‘It will not have escaped such an audience as this that Sex played a large part in my uncle’s life.’ E.M. Forster was addressing an early meeting of the Bloomsbury Group’s Memoir Club, and was reading a paper about his closest male relation, the disliked, unmissed and now dead Uncle Willie. The evidence for Sex lay somewhere in William Forster’s unhappy, ‘morbid’ marriage, his growing irritability and an obscure triangular relationship with his wife and a young woman called Leontine Chipman, nicknamed Canada. After Willie’s death his widow Emily and Canada lived happily ever after, until Emily died leaving everything to Canada and nothing to Forster, who was disappointed. The domestic and sexual permutations would have caused no consternation among listeners who included Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell. Nor, perhaps, would Forster’s own discomfort with the question of Sex, which played a large, complicated part in his own life: ‘You work it out,’ his essay goes on: ‘I can’t so well.’ Increasingly anguished by the implications of his homosexuality, he was, as S.P. Rosenbaum points out, the only member of this densely interconnected group who hadn’t slept with any of the others. The extent to which his uncle’s mysterious difficulties were a caricature of his own would not have escaped them.
From its first meeting in March 1920 the Memoir Club was on the lookout for incidental self-revelation. On that occasion there were seven speakers. It was ‘highly interesting’, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, adding: ‘Lord knows what I didn’t read into their reading.’ Supposedly a secret society, it largely remained so until after the Second World War. The first and most enduring members were Molly and Desmond MacCarthy, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, the Woolfs, Lytton Strachey and Forster. Mary Hutchinson and Sydney Waterlow were also invited but fell by the wayside. Even by Bloomsbury standards it was an exclusive set. The members were all related by blood or marriage or, which weighed more heavily with some of them, by friendships formed as Cambridge undergraduates. As they aged and became in varying degrees public figures, the club offered privacy. It held all the comforts and the terrors of intimacy. Forster was always ambivalent about it. His memoir of his experiences in Egypt and his love for Mohammed el Adl were not read to the club, though his Indian recollections were, and left, Virginia Woolf thought, rather too little to the imagination. She herself, after the second club meeting, at the Bells’ house in Gordon Square, was on the receiving end of the club’s interest and regretted it: ‘Why did I read this egotistic sentimental trash! … What possessed me to lay bare my soul!’ Yet in various forms and with a shifting membership the club survived until Clive Bell’s death in 1964.
Some of the papers it heard are now lost and most that survive have been published among their authors’ other works. Rosenbaum’s project, left unfinished at his death in 2012, was to reconstruct as far as possible the club’s history and to republish the existing papers in a single accompanying volume. He got no further than outlining the first part of the historical section but while far from complete, his notes make a convincing case for reconsidering the memoirs in context, as a group of essays with internal connections and, especially in the early years, as a response to a particular historical moment. Much is irrecoverable. Talk, as Woolf wrote in one of her contributions, is ephemeral, ‘even talk of this interest and importance is as elusive as smoke. It flies up the chimney and is gone.’ Much of the club’s atmosphere has inevitably evaporated: silences, tones of voice, the laughter which greeted the beginning of Woolf’s first paper and abruptly died away into what she construed as ‘a kind of uncomfortable boredom’. And then there are the things that were not said because too obvious and already known. For all of which, in reconstructing as far as possible the order of the papers, considering who was listening as well as who was speaking, Rosenbaum’s outline, supported by James Haule’s editorial framework, puts together an interesting picture.
One account of the club’s origins has it that Molly MacCarthy wanted to find a way of forcing her husband, an incorrigible procrastinator, to produce something. On this front it was a failure: Desmond never wrote his memoirs. Once when it seemed that he was reading to the club from a manuscript contained in a dispatch case on his knees, it transpired, when he dropped the case, that it was empty. The great leather-bound ledger Woolf donated for the club records was similarly found years later to be blank. It was clearly not procedure that made the group endure. The scope for subject matter was elastic; papers might be autobiographical or biographical and treat of historic or recent events. The most important rule was complete frankness, which, since it applied to audience as well as authors, was only erratically observed.
As Haule remarks, ‘it was no place to go for comfort or support, certainly not applause.’ The members were competitive and often disinclined to see the merits of one another’s approaches. Clive Bell and Keynes were mutually antipathetic, Bell irritated by the ‘cocksure economist’ and Keynes patronising to the rakish, ‘gay dog’ critic. Keynes also mortified Woolf by telling her that her memoir of George Duckworth, later published as 22 Hyde Park Gate, was the best thing she had ever done. He advised her bluffly to carry on in that vein, ‘write about real people & make it all up’, causing her to reflect that ‘if George is my climax I’m a mere scribbler.’ She in turn found Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace remarkable as ‘a book that influences the world without being in the least a work of art’, concluding with a shrug: ‘a work of morality, I suppose.’
What held them together was the shared experience of decades and the indefinable but indisputable Bloomsbury cast of mind. If the club did not always fulfil the need Woolf felt to ‘believe your impressions hold for others’, it must have done so more often than any other audience she faced. For most of the members, except the underperforming Desmond MacCarthy, there was a habit of memoir-writing somewhere in the background either in their families or in their membership of the Apostles. Rosenbaum locates the club’s origins with the Apostles, whose meetings were similarly exclusive and committed to frankness. It was there that the young Lytton Strachey, part of a vast family that was in a constant state of self-memorialisation, first demonstrated his precocious biographical talent. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell grew up in the heavy shadow of their father, Leslie Stephen, who was not only the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, but also the author of a private memoir his children called the Mausoleum Book, written for his family after the death of his wife. Keynes’s mother had written a similar family book, Fry’s father had published an autobiography.
When it was founded the members of the club were approaching mid-life, the usual time for reminiscence to set in. In 1920 they were all in their late thirties and early forties, with the exception of Fry, who was much the oldest at 54. What Rosenbaum’s reconstruction of their early meetings reveals is that the loudest silence, the thing barely mentioned because so all-pervasive, was the First World War. While none of the papers directly addressed the experience of the war, it was not merely the background to the club’s formation, it marked in itself a stage in the life of Bloomsbury. Though for the most part they were only in early middle age, the founding members often felt older, for they were all children of the 19th century. They dated, as Forster wrote in a memoir of Woolf, from a time when ‘the earth was still horizontal and the buildings perpendicular.’ Now, they were ‘sharply cut off’ in Woolf’s own phrase, ‘alienated … from the past and … perhaps too vividly conscious of the present’. As writers they sensed a severing of the arteries of literary tradition; the authors of the prewar years inhabited another world: ‘It seemed to them that they were to go on living like that, and writing like that, for ever and ever. Then suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, the war came.’
Bloomsbury was interestingly and at times uncomfortably placed across the chasm. As an idea it was, if not middle-aged, then certainly no longer young. It was by now talked of, Woolf noted, variously admired, derided and defined, ‘in newspapers, in novels, in Germany, in France – even I daresay in Turkey and Timbuktu’ and yet it, too, was a product of the unimaginably distant past before 1914, the last years of the distended 19th century. The aura of the Stephens’ home at 22 Hyde Park Gate still hung about the club and Woolf’s paper on her childhood and Strachey’s on his, the complementary ‘Lancaster Gate’, were among the first to be read. In their accounts of the households in which they had grown up they returned to the ‘tangled and matted emotion’ of their earliest memories. The bloated houses, heaving with large, complicated families and hemmed in by dark and heavy furniture, were revisited, the impacted feelings teased out. As biographers they were after the ‘atmosphere’ that was for Strachey ‘the significance of a personal history’ rather than a mere ‘vulgar succession’ of events. As adults who had succeeded in escaping their parents, they looked back on the social order they had wanted to overturn, to find it not merely toppled but utterly destroyed, and they looked back with ambivalence.
The gulf made by the war was in one sense a defence, a historical moat. Safe on the far side Bloomsbury could reflect on the 19th century, knowing it was finally over, and from that distance revolve Strachey’s ‘riddle of the Victorian age’ with more forgiveness. In August 1914, in the course of anatomising Matthew Arnold in the New Statesman (‘He might … have done some excellent and lasting work upon the movement of glaciers … But no; he would be a critic’), Strachey had reflected that the
Age of Victoria … has the odd attractiveness of something which is at once very near and very far off; it is like one of those queer fishes that one sees behind glass at an aquarium, before whose grotesque proportions and sombre menacing agilities one hardly knows whether to laugh or to shudder; when once it has caught one’s eye, one cannot tear oneself away.
His Eminent Victorians was published just before the Armistice in 1918. A knocking down of shibboleths, human and literary, a blowing apart of the ‘lives of great men’ school of biography, it was his own war effort.
By the time the Memoir Club was formed neither the Age of Victoria nor Strachey’s youth were so mesmerisingly close. ‘Lancaster Gate’ is a compound of relief, regret and a certain tenderness, evoked in the opening by Strachey’s account of a recurring dream. In it he is once more in the house at Lancaster Gate. Asleep he is ‘positively delighted’ to be back even though ‘in my waking life, I have never for a moment, so far as I am aware, regretted our departure … and if … we were to return to it, I can imagine nothing which would disgust me more.’ So on waking he is relieved to find that the happiness he felt a minute before in the dream is an illusion. It is a brilliantly economical image of reminiscence. To be in and out of the past, to revisit, as a guest, what seemed at the time to be only ‘restriction and oppression’, is one of the pleasures of memory and autobiography, made possible by the certainty of escape. That ‘perhaps too vivid’ consciousness of the present in the interwar years gave the club the ideal vantage point for retrospection, as individuals and as a group. In 1928, in her paper ‘Old Bloomsbury’, Woolf wrote with an elegiac air of the ‘lustre and illusion’ of ‘those last years before the war’, ending with a note of defensiveness about the brave new world that was no longer new: ‘Old Bloomsbury still survives. If you seek a proof – look around.’
‘Lancaster Gate’ and 22 Hyde Park Gate both end in bedrooms, Strachey finding the naked Duncan Grant in his and deciding not to do ‘what the opportunity so perfectly offered’, Woolf surprised in hers by her half-brother George Duckworth, two moments on the threshold of adult experience characterised by ambiguity. When it came to considering historic lives the club members found themselves similarly attracted to fracture, to lives that spanned historic divides and the psychological consequences. Of Isaac Newton, some of whose papers he owned, Keynes wrote that he
was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago … in vulgar modern terms Newton was profoundly neurotic of a not unfamiliar type, but – I should say from the records – a most extreme example … In these mixed and extraordinary studies, with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot treading a path for modern science, Newton spent the first phase of his life … in Trinity when he did all his real work.
Strachey found something of the same attraction in Newton’s older contemporary, the biographer John Aubrey. Strachey saw himself as the product of an ‘embryonic generation’ almost as remote now from the Victorians as Aubrey had been from the Middle Ages, yet as Aubrey was haunted by the lost world of medieval magic, so Strachey and the other club members heard the echoes of the 19th century. Rosenbaum does not make enough allowance for these nuances in Bloomsbury’s shifting view of its own past. Max Beerbohm, writing about Strachey in 1943, 11 years after his death, warned of the danger that he would come to be seen merely as a ‘debunker’ and that this was ‘not only vulgar [but] silly’. To some extent the fear has proved justified. Strachey’s caricatures have been taken literally, his legacy sometimes coarsened to cliché. Rosenbaum writes, for example, that ‘the Victorian essence of the Frys’ family life may be conveyed by the fact that none of his six sisters married’ without pausing to consider how lifelong spinsters and large families can both characterise the ‘essence’ of Victorianism.
Writing in 1928 about Macaulay, Strachey gave a better sense of his own modus operandi when he said that the important qualities of a historian were to have ‘a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them and a point of view’. A point of view, he went on, ‘by no means implies sympathy. One might almost say that it implies the reverse. At any rate it is curious to observe how many instances there are of great historians who have been at daggers drawn with their subjects.’
The compound of sympathy and antipathy in the Bloomsbury Club memoirs is what makes them rich. They bristle with points of view, daggers are often drawn. Between them the club’s first members created a conspectus of biography in all its varieties, as memoir, confession and history. That as a form, biography should have held such an appeal for a group among whom only Strachey could be characterised primarily as a biographer, was also, surely, a factor of the historic moment. To a generation that felt itself to belong to two centuries and increasingly to be living entre deux guerres, it had a particular appeal. In 1940, when the second war had finally come, Woolf wrote that the thing that would ‘survive … and cross the gulf’, was English literature, a claim that can be made with particular force for the literature of biography. The lives of individuals continue when social systems, moral orders and intellectual certainties are overturned, and it is within personal experience that the consequences are played out.
How far a character may endure through different ages is the theme of Orlando. Keynes’s preface to his published Essays in Biography is frank about its purpose, to establish ‘the solidarity and historical continuity of the High Intelligentsia of England, who have built up the foundations of our thought in the two and a half centuries since Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, wrote the first modern English book.’ Newton and Aubrey bestrode the fissures of their age and survived, although in Keynes’s account the Newton who found it easy ‘to drop the 17th century behind him and to evolve into the 18th-century figure which is the traditional Newton’, who lived in London and grew fat, was not the genius. That was the earlier, mystic Newton, who inhabited both worlds, ‘Copernicus and Faustus in one’.
From the continuities of divided lives to the multiple facets of biography itself was a short step and the form, its history and its practitioners were another constant interest of the club. Montaigne and Aubrey appealed to them, but in the Bloomsbury sense, as Woolf wrote in ‘The Leaning Tower’, it was ‘less than two hundred years since people took an interest in themselves’. They were the heirs of Boswell, the proto-romantic, chronicler of the details of outer and inner life. Boswell was Strachey’s heroic alter ego, whom he admired, as Michael Holroyd wrote, ‘for all the qualities they did not share’ and also as an ur-Bloomsbury épateur of literary and social convention. It would be difficult, Strachey thought, to find ‘a more shattering refutation of the lessons of cheap morality than the life of James Boswell’. The age of Boswell gave way to the age of the character sketch. Macaulay’s, ‘like steel engravings – unsatisfactory compromises between a portrait in oils and a realistic snapshot’, disappointed Strachey. Then came the age of biography as euphemism; the pious memorials, so often written by daughters, were the ‘Lifes’ Forster thought should be called ‘deaths’, ‘monuments of piety’ of the sort with which Bloomsbury had grown up and which Strachey so effectively turned into a coconut shy for knocking down.
After Eminent Victorians the form was plastic once again. Rosenbaum is surprisingly uninterested in Flush and Woolf’s witty variations on the theme of biographical convention. The story of Elizabeth Barrett’s spaniel begins with his enormously long pedigree and ends with acknowledgment of the ‘very few’ authorities on which the book is based. What lies between more or less follows Keynes’s advice by taking real people (and a real animal) and making up most of the rest. Flush was rated by Forster ‘a complete success … doggie without being silly’ and exemplifying the Strachean requirement by having a unique point of view, in this case regarding ‘high poetic personages’ from the ‘altitude of the carpet or the sofa-foot’.
Keynes took his own advice so far as to talk about the ‘plot’ of his memoirs. His paper, described by Leonard Woolf as ‘a kind of secret appendix’ to The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was in two parts, the second of which, later published as ‘Dr Melchior: A Defeated Enemy’, was the longest ever read to the club, and recounted his experiences at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. His characters were as important as his plot and Virginia Woolf congratulated him on their vividness. Some were acutely drawn, like Admiral ‘Rosie’ Wemyss with his ‘comical, quizzical face and a single eye-glass’, who baffled the Germans and left them uncertain whether he was ‘half-witted and imbecile’ or ‘playing a game with them far cleverer than anything conceivable’, an English type which, Keynes predicted, would continue ‘to the end of history’ to baffle Central Europe.
The memoir was perhaps more of a safety valve than an appendix to the public account he had given in Economic Consequences. It shows him, as Leonard Woolf put it, ‘writing in his shirtsleeves for … friends’. There were cartoon sketches – of a German officer like a broken umbrella – and some daring theatrical effects. A passage he omitted from the published version ironically dramatises Woolf’s conception of English literature as the force that can override historical events. In the melancholy Gothic villa at Spa, with its heavy decor and dense surrounding woods, where some of the negotiations took place, the ominous Wagnerian overtones, Keynes reports, are driven out when the English arrive supported by the rival forces of Jane Austen: ‘Miss Bates had vanquished Brünnhilde, and Mr Weston’s foot was firmly planted on the neck of Wotan.’ Dr Melchior himself, somewhat to Rosenbaum’s puzzlement, plays little part in the memoir and is entirely absent from The Economic Consequences of the Peace, all of which is quite consonant with his function as a literary device, which surely he is, acting as hinge in an account of the private experience of public events.
If Keynes was a bravura performer and Woolf and Strachey post-impressionists specialising in still lifes and interiors, Forster was the club’s mosaicist, tweezering each detail into place. In his introduction to the Life of George Crabbe by his son, he delicately draws out the virtues of an amateur, unwilling and now almost forgotten biographer. The younger Crabbe, lacking confidence in his ability to write his father’s life, had been ‘assisted’ by Lockhart, son-in-law and biographer of Walter Scott and what Forster calls ‘the ubiquitous Scot of his generation’, as if every generation is fated to have one. Lockhart introduced mistakes and changed things in the general direction of those ‘lives of the great [which] are usually unreadable because everything is on an enormous scale’. Despite which Crabbe managed to cling to his own modest tastes. He and his father cared about little things; ‘he liked to hear how once his father had not known how to put on a shirt, and his father liked to tell him; they had sat gossiping over their study-fires for years, so that the pudding is stuffed, as it were, with plums and nuts and other edible oddments which give it the pleasantest flavour.’ Thus Forster tucks an affectionate miniature life of the son into the father’s with a sense of justice done. In the end the younger Crabbe had, he concluded, ‘a good general grasp of his father’s character; he presented it rather too favourably, as we shall see, but he did present his father’s character and not some one else’s.’
Whose character is being presented in a biography, and whether character or narrative is to be the motive force and to what extent all biography is autobiography were questions that the Memoir Club – in the days before ‘life-writing’ became an academic discipline – enjoyed both in and out of club meetings, which proceeded by fits and starts. Fairly frequent for the first two years, there was then a hiatus before they resumed in 1928. Rosenbaum’s incomplete outline more or less ends at that point so the club’s later history remains to be written in detail. No doubt it will have its interest but inevitably the energy that first drove it sputtered somewhat. Some things remained constant. Vanessa’s son Quentin Bell complained to Desmond MacCarthy in 1948 that ‘Morgan has started resigning from the Memoir Club again.’ The following year the publication of Keynes’s Two Memoirs began the process of making the club’s existence known to the world. As Bloomsbury passed from middle into old age, the younger generations reflected on the older and the older looked further back on themselves. Vanessa Bell read Keynes’s letters to her at a meeting in 1957, until eventually the last days of Bloomsbury faded gently into its afterlife as literary history.