By Jude Rawlins

"The Mark on the Wall" by Dora Carrington.
Taken from the Virginia Woolf story of the same name published in Two Stories, the debut of the Hogarth Press, 1917.

Essay first published in Bloomsbury 100 magazine, London 2004

Whatever your views on the Bloomsbury Group, whether you regard them as highbrow, elitist literati or a maverick co-operative of astonishing creative talent, or anything in-between, their massive influence over every aspect of English art is undeniable. For better or worse, depending on your view, no artistic stone has been left unturned by their legacy, no credible work of literature untouched by their influence. The Bloomsbury Group were, quite simply, culturally and creatively, the most important and pervasive influence over the cultural life of England during the first half of the Twentieth Century, and the aftershocks of their groundbreaking output are still being felt.  

The Bloomsbury Group, for the uninitiated, were a circle of artists, writers and friends that met at Cambridge in 1904, and came by their moniker when they’re ranks were swelled by two sisters who hosted their regular gatherings in the Bloomsbury district of London. The sisters were Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, and the group included such luminaries as Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, and David Garnett.  

There are, of course, arguments to be had with Bloomsbury, perhaps so many that my reader might wish a fuller explanation of my admittedly zealous engagement with their legacy, and their lunacy. Surely there can be little room in the world for Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians once one has studied the carnage of Wilfred Owen; equally, for all it’s worth as the seminal feminist essay, does not Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own also find itself a rather dubious dialogue on the advantages of being an independently wealthy "artist"? Cyril Connolly suggests in Enemies of Promise that saddest of all is the sight of people who do not need to worry about the source of their next meal devoting themselves to the effort of creation, that, at best, without the suffrage of if not poverty then at least emotional struggle, their inspiration is not won from genius, but merely a passing fertility. Connolly is, as usual, only half right. In his defence, Connolly was a contemporary and friend of Orwell, and thus for the proletariat, with good reason, indeed with the greatness of Orwell as his good reason. But let us also remember that niether Orwell nor Connolly could ever have been mistaken as working class. In Orwell’s case, he was a hero to the lower classes, but not OF the lower classes. He was an Eton boy, even if he did go broke in Paris and London for a while. Ultimately, he moved back with his parents and wrote about – even exploited – his experiences. Connolly’s point is unpersuasive, not because it is wrong, but because it is socially naive. In case of point, I happen to agree with him on some level, chiefly as many of my own experiences both as an artist and a prole actually support his observation in part, but I would never allow this to deny me the caustic, visionary splendour of Woolf or Bloomsbury. It is a severe argument indeed, and naive only in it’s splendidly perverse misapprehension that luxury and material security can some how prevent emotional turmoil. Nothing can prevent emotional turmoil. Perhaps heroin can delay it’s effects for a while, but even that, as every recovering heroin addict will attest, is no escape from pain. Now that really IS social realism for you.  

The arguments against Bloomsbury, by and large, date from the immediate post-Bloomsbury, post-war social realism; the pro-Orwell, politically correct but ultimately self-righteous "kitchen sink" writing of the 1950s. Quentin Bell’s book Bloomsbury provides a witty, first-hand antidote to the sometimes nonsensical ravings of Bloomsbury’s adversaries, so I would merely strive to encourage reading of the volume, and will not offer more than my own reasons in defence of Bloomsbury. Whatever may be your particular view, there are also arguments with the arguments, and critics have been having them since the beginning of time, or at least since the beginning of Bloomsbury, which is the beginning of something. To many, most bizarre of all was the vitriol with which D.H. Lawrence attacked the group; methinks he doth protest too much – Quentin Bell’s analysis of Lawrence’s assaults is that it is the "poetry of delirium"; homophobia was apparently at the root of Lawrence’s complaint, yet this is inconsistent with the Lawrence we know from his own work. His "insect dreams", which supposedly started after a most unconstructive meeting with Bloomsbury members Duncan Grant and Francis Birrell, set up by David Garnett (the only Bloomsbury member with whom Lawrence ever held anything close to what might be called a friendship). Bell argues that, faced with the ferocity with which Bloomsbury rejected conventional thinking, Lawrence was menaced, not by Bloomsbury, but by his own inner demons; that Bloomsbury had the power to make even D.H. Lawrence pause and question his own sexual psyche. Nude wrestling, anyone?  

My favourite quote – of all time – is that of the American artist and critic Clement Greenberg. Being interviewed for television on the subject of Jackson Pollock, Greenberg commented that "the only thing we ask of art is that it be good". This, I feel, is the finest summary of the creative dilemma. It echoes throughout our heritage, from Chaucer to Shakespeare; from Titian and Milton to Blake and Byron; from Thackeray to Dickens. In these matters there is no age, only truth; if it’s good then it matters, regardless of when it matters. This is my greatest defence of all my beliefs regarding art, and is nowhere more prevalent than in my defending of Bloomsbury. Of course, I cannot defend Bloomsbury members such as Saxon Sydney Turner, Francis Birrell or Molly McCarthy, as I know nothing of them, save that D.H. Lawrence despised Birrell even more than he despised Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes. Keynes himself never quite fell into my imagination, but I must accept his importance within Bloomsbury as being that of a most senior figure, as was Turner, as was Strachey. But my greatest fascination with the dynamics within the group itself is in those of the key interpersonal relationships; that of the siblings Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf; Vanessa’s affair with Duncan Grant; Virginia’s affair with Vita Sackville-West; and evidently deep if somewhat curious love between Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington.  

Examining the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West is paramount to understanding Woolf, and therefore relatively central to a studied understanding of Bloomsbury itself. Vita herself was not a member of the Bloomsbury Group as such, certainly not of "old" Bloomsbury, and was not a regular attendee at Charleston, nor ever contributed to the Memoir Club. However, Vita was a liberated and free spirit, and would have been quickly and enthusiastically alerted to Bloomsbury’s then radical rejection of sexual taboos. What is absolutely certain is that Bloomsbury threw out every convention regarding sex, from gender to persuasion, and embraced frank and open discussion of the subject – something which it had to do, but did so naturally. Bisexuality was normal to Bloomsbury, because bisexuality IS normal, but Bloomsbury’s sexual exploits were not those of a promiscuous society, quite the contrary, they were governed either by love or by passion or both. Bloomsbury was romantic. We all know that Virginia and Vita had a lesbian affair, it is well documented, and confessed to in letters and journals by both women. It is, shall we say, a fact. Yet both were happily married, and remained so. Virginia’s devotion to her husband Leonard, and his devotion to her, was never brought into question. We know that Orlando was inspired by Vita, and is considered by some to be an elongated love-letter. And Leonard helped Virginia to publish it, so he obviously knew and approved of the affair that his wife was having. Yet the Woolfs remained together, stoic and in love and were never apart. Indeed, it is known that Vita occasionally stayed with Virginia and Leonard at Monk’s House, their Sussex home. Whether Leonard ever participated sexually in the affair is unknown and private business. It is feasible that he did, and quite possible that he did not. Regardless, Leonard Woolf obviously had absolute belief in his relationship with his wife, insofar as he seemed neither threatened or disapproving of the affair. Like the rest of Bloomsbury, the Woolfs bent the rules to breaking point, and were apparently the happier for it. It is important to keep Virginia’s love life separate from her depressions and eventual suicide; Virginia Woolf was clearly no depressive in her day to day dealings. She was cheerful, loyal, polite and hilariously funny, but she was sensitive and sometimes succumbed to bouts of the blackest depression; a trait always common in artists, and increasingly common in everyone else. Bloomsbury, like all else, had it’s emotional ups and downs. And thus the interpersonal relationships of the members of the Bloomsbury Group have become English art’s greatest soap opera.  

At the centre of the whole whirlwind is the relationship between the siblings Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. Outside of Bloomsbury, Bell is now perhaps somewhat overlooked. This is unfair. She is still an artist of great repute and no small influence, but within the group her importance can hardly be overstated. It is Vanessa, even more than Virginia, who appears to have been the initial spark that ignited the Bloomsbury fire. It is believed that, like many before, Leonard Woolf had originally been under Vanessa’s spell, and that it was only when he returned from overseas and found her married to Clive Bell that he finally turned his attentions to Virginia. We examine the sisters’ relationship predominantly through their published letters, either to each other or to others. When one reads this personal correspondence one is immediately struck by Vanessa’s eloquence. She evidently shares a great deal of her sister’s flair with words and imagination with prose, and, had she chosen to write instead of paint, one can only wonder what turns literature might have taken. One is also struck at Virginia’s insecurity within her relationship with her sister. We know Virginia Woolf, surely, through her work. Alas, perhaps we do not know her as well as we think we do. Woolf was a writer of such genius that if she wanted to lay a few red herrings along the pathway to a fuller understanding of her personal life, she most certainly could have accomplished this. But it doesn’t take long to see that, although as a wordsmith and a mind Virginia Woolf is unparalleled in her time, Vanessa Bell was the dominant sibling. She was the eldest, and perhaps that has much to do with it. The sisters lost their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, when both were unmarried young women at the turn of the last century. Their brother Thoby died shortly before Vanessa married Clive Bell. After her marriage, Vanessa left the Stephen household at 46 Gordon Square, leaving Virginia and their younger brother Adrian alone. Virginia and Adrian reputedly did not have the easiest of relationships, although they shared many antics together (including the infamous Dreadnought Hoax). There would appear to be a very small, but ultimately quite indelible rift between the sisters at this juncture. They would never again be as close or as they had been at Gordon Square, nor would they share as much. Vanessa’s burgeoning reputation within the group has been variously recorded as "maternal" and "central", and this would certainly appear to be true when the group later decamped to the country. It was Charleston, Vanessa’s house in Sussex, that became Bloomsbury’s rural base during World War One. There were others; Ham Spray, the Wiltshire home of Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington; and the country retreat of Lady Ottoline Morrell (which provided much material for DH Lawrence, to Ottoline’s fury); but none were as important as Charleston in the unfolding life of Bloomsbury, or as recognised as such today.  

The gap between Vanessa and Virginia was not large, and their relationship was never less than that of close, loving sisters, but it is certain that Vanessa "mothered" Virginia a good deal. Vanessa, it is widely believed, was Bloomsbury’s maternal instinct, and she and Clive Bell were the first members of the group to marry and have children. Since the death of her father, Virginia had suffered serious bouts of depression, and was medically recognised as mentally ill even at the time. During her periodic breakdowns, Vanessa would invariably take charge of Virginia’s care and recovery. It wasn’t until Vanessa’s own emotional collapse in the late 1930s, following the death of her son Julian (brother of Quentin) in action in Spain, that Virginia was finally able to emerge as "caretaker" in the relationship. We might even speculate that this invoked a sense of personal responsibility in Woolf that, misguidedly, helped lead her to the decision to take her own life during her next period of breakdown in 1941, rather than allow herself to be looked after by others (most probably Vanessa and Leonard) yet again. For all this, it would be misleading to regard Vanessa Bell as in any way more conventional than her sister. Far from it; indeed it would seem that Virginia was both enamoured of and distracted by Vanessa’s penchant for completely disregarding "the rules". While Vanessa and Clive were raising Julian and Quentin at Charleston, Duncan Grant was living with them. Grant had been the gay lover of both Keynes and Strachey, and continued his homosexual escapades, but he and Vanessa began an affair that lasted decades. They even had a daughter, Angelica, who would one day marry David Garnett (who himself had had affairs with both Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington). Indeed, throughout her childhood, Angelica had believed Clive to be her father (the truth about her parentage was indicated as one reason she found solace in the arms of Garnett, much to Vanessa’s chagrin). And, as with Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell accepted the situation readily, and he and Vanessa remained in love and together until Vanessa’s death at Charleston in 1961, at which point they had been married for fifty four years.  

Then there is perhaps the one true tragic "fairy" tale of "Old" Bloomsbury, the love story of Carrington and Strachey. Lytton Strachey had done more to rebel against Victorian values than any other writer of his generation. He was flamboyantly homosexual, today he would be described as "camp", and was certainly the grand peacock forerunner of The Naked Civil Servant himself, Quentin Crisp. It was Strachey who took the risk to break down the barriers that had been thrown up by the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde only a few short years before. And yet the great love of Lytton Strachey’s life was a woman, Dora Carrington. They set up house together at Ham Spray in Wiltshire, and lived happily until Lytton’s tragically early death from cancer in 1932. Unable to live without him, Carrington took her own life a few weeks later, despite letters, pleas and visits from her friends, among them Virginia Woolf, who, knowing how deeply Carrington and Strachey loved one another, suspected, even before Lytton died, that Carrington had no intention of going on without him. The tale of Carrington and Strachey shows us something important about Bloomsbury’s considerable rebellion; they not only broke the taboos of heterosexuality, but also of homosexuality, in equal measure.  

One conclusion that we cannot ignore is this; that, whilst Bloomsbury certainly rejected all the taboos regarding what I shall term "conventional sexuality", in matters of the heart they were resolute; where love was concerned, the Bloomsbury Group were as conventional as any of us. The exploration of one’s sexuality involves having a great deal of faith within a relationship. Yet, without a life partner in which to invest one’s emotional well being there can be unseen emotional dangers attached to any sexual experience. Sex can lead us astray, down wrong alleys; but love will always have the ability to restore us. In the case of Virginia Woolf it would appear that she eventually tired of the exploration of her natural bisexuality, and longed for the comfort of her loving husband. We should not judge her as a fickle being for arriving at this conclusion, but rather, I believe, applaud her bravery and her devout faith in true love. In any case, regardless of what this says about Woolf, what this teaches us about Bloomsbury is an important lesson that we should also learn for ourselves, that the "rules" are not EVER the point. Sex can be a terribly complex pursuit, and if you want to explore sexuality it is likely to become increasingly complex. Love, however, is simple; you either have it or you don’t. Therein is an entire ideology that goes further than any religious experience; God is not love, but Love is the god of all things, or at least all things actually worth the effort. Ergo, it then follows that organised religions, which ALL take a political view of sex that has nothing to do with love, are blasphemy against true love. The religious ideal that the only acceptable purpose of sex is procreation is nonsensical and cruel in the extreme, for it suggests that a sexual act is essentially primal; it disallows the contingency that we are products of physical and social evolution, that we develop and grow as a race and as individuals.  

For example, in nature all life-forms communicate with others of their species, from the lowest insect to our human selves. But human beings have evolved such a thing as language, and thus our communication skills are infinitely sophisticated and distinct. Language exists in the first place because of the primal instinct to communicate, but to assert that everything that language has become, right down to the words on this page which you are currently reading, is still nothing more than a primal grunt would be absurd and completely laughable. But that is exactly the backwards mental leap that religion expects us to make with regards to sexual activity. Why cannot the intellect be employed within the physical act of love? What is so wrong with just giving physical pleasure because you love someone and want to make them happy? This is not complicated stuff; every song and sonnet, every poem, every touch and every kiss contains more genuine tender truth than any doctrine that expels the lie to the contrary. Sex can be an expression of love. Love is just love. To attempt to control either, to legislate or censure or force rules upon an elusive tummy flutter or a radiant smile is as pointless as it is obscene. The Bloomsbury philosophy, as so concisely summed up by Quentin Bell, was that "There is no such thing as an impure act, only impure states of mind". There can be no more impure mind than that of a clergyman in denial of the strongest human urge. Recently published statistics claim that in the USA, one in five Catholic priests has committed a sexual offence against a minor. One can only speculate as to how many have committed offences against adults too, they certainly exist. A survey of convicted paedophiles in custody in the UK claims that 99.9% say that they have religious beliefs, or held religious beliefs at the time of their offences. The survey also admits to a 0.1% margin of error. I do not state this as an indictment of religion, that is not my purpose here, although I’m sure the facts would serve that argument well if I could be bothered to make it. I simply submit it as mathematical evidence to support the idea that it is NOT sexual persuasion that corrupts sex, but rather the imposition of man made rules upon something which, we are constantly being reminded, is a force of nature. One may as well ask a hurricane not to blow.  

Why did Dora Carrington fall in love with a man she knew to be a homosexual? Moreover, how did Lytton Strachey manage to return her feelings? It suggests that Strachey wasn’t quite the failsafe queen he thought he was; or maybe it just suggests that here were two eminently compatible people who realised that all that really mattered was the way they felt about each other, and they just couldn’t help the way they felt. That is the version I believe.  

As for the power and the passion of Virginia Woolf, there can be no real composite theory as to why she acted out sexually with Vita Sackville-West. Perhaps the best suggestion is that she reached a point in her life, within the physical and emotional safety of a loving relationship with her husband, wherein she decided to explore the other side of her sexuality, and was able to accomplish this with her husband’s support. But did she ever really love Vita? Orlando began life as a man, but woke up one morning transformed into a woman. Why not the other way around? We are supposed to believe that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West are a love story rather than a sexual experiment. But, outside of their own lives, does it really matter? It gave us Orlando, it gave us this debate, it catapulted Virginia Woolf even further into the iconic stratosphere than she was already, it set fire to gender preconceptions, became a cannon for the feminist movement, and it opened the door to English surrealism. Whatever its true nature, I’d call that an intellectual victory for love and sexuality, a result.  

A sexual digression, if you will. With all the passion at the disposition of my computer keyboard, which is more than my pen ever had in these matters, I return resolutely to the beginning. The arguments with Bloomsbury, and my own small but furious and hopefully contagious support for them. They influence me. They give me a sense of morality that has nothing to do with morals, and everything to do with the intellectual and emotional appreciation of the arts. Morality exists only where voices can be heard. In silence there is no moral or ethic, only the seething failure and anguish of not being heard. In silence there lies the dormant enemies of liberty; fascism, repression and greed; waiting for the first chance to awaken a new dark age, a chance they shall never have as long as voices can be heard, words written, paintings seen, music performed, sex explored and love requited. Bloomsbury, in amongst its silliness, its snobbery, its flirtations and its illuminations, was always about the important stuff, the inspiration. That alone is my reason. That, and love, is all we seek.


"He heard them crying the news in the street. And shrugging his shoulders applied himself to the great green board on which were pinned sheets of symbols: a frolic of Xs controlled by Ys and embraced by more cryptic symbols still: which, if juggled together would eventually, he was sure, positive, produce the one word, the simple, the sufficient, the comprehensive word which will solve all problems forever. It was time to begin. He began."

- An excerpt from the fantasy essay "JMK" by Virginia Woolf, and the inspiration for the song "Love X Plus Y", a beginning...