Bloomsbury at Home
by Pamela Todd
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!