The Bloomsbury Group was an English collectivity of loving friends and relatives who lived in or near London during the first half of the twentieth century. Their work deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. Its best known members were Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. The group actually began as a social clique: a few recent Cambridge graduates and their closest friends would assemble on few nights a week for some drinks and conversation.
Almost everything about Bloomsbury appears to be controversial, including its membership and name. It is now widely accepted, however, that the group initially consisted of the novelists and essayists Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Mary MacCarthy, the biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, the painters Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry, and the critics of literature, art, and politics, Strachey, Fry, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell, and Leonard Woolf.
Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were sisters, and their brothers, the older Thoby and the younger Adrian, were also original members of the group, as were some other Cambridge figures such as the enigmatic Saxon Sydney-Turner. Lytton Strachey and Duncan Grant - later Vanessa’s partner - were cousins. During the earlier years of the group’s history there were various affairs among the individuals. Most of the members lived for considerable periods of time in the West Central 1 district of London known as Bloomsbury, and ‘group’ seems to be the best general term to describe the nature of their association, which was not merely social as the terms ‘circle’ or ‘set’ may imply.
A remarkable historical feature of these friends and relations is that their close relationships all predated their fame as writers, artists, and thinkers. Yet close friends, brothers, sisters, and even sometimes partners of the friends were not necessarily members of Bloomsbury. Lytton Strachey’s companion the painter Dora Carrington was never a member; Keynes’s wife Lydia Lopokova was only reluctantly accepted into the group. Other members seemed to be socialite and society hostessLady Ottoline Morrell, Virginia Woolf's long term loverVita Sackville-West, Arthur Waley, and others mentioned in Woolf's letters and diaries.
Essentialist definers of Bloomsbury have sometimes questioned the existence of the group. Yet the lives and works of the group show an overlapping, interconnected similarity of ideas and attitudes that helped to keep the friends and relatives of the group together. Their convictions about the nature of consciousness and its relation to external nature, about the fundamental separateness of individuals that involves both isolation and love, about the human and non-human nature of time and death, and about the ideal goods of truth love and beauty – all these underlie the group’s dissatisfaction with capitalism and its wars of imperialism. These Bloomsbury assumptions also inform their criticism of materialistic realism in painting and fiction as well as Bloomsbury’s attacks on their society’s repressive practices of sexual inequality, and their attempts to establish a new social order based upon liberation from the restrictive norms of established society. Love was held in higher esteem than monogamy, and several of the members had more than one serious relationship simultaneously, in the spirit of what came to be known as "polifidelity" later in the 20th century. (term attributed to Nicholas Albery, author of "The Book of Social Inventions")
The Bloomsbury Group came from mostly upper middle-class professional families. E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell had small independent incomes. Others such as Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, the MacCarthys, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry needed to work for their livings. Only Clive Bell could be called wealthy. All the male members of the early Bloomsbury Group except Duncan Grant were educated at the Cambridge colleges of Trinity College or King’s College. At Trinity in 1899 Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Saxon Sydney-Turner and Clive Bell became good friends with Thoby Stephen, who introduced them to his sisters Vanessa and Virginia in London, and in this way the Bloomsbury Group came into being. All the Cambridge men except Clive Bell and the Stephen brothers were also members of the secret undergraduate society known as the Cambridge Apostles; there they met older members such as Desmond MacCarthy and Roger Fry as well as E. M. Forster and J. M. Keynes, who were all from King’s College. Through the Apostles Bloomsbury also encountered the analytic philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell who were revolutionizing British philosophy at the turn of the century. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903) provided Bloomsbury with a moral philosophy that fundamentally differentiated intrinsic from instrumental value. Distinguishing between ethical end and means was a commonplace of ethics, but what made Principia Ethica so important for Bloomsbury was Moore’s conception of intrinsic worth. For Moore intrinsic value depended on an unanalysable intuition of good and a concept of complex states of mind whose worth as a whole was not proportionate to the sum of its parts. The greatest goods for Moore and Bloomsbury were ideals of personal relations and aesthetic appreciation. But more important than these for the group’s values was the recurrent questioning of human behaviour in terms of instrumental means and intrinsic ends.
When they came down from college, the men of Cambridge began to meet the women of Bloomsbury through the Stephen family. Thoby’s premature death in 1906 brought them more firmly together. Lytton Strachey became a close friend of the Stephen sisters as did Duncan Grant through his affairs with Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, and Adrian Stephen. Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1907, and Leonard Woolf returned from the Ceylon Civil Service to marry Virginia in 1912. Cambridge Apostle friendships brought into the group Desmond MacCarthy, his wife Molly, and E. M. Forster. Except for Forster, who published three novels before the highly successful Howards End in 1910, the group were late developers. It was also in 1910 that Roger Fry joined the group. His notorious post-impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 involved Bloomsbury in a second revolution following on the Cambridge philosophical one. This time the Bloomsbury painters were much involved and influenced. Bloomsbury was also part of Fry’s extension of post-impressionism into the decorative arts with his Omega Workshops, which lasted until 1920. Bloomsbury artists rejected the traditional distinction between fine and decorative art, as can be seen at Charleston Farmhouse near Lewes in Sussex where Vanessa Bell, her children and Duncan Grant moved in 1916 for the rest of their lives. (Charleston is now opened to visitors, as is the Rodmell cottage the Woolfs moved to in 1919, now owned by the National Trust.)
The establishment’s hostility to post-impressionism made Bloomsbury controversial, and controversial they have remained. Clive Bell polemicized post-impressionism in his widely read book Art (1914), basing his aesthetics partly on Roger Fry’s art criticism and G. E. Moore’s moral philosophy. The campaign for women’s suffrage added to the controversial nature of Bloomsbury, as Virginia Woolf and some but not all members of the group perceived the connections between the politics of capitalism, imperialism, gender and aesthetics.
Old Bloomsbury’s development was shattered along with just about everything else in modernist culture by the First World War. None of the men fought in the war. Most but not all of them were conscientious objectors, which of course added to the group’s controversies. Politically the members of Bloomsbury were divided between liberalism and socialism, as can be seen in the respective careers and writings of Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf. But they were united in their opposition to the government that involved them in the war and then in an impermanent peace.
Though the war dispersed Old Bloomsbury, the individuals continued to develop their careers. E. M. Forster followed his successful novels with Maurice which he could not publish because it treated homosexuality untragically. In 1915 Virginia Woolf finally brought out her first novel, which was influenced by Forster’s Edwardian fiction. And in 1917 the Woolfs founded their Hogarth Press, which would publish T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and many others including Virginia herself along with the standard English translations of Freud. Then in 1918 Lytton Strachey published his critique of Victorianism in the shape of four ironic biographies. Biography has never been the same since. Eminent Victorians added, of course, to the arguments around Bloomsbury which continue to this day. The immediate impact of Strachey’s art on Bloomsbury’s books appeared in J. M. Keynes’s influential attack the next year on the Versailles Peace Treaty.
In March 1920 Molly MacCarthy began a club to help Desmond and herself write their memoirs and also to bring the members of Old Bloomsbury back together. The comedy of a group of friends in their forties reading one another their memoirs was not lost on Bloomsbury. Many of the ensuing memoirs, such as Virginia Woolf on her Hyde Park Gate home and Maynard Keynes on his early beliefs, are ironic in ways not always recognized by later commentators. The Memoir Club testifies to the continuing cohesion of Bloomsbury. For the next thirty years they came together in irregular meetings to write about the memories they shared in growing up together, at college, and later in Bloomsbury. The members of The Memoir Club were not quite equivalent to those of Old Bloomsbury, however; the club did not include Adrian Stephen, for example, or Sydney-Turner, who certainly belonged to Old Bloomsbury. Yet all but one of the other members belonged to Old Bloomsbury, and indeed Old Bloomsbury itself became a popular subject for the Club’s memoirs.
The 1920s were in a number of ways the blooming of Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf was writing and publishing her most widely-read modernist novels and essays, E. M. Forster completed A Passage to India which remains the most highly regarded novel on English imperialism in India. Forster wrote no more novels but he became one of England’s most influential essayists. Duncan Grant then Vanessa Bell had single-artist exhibitions. Lytton Strachey wrote his biographies of two Queens, Victoria then Elizabeth (and Essex). Desmond MacCarthy and Leonard Woolf engaged in friendly rivalry as literary editors, respectively of the New Statesman and the Nation and Athenaeum, thus fuelling animosities that saw Bloomsbury dominating the cultural scene. Roger Fry wrote and lectured widely on art, while Clive Bell applied Bloomsbury values to his book Civilization (1928), which Leonard Woolf saw as limited and elitist. Leonard, who had helped formulate proposals for the League of Nations during the war, offered his own views on the subject in Imperialism and Civilization (1928). In many respects throughout its history Bloomsbury’s most incisive critics came from within.
In the darkening 1930s Bloomsbury began to die. A year after publishing a collection of brief lives, Portraits in Miniature (1931), Lytton Strachey died; shortly afterwards Carrington shot herself. Roger Fry, who had become England’s greatest art critic, died in 1934. Vanessa and Clive’s eldest son, Julian Bell, was killed in 1937 while driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. Virginia Woolf wrote Fry’s biography but with the coming of war again her mental instability recurred, and she drowned herself in 1941. In the previous decade she had become one of the century’s most famous feminist writer with three more novels, and a series of essays including the moving late memoir “Sketch of the Past”, It was also in the Thirties that Desmond MacCarthy became perhaps the most widely read – and heard - literary critic with his columns in The Sunday Times and his broadcasts with the BBC. John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) made him the century’s most influential economist. He died in 1946 after being much involved in monetary negotiations with the United States.
The diversity yet collectivity of Later Bloomsbury’s ideas and achievements can be summed up in a series of credos that were done in 1938, the year of Munich. Virginia Woolf published her radical feminist polemic Three Guineas that shocked some of her fellow members including Keynes who had enjoyed the gentler A Room of One’s Own (1929). Keynes read his famous but decidedly more conservative memoir My Early Beliefs to The Memoir Club. Clive Bell published an appeasement pamphlet (he later supported the war), and E. M. Forster wrote an early version of his famous essay “What I Believe” with its choice, still shocking for some, of personal relations over patriotism.
The Memoir Club continued meeting intermittently until Clive Bell’s death in 1964. Younger members of the group and the club included the writer David Garnett, and later his wife Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Her half-brother the artist and writer Quentin Bell eventually became then club’s secretary, and later wrote his aunt’s biography. Sister and brother wrote very different memoirs about Bloomsbury, Angelica’s being Deceived by Kindness (1984) and Quentin’s Elders and Betters (1995). Among other younger members were Lytton’s niece the writer Julia Strachey, and the diarist Frances Partridge who had married into Lytton Strachey’s ménage in the thirties.
Following Virginia’s suicide (she put stones in here pockets and walked into the river and drowned)Leonard Woolf began editing collections of her writings including a selection from her diaries. A Writer’s Diary (1953) which revealed publicly for the first time what the Bloomsbury Group had been like. Leonard’s own volumes of autobiography in the 1960s (he died in 1969) gave the fullest account, but he remained reticent about the sexual lives of the members, as had the excerpts from Virginia’s diary. Subsequent biographies of Strachey then Virginia Woolf, Forster, Keynes, Fry, Vanessa Bell, oand Grant removed all veils. Indeed much of the interest in Bloomsbury has become biographically driven, as compared to interest in their work by schlars and general readers. The case of Virginia Woolf provides an example. There have now been more than half a dozen biographies of her, yet a good deal of the basic scholarship of locating and editing her work remains unfinished; significant unpublished writings of hers are still being found in libraries.
And of course controversy continues to accompany Bloomsbury wherever it goes. The first extensive exhibition of Bloomsbury’s painters, mounted at the Tate Gallery in 1999-2000, was highly popular with the public but attacked by almost all of the professional reviewers. Much criticism of Bloomsbury continues to center on the group’s class origins, their elitism, their satire, their atheism, their oppositional politics and liberal economics, their non-abstract art, their modernist fiction, their unacademic criticism, and their non-nuclear family and sexual arrangements.
The Bloomsbury Group has featured in many works of fiction, including, notably, Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" and Susan Sellers' "Vanessa and Virginia".
- Bell, Quentin, Bloomsbury (new edition, 1986).
- The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary, ed. S. P. Rosenbaum (revised edition, 1995).
- A Bloomsbury Group Reader, ed. S. P. Rosenbaum (1993).
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
- Reed, Christopher, Bloomsbury Rooms (2004).
- Shone, Richard, Bloomsbury Portraits (1976).
- LGBT social movements
- Opposition to World War I
- Roy Campbell who attacked the group in The Georgiad(1931)
Cultural Bloomsbury today