Walking through Bloomsbury, the small and elegant area of London surrounding the British Museum, with its quiet squares, majestic Victorian facades and peaceful enclosed gardens, one would never suspect that the “goings on” behind some of these elegant front doors could have scandalised an entire country, and sent shock waves around the world.
It all began in 1904, when Vanessa Stephen, a painter, and her sister, Virginia, an aspiring novelist, began hosting regular meetings for other wealthy young intellectuals at their Bloomsbury home, 46 Gordon Square. The Bloomsbury Group, as it became known, initially revolved around the Cambridge University friends of their brother, Thoby – it included historian Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes, and writers Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf.
Sounds innocent enough, but to understand the outrage they caused you have to remember that they were living at the end of the Victorian era – an age renowned for its straight laced attitude, perhaps best summed up by the Queen’s tight lipped remark that “We are not amused”.
Though Victoria had died in 1901, attitudes were far from liberated, and the group soon began to attract thin lipped displeasure. The early guests invited others, including artist Duncan Grant, who had been sexually involved with both Strachey and Keynes. Within Bloomsbury, these gay men found support for their sexual orientation at a time when the imprisonment of gay playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895 was still a very fresh memory.
It has been observed that the group, which tended to reside, work or study near Bloomsbury “lived in squares, but loved in triangles”. And the triangles generally had a twist to them, demonstrating a sexual freedom and fluidity that was remarkably ahead of their time. Beginning in 1925, Virginia Woolf had a passionate affair with the dashing Vita Sackville-West. In the first flush of romance, Woolf wrote the experimental fantasy Orlando (1927), which argued that love and passion ignore gender, and that gender itself is fluid.
Although Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell, the great love of her life was Duncan Grant, who was primarily gay and had been sexually involved with her brother Adrian. During World War I, they lived together at a country estate with David “Bunny” Garnett, who was a lover of both.
Strachey was gay, but in the early days of Bloomsbury, he proposed marriage to Virginia Stephen. In the 1920s, he lived in platonic bliss with surrealist painter Dora Carrington. When they both fell in love with the same man, Carrington married the object of their mutual desire, and the three set up house together. The cross-dressing Carrington had affairs with women, confiding to a friend that she had “more ecstasy” with female lovers than with men – “and no shame.”
Bloomsbury lost its soul and force when Virginia Woolf, who was plagued by mental illness throughout her life, drowned herself in 1941. So, “what did the Bloomsbury Group ever do for us?” Arty snobs or creative visionaries? Monied idlers or radical Bohemians?
The taunt regularly flung at them is that individually they weren’t up to much as artists, writers and thinkers – whilst there is some spite in this, most agree that they were lightweights. What, after all, did they live for? Colour, warmth, romping children, piles of books, sofas, intellectual debate, music, gossip, hospitality, truthfulness, disorderly gardens and sunlit rooms.
At the end of the day, it would appear that there’s no need to be afraid of Woolves after all. Indeed, they’ve largely become objects derision. None more so than Lady Ottoline Morrell, the Society Hostess who was one of their number. She was mortified to appear, painfully recognisably, in at least a dozen novels, including books by Osbert Sitwell, Aldous Huxley and, most famously, as the domineering and foolish Hermione Roddice in Lawrence’s Women in Love. Some critics believe she was also the model for Lawrence’s most famous heroine, Lady Chatterley. She didn’t have sex in a woodshed, but her fling with “Tiger”, a young stonemason who came to carve plinths for her garden statues, was an open secret among the pathologically gossipy Bloomsburies.
What makes this postscript all the more amusing is the fact that Lady Ottoline was first cousin to Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the mother to the current Queen of England. How amused would Queen Victoria be about that?! But then she herself, it is whispered, had “improper relations” with her servant John Brown (played by Billy Connolly in the TV drama “Mrs Brown”).