- Virginia Woolf by James King
Hamish Hamilton, 699 pp, £25.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 241 13063 8
In 1978, at a seminar on John Maynard Keynes held by the University of Kent, Raymond Williams talked about ‘The Significance of Bloomsbury as a Social and Cultural Group’. He accepted Leonard Woolf’s characterisation of Bloomsbury as consisting ‘of the upper levels of the professional middle class and county families, interpenetrated to a certain extent by the aristocracy’ with ‘an intricate tangle of ancient roots and tendrils stretching far and wide’ through those classes. Williams also noted the importance of the Imperial bureaucracy in this tangle, especially the top echelons of the administration of India. Finally, he characterised Bloomsbury as an upper-class ‘fraction’, which turned against its own class without identifying itself with the subaltern classes and peoples, except insofar as it saw them as ‘victims’. This fraction played an important ‘liberalising’ and ‘modernising’ role, producing ‘adaptations’ rather than ‘basic changes’. It was against the ‘dominant ideas and values’ of the English upper class, while ‘still willingly, in all immediate ways, part of it’.
Williams also developed another of Leonard Woolf’s ideas, that Bloomsbury was a group similar to the Utilitarians or the Pre-Raphaelites, both of which, in fact, had direct links with the Stephen family. Williams contrasted the Bloomsbury Group with the Godwin circle of the 1780s and 1790s, which he saw as a genuinely oppositional group, whose ‘rational and civilising proposals’ were ‘met by the crudest kind of repression: prosecution, imprisonment and transportation’. At that time, Williams argued, the commercial bourgeoisie was still a subordinate class. By the middle of the 19th century and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the commercial bourgeoisie had become dominant and consequently their revolt was both ‘against the class and for the class’. Despite their revolutionary stance in 1848, they renewed their class rather than challenging it. Bloomsbury combined elements of both: like the Godwin circle, it represented a new class sector, the professional rather than commercial bourgeoisie; but, like the Pre-Raphaelites, its challenge to dominant values and tastes could easily be folded back into the culture of the upper class, without seriously threatening that class’s social and political power.
It is easy to see the plausibility of Williams’s account. We need only call to mind a passage from Alan Clark’s diaries. Clark, himself a second generation fringe-Bloomsbury figure, priding himself on his ‘irreverence’, records two occasions on which he broke into tears. The first was when he shot a heron which had been attacking the fish in the moat at Salt-wood Castle. The second was on the occasion of a ‘Bloomsbury evening at Saltwood. We entertained the “Friends of Charleston”.’ Clark stuffed the Garden House with Bloomsbury ‘items’ and in the Great Library there was a performance by Eileen Atkins of Woolf”s A Room of One’s Own. ‘How well she did it! And what a beautiful, moving and dignified text it is. The audience listened in a rapt silence and at the end I had tears in my eyes.’ Among the Bloomsbury ‘items’ commissioned by Kenneth and Jane Clark was a grand Wedgwood dinner service created by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in 1935. The two artists chose to paint the 48 plates (out of 140 pieces) with a series of portraits of great women, including Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf themselves. ‘It ought to please the feminists,’ Bell observed. In a way, this incident was a model example of how the challenge posed by Bloomsbury could be re-absorbed into the trivial project of Civilisation, the creation of a lifestyle for a cultivated élite. Similarly, A Room of One’s Own can be read either as a militant feminist manifesto or as a plea for a privileged rentier culture, a weakness discussed forthrightly by Woolf herself in her essay, ‘Am I a Snob?’
In the discussion session which followed Williams’s paper, Bernard Sharratt remarked that although the Godwin circle had been repressed it nonetheless had had an influence on Hazlitt, whose critique of Malthus and Ricardo suggested an ‘alternative direction’ that could have been developed further. The Pre-Raphaelites had a similar impact on Morris. With Bloomsbury, Sharratt said that we might look at the avenue Keynes opened up by connecting economic theory with psychoanalysis. Sharratt’s argument was that though these groups might have been re-absorbed, they always left a subversive residue, a part maudite, which provided the potential for a deeper challenge. Williams accepted much of this. With the Godwin circle, he said, the potential was simply stamped out; with the Pre-Raphaelites, there was indeed such a potential – he cited Madox Brown’s house, where ‘there were not only artists but also atheists, political refugees, vagrants: there was the kind of widening which was questioning the order of a much wider area’ – and this did link to Morris’s development. But Williams could not see Keynes in the same light – ‘by 1946, Keynes is at the heart of the world capitalist system, designing a new monetary order.’ Williams also noted Keynes’s enjoyment in playing the role of squire of Tilton, complete with a covey of partridge on his stubble and a less than perfect relationship with his farm labourers.
Today, we might look at Keynes a little differently. Nonetheless, where was the subversive residue left by Bloomsbury? Here, I think, we must return to Virginia Woolf. As Quentin Bell observed at the same conference, commenting on the re-interpretation of her work by feminist writers, ‘it would be very dangerous to dismiss Virginia Woolf as a major political influence.’ Bell referred specifically to ‘a flow of correspondence and published work’ sent to him from the USA. Perhaps he was being unfair to British feminists, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the rediscovery of Woolf as a feminist came primarily from abroad and that this, in turn, raises an important issue. To what extent was Bloomsbury a specifically British phenomenon, and to what extent a genuinely cosmopolitan group?