No Clapping

Rosemary Hill

  • The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club by S.P. Rosenbaum, edited by James Haule
    Palgrave, 203 pp, £20.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 1 137 36035 9

‘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.

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