pp., £22, 7 October, 0 860 68212 9).