. . . it was exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of a renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth, we were the forerunners of a new dispensation….
—John Maynard Keynes, in “My Early Beliefs” (1938)

Bloomsbury, like Clapham, was a coterie. It was exclusive and clannish. It regarded outsiders as unconverted .... Remarks which did not show that grace had descended upon the utterer were met with killing silence .... Like Clapham, Bloomsbury had discovered a new creed: the same exhilaration filled the air, the same conviction that a new truth had been disclosed, a new Kingdom conquered.
—Noel Annan, in Leslie Stephen (1952)

It is startling now to be reminded that as recently as 1968—a year that saw a great many changes in our cultural life—Bloomsbury could still be described, without fear of contradiction, as “unfashionable.” In fact it was so described by Michael Holroyd in the mammoth biography of Lytton Strachey which he published that year. Yet no sooner was the pronouncement made but Bloomsbury was suddenly all the rage again, and it was no doubt Mr. Holroyd’s biography which set this great reversal in motion. There is no reason, however, to suppose that Mr. Holroyd deliberately set out to achieve so large a goal. According to his own testimony, anyway, his original intention was far more modest.[1] Yet the consequences of his immense biographical enterprise proved to be fateful indeed. Bloomsbury was triumphantly restored to literary fashion, and a not inconsiderable revolution in taste was launched on a course which shows no sign of abatement these sixteen years later. The time for a revival of the Bloomsbury ethos was riper, perhaps, than even Mr. Holroyd had quite understood at the time.

It tells us much, I think, that Mr. Holroyd set out to write one kind of book and ended by writing a book of a very different kind. For in the changes that overtook his task in the course of its realization we are given a key to the larger revival which his book was crucial in inaugurating. His original plan, he tells us, was to write “a revaluation of Strachey’s place as a serious historian.” This, not surprisingly, proved to be a futile endeavor. By no tenable standard, either then or now, could a case be made for Lytton Strachey as “a serious historian.” He had never been that kind of writer, and any attempt to portray him as such was therefore doomed from the outset. Bertrand Russell—not exactly an unfriendly witness—was only stating the obvious when he observed that Strachey was “indifferent to historical truth.”[2] This did not mean that Strachey was a figure without interest, however. Far from it. Only that the focus of interest, at this distance in time, would lie less in what Strachey wrote than in what he was. It was precisely this discovery which, when he finally made it, opened up Mr. Holroyd’s subject for him. Thenceforth his project followed an unimpeded course. “I had come to the conclusion,” he writes, “that Strachey was one of those historians whose work was so personal that it could only be illuminated by some biographical commentary.” This was the crucial turn, not only in the writing of Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography but in the revival of Bloomsbury itself. Not criticism but biography was to be the foundation on which this revival would be based.

This is in itself a development worth pondering. Literary and artistic revivals, while always answering to some need or desire of the historical moment in which they are brought forth, vary greatly in the purposes they are destined to serve. They are by no means uniform either in their appeal or in their function. The great revival of seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry initiated by T. S. Eliot in the early decades of this century, for example, had virtually nothing to do with a biographical interest in the poets themselves. It was strictly critical and creative—the work of a poet seeking to recover a tradition that would nourish and support the artistic aims of his own poetry. Eliot took an entire generation of poets and critics with him in his revisionist view of the English poetic tradition, and decisively changed the history as well as the historiography of literature in the process. When new biographical studies of the Metaphysical poets came to be written, they were produced as a result of this literary revival—they were not its cause.

Precisely the opposite has been the case with the Bloomsbury revival. It is biography which has set the pace of this revival and provided its principal texts and pretexts. The large body of criticism inspired by the revival—to the extent, that is, that it may be regarded as criticism at all—has remained, for the most part, closely tethered to the biographical mode, taking its cues from the lives rather than from the works of the group’s major and minor figures. In part, of course, this turnabout is yet another reflection of the precipitous decline of criticism that began to make itself felt in the Sixties—at the very moment, in fact, when the fortunes of Bloomsbury were beginning to be revived. Looking back, it can now be seen that the one development was a necessary prerequisite to the other. Criticism, after all, addresses itself to achievement, whereas biography is chiefly concerned with character and circumstance. Criticism creates standards; biography—as it is currently practiced, anyway—creates idols (or else topples them). Criticism deals with the accomplishments of mind, biography with the vicissitudes of the heart. Can there be any doubt as to which of these the champions of Bloomsbury are primarily interested in? We all know (or we should) that there are great biographies which transcend these distinctions—biographies which are governed by a clear critical intelligence. But they have been remarkable for their rarity in every generation since Dr. Johnson wrote his Lives of the Poets, and few indeed can be found in the proliferating biographical literature on Bloomsbury. The latter, on the contrary, has tended to specialize in the creation of idols and to avoid the kind of disinterested judgment which it is one of the essential tasks of criticism to perform.

Lytton Strachey is far from being the only member of the Bloomsbury group to benefit from this changed relation of criticism to biography—though in his case it proved to be indispensable to the rehabilitation of his reputation, for it is unlikely that he would any longer be read at all if not for the biographical luster conferred upon him by Mr. Holroyd’s “Life” and the succession of Bloomsbury biographies which have followed in its wake. No less a figure than Virginia Woolf, surely the best writer (though not, I think, the finest mind) in the group, has enjoyed an even more spectacular benefit from this drastically altered perspective. For it is not Woolf’s novels which are primarily responsible for the radical elevation of her reputation in recent years, but the many volumes of Diaries and Letters and memoirs that have been added to Quentin Bell’s avowedly uncritical biography to form a literary edifice which so overshadows the fiction that the latter is now largely read (and admired!) as a gloss on the life of its author. Prior to this outpouring of biographical revelation, Woolf’s novels could claim a certain following, to be sure, but they cannot be said to have won anything remotely approaching the acclaim and adulation which are nowadays routinely lavished upon even the least of them. Nor was it (as it is sometimes claimed) only the contributors to Scrutiny who found Virginia Woolf seriously deficient as a novelist. This tended to be the judgment of the best critics writing on both sides of the Atlantic for decades prior to the present revival. There may be reason to quarrel with certain aspects of this critical consensus, but it must be recognized that it was a consensus and that it represented a considered judgment of the novels. It did not duck the task of critical judgment by taking refuge in factitious interpretations of the troubled life of the woman who wrote them.

Where biography is given such radical priority over criticism, the actual accomplishments of a writer or artist are inevitably placed at an intellectual discount, if indeed they are not rendered altogether superfluous. And it follows from this practice that a lack of significant accomplishment will not in itself be deemed a serious obstacle to the writing of a full-scale biographical study. The absence of an oeuvre demanding to be taken seriously may even facilitate the writing of such biographies. Where accomplishment is seen to be negligible the biographer is at liberty to devote uninterrupted attention to the life, and will feel under no obligation to provide the kind of overweight analyses of literary or artistic trifles which so encumbered Mr. Holroyd’s Strachey and made its “critical” interludes something of a chore to read. (My guess is that most readers simply skipped them.) This, in any case, is the stage we seem to have arrived at in the biographical literature on Bloomsbury: there is no longer even a pretense that it is the subject’s literary, artistic, or intellectual distinction that causes a new biography to be written. All interest now focuses on the life itself. And yet this is not quite correct either. For much that is crucial and contradictory in life must, perforce, be left out—or else made to seem marginal—in the interests of erecting an idol. It is not so much the real life of these failed writers and artists that is expected to command our interest as it is their so-called “life style,” which in the case of Bloomsbury means, above all, that peculiar combination of sex, snobbery, aestheticism, ambition, and what Keynes characterized as “immoralism” which served the group as an ethical model in its own day and which functions as a standard for its admirers today. “Life style” is what the biographer is left with as his subject when the work is relegated to the background.

In this respect, the lives of Vanessa Bell and Vita Sackville-West are ideally suited to the new biographical mode. As artists in their respective fields—Bell as a painter, Sackville-West as a writer—they scarcely count as anything more than minor episodes in the history of English taste. Both were heaped with praise, honors, and commissions in their lifetime, as minor talents often are, yet almost nothing in their work survives today as living art. Nor, interestingly, do we find any serious critical claim made for their work in the books which have now been written about their lives. This refusal to make a critical case cannot, in the present instances, be ascribed to intellectual incompetence. Both Frances Spalding, the author of Vanessa Bell, and Victoria Glendinning, the author of Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West,[3] have elsewhere shown themselves to be in possession of real critical gifts. Mrs. Spalding gave us an excellent critical biography of Roger Fry as recently as 1980.[4] Roger Fry: Art and Life was anything but a flawless book, but it was written, all the same, on the assumption that Fry’s accomplishments as a critic, painter, and connoisseur constituted the principal reason for our interest in him. Mrs. Spalding recognized, moreover, that Fry’s ideas had exerted an immense influence on subsequent critical thought, and still served as a touchstone wherever the formalist criticism of art continued to be practiced or debated. She therefore made a sustained attempt to trace the development of those ideas and elucidate their meaning. It was this intellectual focus, rather than its account of Fry’s amatory history, that gave Roger Fry: Art and Life its special distinction.

Victoria Glendinning’s practice is somewhat different. In her critical journalism she has not hesitated to render some sharp and intelligent judgments on her own contemporaries, but she seems to regard the art of biography as an essentially noncritical literary genre. In her earlier biographical studies of Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Sitwell she dropped a good many hints as to where the problems for criticism might lie in the respective oeuvres of these writers, but she studiously avoided the tasks of criticism herself. Now in Vita even these hints are kept to a minimum—and with good reason, I suppose. For surely a writer of Miss Glendinning’s gifts must know that Sackville-West’s work would not be likely to survive even the most cursory sort of critical inquiry. Yet what does it mean to write the life of a writer whose work one cannot take seriously? It means that the biographer must find something exemplary in the life—something so important that it transcends the failure of the work. As to exactly what this is in the case of Vita Sackville-West—well, that is a question which takes us back to Bloomsbury and the spirit of its current revival.

Vanessa Bell and Vita Sackville-West occupy very different places, of course, in the historical hierarchy of Bloomsbury personalities. Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf, the wife of Clive Bell, and the lover, successively, of Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, stands—as Sackville-West does not—at the very center of the group as one of its animating and indispensable spirits. It was Vanessa Bell who established the principal households, first in London and then in the countryside, where the social, intellectual, and sexual attitudes promulgated by Lytton Strachey and his friends at Cambridge came to be transformed into a new bohemian code. She thus served Bloomsbury as both its housemother and its earth mother, initiating nothing in the realm of art or ideas but bringing enormous reserves of energy, audacity, confidence, and practical management to the creation and re-enforcement of the “new dispensation,” as Keynes called it, which governed the lives of the group as an ideal alternative to the standards it was hell-bent on rejecting.

Vanessa Bell was central, in other words, in helping to set and maintain the moral tone of Bloomsbury. That she was also an artist was absolutely essential to her position and the authority it exerted, yet it hardly seemed to matter that her artistic accomplishments were so slim. It was the fact of her being an artist—and an artist of a certain type: a modernist—rather than the quality of her art that was necessary for the moral role she played. But it was morals (of a certain kind), not art, that paradoxically gave to Bloomsbury aestheticism its special quality. It is for this reason, by the way, that an art historian like Frances Spalding may not be the best sort of biographer for a figure like Vanessa Bell. Art history is finally peripheral to the subject, which is moral rebellion.

This being the case, it is especially important that we understand the nature of the Bloomsbury rebellion. What in fact were the standards that Bloomsbury sought to demolish? Following the conventional wisdom on this subject, Mrs. Spalding characterizes these as “the Victorian intellectual and moral pressures that had, to a greater or lesser extent, weighed on [the] youth” of Vanessa Bell and her friends. Yet the biography which Mrs. Spalding has now given us does not really support this view. Certainly no orthodox Victorian paterfamilias would have given his daughter the complete freedom of his large and unexpurgated library from the age of fifteen onward, as in fact Sir Leslie Stephen did in the case of his daughter Virginia. Nor would this Victorian ogre of legend have permitted a daughter to enroll in an art school, with all of its attendant moral risks, at the first sign of her artistic interests, as in fact Stephen did in the case of his daughter Vanessa. This, in turn, reminds us that in the entire literature on Bloomsbury there is a curious and telling tendency to telescope the history of its antecedents in order to establish a more direct link with the high Victorian age than Bloomsbury actually had. And it is not just any view of the Victorian age which is called upon to serve this purpose, but a specifically Stracheyesque view of Victorian repression and hypocrisy.

The truth seems to have been a little more complicated, however. For it was not so much a Victorian as an Edwardian upbringing that Vanessa Stephen and her sister were given. And while the Edwardian code unquestionably contained certain elements of the Victorian ethos, these were already being undermined (where they were not completely effaced) by the more liberal and even radical impulses which found expression in such diverse movements and events as the aestheticism of the Nineties, the Fabian Society, the clamor for women’s suffrage and education, realism in fiction and the theater, and the debate over imperialism which caused such fierce divisions at the time of the Boer War and deeply affected the literary imagination of the generation immediately preceding that of Virginia Woolf. Almost nothing in the whole Bloomsbury phenomenon—neither its feminism, its homosexuality, its pacifism, its anti-imperialism, its aestheticism, nor its quarrel with realism—is wholly intelligible, in fact, without reference to the concatenation of changes which erupted with such far-reaching force in the Edwardian period. Even the vaunted anti-Victorianism of Bloomsbury represented the codification of an attitude already ascendant in the Edwardian age. Yet Bloomsbury continues to be discussed as if it sprang up—by virgin birth, as it were—as a simple rebellion against the cartoon characters who populate the pages of Eminent Victorians.

The writer who best understood this matter was Bertrand Russell, who was in a position to observe the development of Bloomsbury from the perspective of a contemporary belonging to an older generation. Writing in his Autobiography about the Cambridge Conversazione Society, where so many Bloomsbury attitudes were first adumbrated, Russell made a point of isolating this Edwardian element as a key to understanding these attitudes. “Some things became considerably different in the Society after my time,” Russell wrote.

The tone of the generation some ten years junior to my own was set mainly by Lytton Strachey and Keynes. It is surprising how great a change in mental climate those ten years had brought. We were still Victorian; they were Edwardian. We believed in ordered progress by means of politics and free discussion. The more self-confident among us may have hoped to be leaders of the multitude, but none of us wished to be divorced from it. The generation of Keynes and Lytton did not seek to preserve any kinship with the Philistine. They aimed rather at a life of retirement among fine shades and nice feelings, and conceived of the good as consisting in the passionate mutual admirations of a clique of the élite.

And further:

After my time the Society changed in one respect. There was a long drawn-out battle between George Trevelyan and Lytton Strachey, both members, in which Lytton Strachey was on the whole victorious. Since his time, homosexual relations among the members were for a time common, but in my day they were unknown.

It is sad to see a writer as intelligent as Frances Spalding succumb to a sort of historical amnesia about all this. She certainly knows the whole period well enough to have gotten it right. For what was the life of Vanessa Bell if not an attempt—and a failed attempt at that—to live “a life of retirement among fine shades and nice feelings”? She, too, seems to have “conceived of the good as consisting in the passionate mutual admirations of a clique of the elite,” and to have lived much of her adult life in accordance with this brittle standard. In this, as in so much else in the Bloomsbury story, we see the legacy of Edwardian aestheticism transmuted into the even narrower ethos of coterie bohemianism, with inherited social snobberies now inverted to reject the respectable and the conventional in favor of the perverse and the esoteric.

Had Mrs. Spalding been writing the life of a more important artist, I think it likely that the work would have obliged her to re-examine the many received assumptions which have been allowed to pass into Vanessa Bell like so much unopened baggage. But there is nothing in Vanessa Bell’s work that requires a critic to rethink anything in the art of the period Mrs. Spalding is writing about—except, perhaps, the way artistic reputations were sometimes made. The work simply registers a succession of passive and mildly talented responses to the artistic ideas which gained currency in Bell’s circle of friends and lovers, and what reputation it acquired in the artist’s lifetime had much to do with the promotional efforts of this same circle.[5]

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Spalding is on much firmer ground when she turns away from the art of Vanessa Bell (which she does as often as possible in this book) to recount the bizarre history of her subject’s personal affairs. Yet there, too, while nothing if not candid in disclosing a great many unpleasant facts—especially regarding Vanessa Bell’s protracted liaison with the homosexual Duncan Grant—Mrs. Spalding can never quite bring herself to align these facts, which have much to do with concealment and a kind of emotional martyrdom, with the values that Bloomsbury prided itself on living by. Foremost among these values—according to the Bloomsbury myth, anyway—was what Virginia Woolf called “the old Cambridge ideal of truth and free speaking.” This has been said again and again to have been the moral cornerstone of the Bloomsbury ethic. Yet the truth is, this “ideal of truth and free speaking” was rarely, if ever, the governing principle of Vanessa Bell’s adult life. For one thing, she could never speak openly of her true feelings about the homosexual attachments which remained central to Duncan Grant’s existence during all the years they lived together. On the contrary, she was obliged to extend hospitality and even a show of affection to his many male lovers as a condition for being allowed to have a place in his life. She always knew that Grant had never loved her in the way that she had come to love him, and she accepted the humiliations of the situation in silence. But by then, of course, remaining silent about the way she lived was already a habit with Vanessa Bell. When she rejected her husband and took other lovers, and he took up with a succession of mistresses, to whom she was also obliged to extend hospitality throughout her life, this too had to be concealed—most notably, from Clive Bell’s wealthy and eminently respectable parents, whose tastes and interests Vanessa Bell loathed but upon whose financial generosity the Bells were largely dependent for their “free” way of life. (Neither Vanessa nor Clive Bell ever had to work for a living.) The “life of retirement among fine shades and nice feelings” wasn’t cheap, and it was the benighted parents of her husband—the very archetypes of the Philistine squirearchy which Bloomsbury held in such contempt—who were expected to pay the bills. Reading Vanessa Bell, one quickly comes to realize that the Victorians had nothing to teach Bloomsbury when it came to self-interested concealment and hypocrisy.

The most egregious example of the Bloomsbury double standard—for that is what it always came down to—is to be found in the appalling tale of Vanessa Bell’s daughter, whose father was known to virtually all members of the inner circle to be Duncan Grant but who was nonetheless brought up to believe that she was the child of Clive Bell. Again, the principal reason for this deception seems to have been the need to conceal the truth from Clive Bell’s parents, who, being the sort of dodoes they were, could not be expected to react to the actual situation with the requisite sympathy and understanding. And no wonder—for there was quite a lot to the situation that required some understanding. At the time of the child’s birth, Vanessa Bell found herself presiding over a difficult ménage à trois, with David Garnett more or less in residence as Duncan Grant’s favorite of the moment. As it turned out, the man who proved to be the most passionately devoted to the newborn child was neither its actual father nor its official one but Garnett, the child’s father’s lover, who promptly announced his intention of marrying the girl—which, to the horror of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, he actually succeeded in doing some twenty-odd years later. About that, interestingly, these pillars of Bloomsbury liberation acted as if they were performing a charade of outraged Victorian parenthood.

Meanwhile, Bloomsbury’s celebrated candor in matters having to do with sexual behavior—all the much-quoted talk about “buggers” and “semen” and such—was totally suspended in the girl’s upbringing. Not only was she kept in perfect ignorance about the fact that the man whom she and her mother lived with was her real father but she was also kept in the dark about the most elementary facts of life. So complete was the daughter’s innocence in this respect that at the age of seventeen she had to be sent to a physician to be instructed in the mysteries of sex. Even this proved to be futile, alas, for the physician (a woman) was so stunned by the girl’s ignorance that she could not bring herself to explain anything. Clearly, the ideal of “truth and free speaking” had its limitations even for Bloomsbury. So too, by the way, did the application of Bloomsbury’s feminist standards. Thus, while the Bells’ two sons were brought up in the expected atmosphere of sexual candor and as young adults were encouraged to disclose the details of their sexual affairs to their mother, Vanessa Bell’s daughter was allowed no such freedom of action or expression. She seems to have been raised in a moral void, denied the advantages (such as they were) of Bloomsbury’s “new dispensation,” yet denied as well whatever comfort, security, or guidance might have been provided by the conventions it was designed to displace.

About all this, too, Mrs. Spalding gives us a very frank and unsparing account. Yet for all of its frankness, there is finally something just a bit obtuse about this book. It is as if the glamor and prestige of its dramatis personae have had the effect of stripping its author of her capacity to form a judgment of either the actions or the characters she so meticulously describes. Just as every aesthetic allowance must be made, implicitly or otherwise, for Vanessa Bell’s limited artistic accomplishment, so must every moral allowance be made for the way she lived her life. The result is a biography which substitutes psychological understanding for moral insight—which is now the standard formula for Bloomsbury biography.

One has the feeling in reading Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West that Victoria Glendinning, too, might have preferred to write a biography similarly devoid of moral intelligence. But in this case it just wasn’t possible. The protagonist of the book is herself such a monster of moral insensibility and so much of her story entails a description of the human wreckage left in the wake of her sometimes casual, sometimes insidious depredations, that, try as Miss Glendinning does to avoid it, she cannot help showing her distaste from time to time and even registering a note of censure. Perhaps to compensate for this tendency, she offers a handsome array of exonerating factors to explain some of Sackville-West’s more outrageous actions—the crazy mother, the weak husband, the laws and customs governing primogeniture, etc.—but they avail her not. In the end she cannot bring herself to duck the problem of Sackville-West’s atrocious character, and she wins our enduring gratitude for refusing to swallow the preposterous notion put forward by Nigel Nicolson in Portrait of a Marriage—one of the really remarkable literary farces of the Seventies—that Sackville-West’s marriage to Harold Nicolson somehow constituted a model of modern marital bliss.

But that whole story in most of its details lies well outside the history of Bloomsbury and its revival. Sackville-West was an outsider who entered Bloomsbury as Virginia Woolf’s lover, and she remains a permanent part of its history solely as the character who inspired Woolf to write Orlando, the most original work of fiction that Bloomsbury produced and the only work of the imagination in which so many of its abiding values—particularly its social and sexual snobbery, its hermaphroditic ideal, its compulsion to aestheticize all experience, and its Camp attitude toward history and morals—are openly stated and definitively embodied. Yet it is precisely because of Sackville-West’s importance in this one regard that Vita proves to be inadequate. Almost any biography of this sort would be. For once the basic facts have been established—and in the case of Orlando they have never been in doubt since the day of its publication—Orlando is a problem not in biography but in criticism, and in Vita, of course, there is no criticism.

The more one looks into the Bloomsbury revival, the more convinced one is that Bloomsbury, despite the immense number of books, articles, and reviews already devoted to it, is a subject which has not yet found its writer, and that the writer it calls for is unlikely to be a specialist in biography. Bloomsbury can be said to have produced only four figures of enduring intellectual interest: Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. Of these, only Keynes and Fry can be claimed as major figures in the intellectual disciplines they pursued. Forster looks smaller with every passing day, and Woolf was never the major novelist she is nowadays assumed to be (usually for a variety of extra-literary reasons). In the realm of high culture Bloomsbury’s achievements are actually remarkably small. But the Bloomsbury revival is not really concerned with high achievements of mind or art. It was not in art or literature but in the realm of moral rebellion that Bloomsbury achieved its most significant and enduring influence, and it is precisely that which has been recalled and embellished and newly propagated in the current revival. It is therefore to this moral rebellion—in which, incidentally, Bloomsbury’s aestheticism will be seen to be a symptom rather than a cause—that criticism will be obliged to address itself.

And the best place for criticism to begin its inquiry into the Bloomsbury rebellion is with that remarkable confession of categorical error which Keynes delivered to the Memoir Club in 1938 under the title, “My Early Beliefs.” “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom,” Keynes wrote.

We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case .... It resulted in a general, widespread, though partly covert, suspicion affecting ourselves, our motives and our behavior. This suspicion still persists to a certain extent, and it always will. It has deeply coloured the course of our lives in relation to the outside world. It is, I now think, a justifiable suspicion.

Keynes was not announcing his conversion to a new faith, to be sure. “Yet so far as I am concerned, it is too late to change,” he observed. “I remain, and always will remain, an immoralist.” Yet he had come to understand very clearly the implications of the moral rebellion that he had helped to set on its course.

… we repudiated [he continued] all versions of the doctrine of original sin, of there being insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men. We were not aware that civilization was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved. We had no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom. We lacked reverence, as [D. H.] Lawrence observed and as Ludwig [Wittgenstein] with justice also used to say—for everything and everyone. It did not occur to us to respect the extraordinary accomplishment of our predecessors in the ordering of life (as it now seems to me to have been) or the elaborate framework which they had devised to protect this order .... As cause and consequence of our general state of mind we completely misunderstood human nature, including our own. The rationality which we attributed to it led to a superficiality, not only of judgment, but also of feeling .... I fancy we used in the old days to get around the rich variety of experience by expanding illegitimately the field of aesthetic appreciation (we would deal, for example, with all branches of the tragic emotion under this head), classifying as aesthetic experience what is really human experience and somehow sterilising it by this mis-classification.

It is only when criticism can bring itself to take up the issues which Keynes so cogently defined some forty-five years ago that we shall come to a true understanding of the Bloomsbury phenomenon. Until then the biographers will continue to ply their wares, concentrating on ever more minor and peripheral figures, and the making of idols will go on unabated.


  1. Mr. Holroyd discusses his work on the Strachey biography in “The Slow Progress of a Biographer” (reprinted in Unreceived Opinions, published by Heineman in 1973). Go back to the text.
  2. “He is indifferent to historical truth,” Russell wrote, “and will always touch up the picture to make the lights and shades more glaring and the folly or wickedness of famous people more obvious. These are grave charges, but I make them in all seriousness.” (The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914, page 99.) Go back to the text.
  3. Vanessa Bell by Frances Spalding; Ticknor & Fields, 399 pages, $22.95; and Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West by Victoria Glendinning; Alfred A. Knopf, 436 pages, $17.95. Go back to the text.
  4. For my review of Roger Fry: Art and Life, see The New York Times Book Review for October 5, 1980. Go back to the text.
  5. The charge that Bloomsbury reputations were often the result of the group’s own efforts at self-promotion is nowadays commonly dismissed as just another example of the kind of paranoia endemic to Scrutiny and the Leavis circle. It is therefore instructive to read the following passages from an article written by Clive Bell in November 1917 about an exhibition organized by Roger Fry: “Only one Englishman holds his own with the French painters, and he, of course, is Duncan Grant.... Grant is . . . blessed with adorable gifts and a powerful intellect, he should . . . become what we have been awaiting so long, an English painter in the front rank of European art.” And further in the same article: “Of the remaining British artists, the most interesting, to my mind, is Vanessa Bell . . . .Today there are at least three [women artists who hold their own with their male counterparts]—Marie Laurencin, Goncharova, and Vanessa Bell—whose claim to take rank amongst the best of their generation will have to be answered very carefully by those who wish to disallow it.” See Pot-Boilers by Clive Bell (Chatto and Windus, 1918). Go back to the text.