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.
This was one of the points of friction between Mrs Webb and Mrs Woolf. Beatrice had told Virginia that it was wrong to prevent Leonard from going into Parliament, which needed men of subtle intellect, such as Sidney and Leonard. But Virginia felt extremely irritated by this criticism. Part of her irritation came from the knowledge that Beatrice valued Leonard’s work more highly than her own. Beatrice was always polite about Virginia’s novels, and wrote to Leonard telling him that Night and Day had won the admiration of an old woman. ‘She has made the novel the form in which to present the most subtle criticism of character and the most poetic appreciation of nature,’ Beatrice said: ‘the whole harmonised by charming kindliness towards weary humanity ... I realise that she has an extraordinarily valuable instrument in her spiritual insight and literary gift – it would be a sin against humanity if it were lost to the world through continued ill health. She must make herself well.’ This letter carries all the genuine kindliness that Beatrice found in the novel. And twenty years later, at the end of 1939, she is still the same – questioning Virginia as to whether she was going to write a second volume of The Years and telling her how much she longed to hear ‘how the family she had described so vividly would respond to this new war’. But Virginia knew that Beatrice’s admiration was not wholehearted – indeed she accused her of having a barren heart. And it was true that Beatrice was unsettled by Virginia’s novels. She felt, for example, that the stream of consciousness in To the Lighthouse was objectionable because it assumed that the author could see and describe another’s mind, whereas the truth was that even one’s own consciousness defied description: it was all so vague and diverse – currents on currents, intellectual, pictorial, vocal, emotional, impersonal patterns all mixed up. In her diary entry for 5 February 1927, shortly after reading Mrs Dalloway, Beatrice complained that she did not find Virginia’s novels interesting apart from their craftsmanship because her characters ‘don’t seem worth describing in such detail – the mental climate in which they live seems strangely lacking in light, heat, visibility and variety.’ She spoke of ‘a dank mist of insignificant and monotonous thoughts and feelings – no predominant aims, no powerful reactions from the mental environment – a curious impression of automatic existence when one state of mind follows another without any particular reason’.
This criticism expresses the essential difference between Bloomsbury and the Fabians. The members of Bloomsbury were artists; the Fabians were sociologists. Bloomsbury was individualistic; the Fabians collectivists. Bloomsbury had chosen Freud, the Fabians Marx. As Beatrice wrote in her diary, ‘We all aim at maximising human happiness, health, loving kindness, scientific certainty and the spirit of adventure together with the appreciation of beauty in sight and sound, in word and thought. Where we differ is how to bring about this ideal here and now.’
Bloomsbury believed it could bring the good life here and now by means of aesthetic sensibility plus personal relationships. This was a formula which they had originally extracted from the last two chapters of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and which stressed the virtues of civilised private life over the vulgarity of Victorian values, which came – if one is to judge from Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians – to materialism at home and imperialism abroad. Private life had been hidden under a prim camouflage in 19th-century Britain and energy channelled into public life. In seeking to reverse this current, it was natural that Bloomsbury should be sympathetic to Freud, whose works in 24 volumes were translated into English by Lytton Strachey’s brother and sister-in-law, James and Alix Strachey, and published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press.
But the Fabians were not attracted to Freud. He was an author, Shaw announced, ‘utterly without delicacy’. And Beatrice Webb believed that this way madness lay. What was G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, let alone the works of Freud, she wondered, except ‘a metaphysical justification for doing what you like and what other people disapprove of’? It seemed to her a denial both of the scientific method and of religion. The Fabians wanted to make the scientific discoveries of their time part of a new religious equipment. For them, the good life could be created through the abolition of private property and the establishment of equality of income. Only by the conversion of private wealth into common wealth could you tackle the avoidable suffering in life. But such changes seemed hostile to the privacy of Bloomsbury, where the artist and writer was protected by society so that his or her work could be created under favourable conditions – and then put into circulation for the potential benefit of all. Inevitably, Virginia felt threatened by the Webbs. ‘I can’t think how two small old people like that manage to destroy everything one likes and believes in.’ Beatrice seemed to have replaced the activities of life with the activities of innumerable committees dealing with departments of life. ‘She represses warmth or personality,’ Virginia objected. ‘She has no welcome for one’s individuality ... This grey view depressed me more & more, partly I suppose from the egotistical sense of my own nothingness in her field of vision.’ Sidney she could almost like at times: but not Beatrice. She had taken the cult of impersonality too far. How she would have disapproved of Virginia’s excitements with Vita. The images Virginia uses to describe Beatrice are forbidding: yet they are mixed with admiration for her qualities of courage, her brisk good sense and her fairness. ‘Mrs Webb pounces on one, rather like a moulting eagle, with a bald neck and blood-stained beak,’ she wrote to her sister Vanessa in 1916. ‘However, I got on with her better than I expected. She seems very open-minded, for an elderly person, and with no illusions or passions, or mysteries.’ Over twenty-three years later, at their last meeting, Virginia described Beatrice as ‘invincible in spite of bladder trouble and cancer by the sheer might of disinterested intellect’.
Virginia responded best to the workings of this intellect when she did not have to see Beatrice, and she found her autobiographical book My Apprenticeship ‘enthralling’. ‘There were causes in her life: prayer; principles,’ she writes. ‘None in mine’ – which, in shorthand, is the obverse of Beatrice’s criticism of Virginia’s stream of consciousness. The Webbs, in Virginia’s eyes, were ‘entirely integrated people’. ‘Their secret is that they have by nature no divisions of soul to fritter them away: their impact is solid & entire.’
But Virginia was wrong about Beatrice. She did have divisions of soul; she was not entirely integrated. There were times, for example, when she hankered to be a novelist, like Virginia. ‘I have been haunted by a longing to create characters and move them to and fro among fictitious circumstances: to put the matter plainly, by the vulgar wish to write a novel!’ she wrote in one of her early diaries. After finishing her joint work with Sidney on The History of Trade Unionism she was again haunted by that longing – this time it was to be a novel set 60 years in the future. ‘The truth is, I want to have my “fling”,’ she wrote.
I want to imagine anything I damn please without regard to facts as they are. I want to give full play to whatever faculty I have for descriptive and dramatic work. I want to try my hand at an artist’s work instead of mechanics. I am sick to death of trying to put hideous facts, multitudinous details, exasperating qualifications, into a readable form.
Beatrice never had her fling, either in fiction or in life, but she knew its power and the seduction of such a thing. She felt undermined by what Virginia may be said to have represented, just as Virginia felt reduced by Beatrice’s world of facts. Each was a corrective to the other. At one point Virginia actually challenged the Webbs as to what her place would be in a Fabian world: ‘some small office, no doubt.’ For the Webbs had a compartment for the non-representational expert, the artist, whose imagination might be of use to the future of society: that was why Beatrice had wanted to set her novel in the future, plotting human evolution. One day in the summer of 1922 the Woolfs had what Virginia called ‘a terrific argument’ about the Webbs and Shaw and the Fabians. Leonard contended that their generation owed a great deal to Shaw and the Webbs, who were educators of the people and of governments. Virginia replied that they had influenced only the ‘outer fringe of morality’, and that the human heart was ‘touched only by the poets’. They did not agree, for they were putting their own work – fiction and non-fiction – unnecessarily into competition and thereby out of focus.
Leonard felt the pull of both cultures. In Sowing he gives a glamorous picture of his first meetings with Virginia and Vanessa. ‘Their beauty literally took one’s breath away,’ he writes, ‘for suddenly seeing them one stopped astonished and everything including one’s breathing for one second also stopped as it does when in a picture gallery you suddenly come face to face with a great Rembrandt or Velasquez or in Sicily rounding a bend in the road you see across the fields the lovely temple of Segesta.’ In this image of the two sisters, like twin works of art or architecture, there is no trace of sexual interest. The sisters are stereotypes, exhibiting the aesthetic sensibility of Bloomsbury. They appear in their proper place in Sowing, but Leonard Woolf is so impatient to collar the Webbs that he cannot resist pulling them out of their chronological place in his story. This was partly because they were such marvellous copy. ‘What astonished one again and again,’ he writes, ‘was that they were so intelligent and in many ways so quick in their perceptions and yet seemed to be quite unconscious of their absurdities.’ Beatrice had suggested that children should be supplied with ‘municipal bricks’ marked with the names of various social organisations, so that, as they played, they would more or less unconsciously learn their civic duties. On another occasion, as the four of them walked across the Sussex Downs, Sidney with Leonard, Beatrice with Virginia, Sidney remarked that he knew what his wife was saying to Virginia as they came into view over the horizon. ‘She is saying that marriage is the waste paper basket of the emotions’ – and late that night Virginia confirmed to Leonard that this had indeed been so.
The Webbs persisted in their absurdity until it became a sort of strength. There was nothing more absurd to Leonard, for example, than Beatrice’s mysticism. ‘She told me that she habitually prayed with the utmost intensity and profound spiritual effect’: this revelation exasperated Leonard a good deal. He pressed her to explain: but her explanations were like explanations of music to the tone-deaf: ‘I never got anywhere near an understanding.’ To some extent, the explanation of this lack of understanding lies in the difference of their ages. The Fabians were Victorians; the members of Bloomsbury were the sons and daughters of Victorians – Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is an attack on parental authority no less than on Victorian values. Like Leonard Woolf, Strachey believed that the religious impulse had slipped quietly out of life – and a good job too. But Shaw, like Beatrice Webb, felt a need to replace the Old Gent with a beard who had finally been toppled from his cloud by Darwin’s Origin of Species – a work first published when they were both children. As the Evangelical movement disintegrated before Darwinism, a great call had gone up for a new kind of missionary, dedicated to plain living and high thinking. From agnostics, anarchists, dress- and diet-reformers, economists, feminists, philanthropists, naturalists and spiritualists, the Socialist revival of the late 19th century drew its man- and woman-power. The nominal founder of the Fabian Society was the illegitimate son of a Scottish shepherd, a man with the gift of tongues and very hot on immortality. He had blazed his way through London in the early 1880s, inflaming a miscellaneous band of idealists and agitators who in his wake formed a sort of club where they read papers to one another about Utopian colonies in places such as Southern California. Like the later Apostles at Cambridge, this club had no fixed programme, only a state of mind. Or rather two states of mind – one wholly religious, the other primarily political. In the mid-1880s it split, the ‘Fellowship of the New Life’ attracting the religious element, and the Fabian Society assembling those whose religious impulses developed into socialism.
This historical context helps to account for Beatrice Webb’s ‘spiritual muddledom’ – a phrase that appealed to her when she read it in A Passage to India. She had started out as a missionary among the white savages of Britain, and by the Twenties and Thirties had come to see herself as another version of Forster’s Mrs Moore. Like Mrs Moore, she possessed a ‘double vision’, which in her case reflected the dual provenance of the Fabian Society – its diverging mystical and political branches. She longed for the security of those absolute values that were being removed from the world as she grew up. ‘How can the human mind acclimatise itself to the insecurity and uncertainty of this terrible doctrine of relativity, latent in all modern science long before Einstein applied it to the astronomical universe?’ she asks in her diary in the summer of 1924.
It is a most disconcerting conclusion, that there is no absolute truth, and that the thoughts of man are no more and no less valid than the analogous brain activities of the dog or the bee! What becomes of the existing standards of morality or capacity? ... Is morality a question of taste, and truth a question of relative standpoints? And are all tasks and all standpoints equally valid? What, in fact, is my own standpoint from which I survey the world of the past and the future?
Beatrice prayed for answers to these questions: and received in answer some relief. The need for this relief was potent and enduring. Leonard Woolf makes it his first observation about her in Sowing: and it formed the subject of her last conversation with Virginia Woolf during their final meeting at the end of October 1939. ‘Virginia seemed troubled by an absence of any creed as to what was right and what was wrong,’ Beatrice wrote in her diary. ‘This gifted and charming lady, with her classic features, subtle observation and sympathetic style, badly needs a living philosophy.’ Eighteen months later, when the news of Virginia’s suicide reached her, Beatrice remembered Virginia’s words to her. These, she thought, might explain her voluntary withdrawal from life. ‘Can man continue happy without some assured faith as to what should be the right relation of man to man, also of man’s relation to the universe?’ she asked herself.
Beatrice’s notion of the right relation of man to the universe persisted throughout her Fabian career. The Utopians of the 1880s had looked west towards Southern California: Beatrice’s prayers led her eastwards to Soviet Communism. Like many others, she had become disenchanted with a Labour Party that under Ramsay MacDonald had abandoned socialist principles. She had lost faith in that Fabian tenet of progress, ‘the inevitability of gradualness’, and in the Fabian policy of working with a profit-making capitalist system which, as Marx had demonstrated, would inevitably collapse. Advancing across the Continent like a Mediaeval religion, Soviet Communism reached her as an answer to her prayers. It appealed to her emotional needs as well as satisfying her intellectual beliefs, and it gave her many years of ponderous work with Sidney a constructive aspect.
‘I wish Russian Communism to succeed,’ she wrote in 1932. Only when she witnessed a similar process of renewed optimism rising in her friend Bernard Shaw could she be critical about it. After reading his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, she noted that, though he had opened the hearts of fellow socialists, ‘he preaches a curiously abstract utopia, which eludes criticism because of its very unreality.’ It was the unreality of Beatrice’s ideas about the right relation of man to man that had worried Virginia Woolf. Beatrice welcomed the ethic of the collectivist state where the life of the individual was subordinated to the service of the community. Though she claimed that she had ‘ceased to sit in judgment’, she hated what she regarded as the sexual anarchy of the Twenties, and the novels of D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley struck her as being almost subhuman. For she feared the power of the sex instinct. Her affair with Joseph Chamberlain had been unforgettably painful, suggesting perhaps that, far from being an integrated character with no divisions of soul, she was sexually attracted by men to whom she was intellectually hostile. One of the effects of her attachment to Chamberlain had been to delay her conversion to feminism – which eventually came when battling with all those waistcoated men on the Poor Law Commission. Another and contrary effect was to banish all romance from her subsequent life. Her marriage to Sidney, though not without sentiment, was above all things safe: the only threats were illness and death.
This was unlike many of the Bloomsbury liaisons of which Beatrice had heard rumours. Forster had written that ‘no human relationship is constant, it is unstable as the living beings who compose it, and they must balance like jugglers if it is to remain; if it is constant it is no longer a human relationship but a social habit.’ When she read these words Beatrice responded: ‘I prefer a social habit to a personal relationship.’ This preference, it seemed to her, had perfected Sidney’s and her mutual relations.
But Beatrice could not altogether eradicate her sense of beauty. It was this sense of beauty that helped to make her more sympathetic to Virginia Woolf than Virginia was to her. She regarded Virginia as fastidious, supersensitive, and ‘beautiful to look at’. From Beatrice’s point of view, Virginia’s marriage was a success because it represented the penetration of Bloomsbury decadence by Fabian puritanism. Leonard Woolf was in her judgment ‘a saint’: that is to say, a distinguished and intelligent man ‘without vanity or guile, wholly public-spirited’ and mercifully lacking in the ‘humour or brilliancy’ that regularly disconcerted her in Shaw. She saw Leonard as Virginia’s saviour much as Sidney had been hers, and reacted to Virginia’s suicide with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God identification. For Beatrice herself had suffered from chronic melancholy – what she called her ‘indifference to life’. She had come near to suicide when young, and in 1926 confessed that ‘I have always been haunted by the fear of life and in old age one’s fear becomes a more continuous state of mind.’ That she had not killed herself she attributed to the social habit of Sidney, the therapy of prayer, and her eventual faith in the political religion of Communism. ‘But if I were not supremely fortunate in my circumstances would that vague and intermittent faith save me from despair,’ she wondered after the Second World War had started, ‘during these days of death and destruction, by day and by night?’ Virginia Woolf had been less fortunate. Far from representing godless anarchy and hedonism, Bloomsbury was in its fashion as hot for certainties as the Fabians. In Principia Ethica G.E. Moore had tried to prove that the quality of good was an objective reality as identifiable as the colour yellow. With the theory of significant form, Roger Fry and Clive Bell had attempted to reconstruct aesthetics as a science, and beauty as a measurable quality that existed irrespective of the whims of personal opinion. Keynes had even treated the concept of probability as an evidential reality. These were some of the methods by which the generation that followed the Fabians tried to find its gods. Keynes told Beatrice that ‘it is not more bread that people want, it is poetry ... it is not a contented common people, but an aristocracy of intellect and emotions that has to be created.’
The Fabians had tried to set themselves up as the aristocracy of the Labour movement: but it had been an aristocracy of the intellect only. Beatrice responded favourably to Keynes’s intellect. ‘When I look around,’ she wrote, ‘I see no other man who might discover how to control the wealth of nations in the public interest.’ But she doubted whether Keynes, or Bloomsbury, had the public interest at heart. Bloomsbury’s heart was barren. Keynes was contemptuous of the common man and had no imaginative response to Communism, which he diagnosed as a neurosis of immaturity. By such standards Beatrice had merely entered her second childhood. She would have liked to endorse the opinion of Beveridge, who shared her aims and distrusted the mercurial Keynes, whom he called ‘a quack in economics’. But she could not go so far as that. Maynard and Lydia, like Leonard and Virginia, appealed to her suppressed aesthetic sense: they were an attractive couple. She felt about Keynes rather as she felt towards Shaw. He was brilliant and radical and therefore not reliable. She described him as an ‘imaginative forecaster of events and speculative ideas, his mind flashing into the future ... Keynes is not serious about economic problems; he plays a game of chess with it in his leisure hours. The only serious cult with him is aesthetic.’ Though this can be made to sound absurd, it fixes on a truth ignored by economists. Keynes did use his economic expertise to defend the aesthetic values of Bloomsbury. But Beatrice failed to add up Keynes’s qualities correctly, as she had failed to add up Virginia Woolf’s. Games – games of chess, language games – are serious.
In a famous broadcast delivered in 1951, Noel Annan declared that the Twenties, searching for a new way in which to regard conduct, came ‘to see it through the eyes of either Mrs Webb or Mrs Woolf’. That still seems an accurate description of what happened. But from the disadvantage point of the Eighties the response would appear to have been a disastrous mistake. For the real challenge was not a choice between Bloomsbury and the Fabians, but the discovery of a legitimate way of combining what they stood for. After all, why should we not have economic and sexual reform? Why should we think that, because we want a contented people, there should be no more poetry? It is not contradictory to practise socialism at home and competitive capitalism abroad. A thriving literature benefits from a cross-fertilisation between fiction and non-fiction. A sensible society accommodates the expert administrator and the imaginative forecaster. There can be no collective agreement without individual dissent.
Bloomsbury and Fabianism have overlapped. They did so, as I have tried to suggest, in the life and work of Leonard Woolf; they did so within the old New Statesman, a pantomime horse in which the front half was Fabian and the back Bloomsburgian. And they have done so again with the publication of Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie’s fine four-volume edition of Beatrice Webb’s Diaries, published by Virago – which belongs, appropriately enough, to the same family of firms as the Hogarth Press which published Virginia Woolf’s Diaries.But for the most part Bloomsbury and the Fabians have converged only in their joint exclusion from the cultural and political mainstream of Britain. When, in the Twenties, Baldwin declared that he had a horror of clever brains ‘like Keynes and the Webbs’, he spoke for the future. Economists still write technically of Keynes; feminists still quote Virginia Woolf. But in any larger context the aesthetic impulse that they represented has slipped quietly out of life at a time when it might have helped to convert the unemployed into the self-employed. Art has gone the way of religion. We are not more content because of this: we are more divided because we have experienced little radical redistribution of our wealth. The white savages of Britain have renounced the missionary teaching of the Fabians and the civilised tastes represented by Bloomsbury. They have patched up and reassembled the Victorian values we once thought so effectively shattered by Strachey and by Shaw. Only now, as a small and mercifully unimportant country without a powerful empire, we can do little more than caricature those values. We have grown obsessed with money, because we no longer have so much of it. Our attitude is that of an old and fearful person banking it up against death. We have translated ‘efficiency’ to mean profit – the Webbs’ national efficiency into our private profit. And we have replaced the aesthetic with the financial motive, reversing the Keynesian priorities and turning means into ends.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.