Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bloomsbury at Home by Pamela Todd

Bloomsbury at Home
by Pamela Todd
nonfiction 1999
finished 1/18/16

This book was given to me a few years ago by a woman who reads my letters and knows how I love Virginia Woolf and everything Bloomsbury. Such a kind and generous thing to do. 

I began reading it last year in January. For various reasons, I didn't get to finish so I put in a bookmark with a little note to myself to pick up the book again this year. 

When their father died in 1904, Virginia and Vanessa Stephen and their brothers, Adrian and Thoby, moved to unfashionable Bloomsbury.
Clive [Bell] was one of Thoby’s Cambridge friends and part of the set that began, from about the middle of March 1905, to drop by after dinner on Thursday evenings. Vanessa and Virginia had heard a great deal about these young men from Thoby so that ‘when the bell rang and these astonishing fellows came in, Vanessa and I were in a twitter of excitement. It was late at night; the room was full of smoke; buns, coffee, and whisky were strewn about; … Thoby went to open the door; in came Sydney-Turner; in came Bell; in came Strachey.'
There was little on offer besides a thrilling new kind of conversation which relied not on the usual party small talk but on ‘difficult’ silences which gave way to soaring intellectual discussions on large abstract ideas. The social conventions were ignored. These young men had no ‘manners’ in the Hyde Park Gate [the place they all grew up] sense. Instead of complimenting Virginia on her dress, they were more likely to praise (or criticise) the way in which she phrased her argument. This she found deeply satisfying. 

The scene reminds me of a Bob Dylan song, Bob Dylan's Dream.

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

I think, if we’re lucky, there is a time in our lives when we do engage in conversation late into the night, forgetting there is a world outside. All is there within a room. I’ve never had the particular kind of relationships and conversations as happened when I was in my early twenties. Of all those people, only one is still a friend. Two of the young men died too young. The others have scattered and ‘grown up.’ But I remember those times with much affection, and even longing. It is a time and place which has never been repeated.

In the case of the Bloomsbury people it continued throughout their lives. From this core group, many others came along and fit right in. At the beginning of the book the author offers:

In addition to the little biographies there are also lists of the various places people lived:

These are so very helpful to the reader. Whether you know a lot or a little about these people there is a great deal of information to keep straight and it is wonderful to be able to check back to see who was who, and who was with whom! If you know a bit about the Bloomsbury people, you will know this story but it bears repeating even if you've heard it before. Okay, stay with me here... Vanessa was married to Clive Bell, but loved Duncan Grant all her life. Duncan Grant was in a relationship with David 'Bunny' Garnett. Vanessa got pregnant by Duncan and had a daughter Angelica. Well, all that is pretty amazing in itself, but it gets better!
That Christmas Day, watching Angelica being weighed in a shoe box on the kitchen scales, Bunny marvelled at her perfection. 'Its beauty is the remarkable thing about it,' he wrote to Lytton, adding prophetically, 'I think of marrying it; when she is twenty I shall be 46 - will it be scandalous?' 
In 1942, though Vanessa was opposed, Bunny and Angelica did indeed marry. She was 24 and he was 50. They had four daughters.

I've yet to read Angelica's book Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood, but I've ordered a copy. The deceit here is that she was told she was Clive's daughter for a long time.

Bloomsbury at Home is full of terrific details about the various places everyone lived. Almost every page has a painting or photograph.

And here is the table of contents:

In a little over 180 pages, you can learn so much about these individuals. It is a great place to begin if you are not familiar with them, and an excellent resource if you already know a fair bit. Now that I've read it in its entirety, I expect I will be dipping into it for the rest of my reading life. It is scholarly and fun at the same time. It is a joyous exploration of some of the most interesting and artistic people the world has ever known. I loved, loved, loved this book!


  1. Love this! The Bloomsbury people and Bob Dylan in the same post. :) The book looks gorgeous. Especially love Vanessa's "The Cook."

    Reading Dylan's lyrics made me feel a little wistful, missing those late night discussions from my college days.

    1. The book is full of wonderful paintings and pictures.
      Just the way I feel. Thanks for telling me I'm not alone in those feelings.

  2. Life certainly was never dull with the Bloomsbury people! The first time I came across them was, believe it or not, through a Laura Ashley interior design catalogue in the 1980s. They then had a collection based on Bloomsbury designs, and there were brief explanations as to where and how their designers had come across the various patterns and colours.

    1. There is a lot about the art and design in a book called Charleston which I wrote about here:
      That's pretty amazing about the LA catalogue.

  3. I wonder why we don't continue those discussions when we grow older? And why don't friends just drop in? I only have one friend that does this. Every one of my friends are welcome anytime. I drop in on her too.This does take me back.

    1. It is something I've wondered about a lot. I guess jobs and families and just plain grown-up life become the topics of discussions. Maybe artists and writers keep those talks going longer?? I like 'dropping in' too.

  4. Thank you for this post. I read and re-read Bloomsbury matter but am never tired of it. I did not know this book and shall be glad to add it to my library... As to discussions that last into the night and are about everything and anything, I guess when we "grow up", we have to face different relationships and different obligations,which hinder these long talks. (sigh) :)

    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a note! You will love this book! You are exactly right about the growing up. We still talk but tend not to be as philosophical - more about houses and kids and jobs!

  5. The Green sitting room is lovely..thank you for sharing that photograph.
    I find the Bloomsbury group fascinating but I'm not sure how comfortable they make me ambivalent emotions evoked I think.
    Their creativity was stunning but with it was an eccentricity and 'Odd Duck-ness' taken to extremes that I'm not always at ease with...but then perhaps that's OK.
    Some where on my shelves I have (or had) "Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood" Brilliance doesn't always/often equal balance or happiness does it. Perhaps there are advantages to being mundane and mellow?
    It is a great shame that it seems so easy for Brilliance to tipple over the edge.

    1. This would be a perfect book for you because what it shows it pretty much regular folks. Vanessa was an artist, yes, but mostly a mother who loved being in her home. She had a real family life. A bit unusual but it seemed to work for everyone concerned. There was great caring and respect for friends. There's a lot of talk about food and houses and gardens.

  6. Nan, I just finished watching a series of videos on Youtube called The Secret History of British Gardens. The fourth in the series has video of Vanessa's house and garden. You might not want to watch the entire video but the part about the Bloomsbury people is not too far into the video and I know you would enjoy seeing this part.
    In case this link doesn't work go to youtube and type in The Secret History of British Gardens 4

    1. Thank you! Thank you! I never think about going to you tube for great things like that. I will love it!

    2. Thanks Lisa from me too!
      That book does sound good Nan .
      You might like Monty Don's Craftsmen series on youtube Nan if you've not seen them already?

    3. I have not! And shall look into them. Thanks!!

  7. Bloomsbury at Home is new to me. Thank you.
    Do you know this book?
    Virginia Woolf's Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk's House by Caroline Zoob. The author was a National Trust tenant, there for ten years.
    Also Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light.

    I'm lucky enough to be able to visit Monk's House, Sissinghurst and Charleston quite easily. I go to Sissinghurst regularly but the houses evoke sadder memories.

    1. I do know about it, and keep thinking I should buy it even though it is $30! I recently bought Mrs Woolf and the Servants and look forward to it. I have a book on Sissinghurst that a dear English blogging friend sent me. I do envy you being close to all those places.

  8. I've read Anjelica's book! It was fascinating and enlightening but I did feel a little sorry for her. She was sheltered in many ways but made to grow up far too fast in others.

    But the conversations you write about, and those that meant so much to you when you were younger, that is one of the things I most envy. When I've read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's diaries, over and over, I'm so interested in how she thrived on conversation, the iron striking iron kind, not the kind of banal party conversations she hated.

    Fascinating post, Nan, and obviously the book fascinated you too. Isn't it odd how a book won't reach us when we first pick it up but later we can't put it down?

    1. Oh, it did 'reach' me at first, but I just didn't have time to finish it then. We were still taking care of our granddaughter four days a week, and it was busy. :<)

  9. The Monk's House is close to Lewes, in Sussex. Richard and I visited Lewes when we were there in October but we didn't make it to the Monk's House. (Richard's parents have been there several times and they love it. I think they said that the artists even decorated and painted the doorknobs there...hey, this is from my memory, Nan, and my computer is old so I can't do a search or I won't be able to finish this comment!)
    When we are in London, we like to stay in the Bloomsbury area, and you would love it, I know, especially thinking that you are walking down the same street as Virginia Woolf.
    I love that the lady sent you this book. You know I love non fiction and this one looks like a really good one.

    1. I am quite positive that you would love this book. I envy Richard's parents. When we were last in England, in 1992, we went but it was closed that day. Tom recently said to me that it is one of the regrets of his life that we didn't get to go.


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