“For the Englishman,” Nietzsche wrote in 1889, “morality is not yet a problem.” The English thought that religion was no longer needed as a “guarantee of morality,” that morality could be known “intuitively.” But that illusion was itself a reflection of the persistent strength and depth among them of the Christian “ascendancy.” Forgetting the religious origin of their morality, they also forgot the “highly conditional nature of its right to exist.” If Christianity should ever lose that ascendancy, Nietzsche implied, morality would be deprived of even that tenuous hold on reality and would then truly become a “problem.”
A generation later morality was very much a problem, and for precisely the reasons Nietzsche foresaw. It was not a problem, to be sure, for the mass of Englishmen. But then Nietzsche was not thinking of the mass, the “slave class,” who mindlessly observed the moral rules and conventions sanctified by time. He was thinking of the “priestly aristocracy,” or its modern equivalent, the “ruling caste” of philosophers, scholars, and aesthetes—what Coleridge and Mill had called the national “clerisy” and what more recently has gone under the name of the “intellectual aristocracy.” Noel Annan, who has written the classic study of that intellectual aristocracy, required ten genealogical charts to trace the lineage of some of its central characters. But it would require something like a three-dimensional chart to show their literary, philosophic, philanthropic, and political relationships, as well as those of blood and marriage. And it would require nothing less than a history of modern England to draw out all the implications of that tangled web. Yet the line of intellectual and spiritual development, the genealogy of morals, is fairly simple and straightforward. Indeed it is very much as Nietzsche predicted.
It took one century for that genealogy to work itself out, a century encapsulated in the opening sentence of an essay by E. M. Forster: “Hannah More was the godmother of my great-aunt.” In good aristocratic fashion, Forster did not deign to identify his characters. He did quote some gems from Hannah More: “Going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it, and that a very severe one”; and “He who is taught arithmetic on a Sunday when a boy, will, when a man, open his shop on a Sunday.” But he did not bother to explain that More was a leading figure in the “moral reformation” movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the campaign to reform rich and poor alike by persuading the rich to give up their dissipations (the opera) and the poor theirs (drink). Nor did he explain that More’s strictures against the teaching of arithmetic on Sunday did not apply to the teaching of reading: she was, in fact, a vigorous advocate of Sunday schools (she personally founded and subsidized several such schools), which played an important part in the advance of literacy among the poor.
Hannah More was not only the godmother of Forster’s great-aunt, Marianne Thornton; she was a friend and associate of his great-grandfather, Henry Thornton. Banker, philanthropist, and Member of Parliament, Thornton is principally known as one of the founders of the Clapham Sect, the influential group of Evangelicals whose most notable public achievement was the abolition of the slave trade. (He was, in fact, responsible for the name of the group, since it was his home in Clapham, shared for some years by William Wilberforce, that served as its headquarters and attracted other Evangelicals to that remote part of London.) In another essay, Forster assigned to Thornton “two claims on the notice of posterity”: an essay on paper credit, which had the distinction of being reissued more than a century later with an introduction by Friedrich Hayek, and a best-selling volume, Family Prayers, which continued to provide royalties for the family even into Forster’s own time. The conjunction of the two works seems to make of Clapham an unholy union of commerce and piety. Only at the very end of the essay did Forster consider the possibility that posterity might also remember his great-grandfather as the man who helped free the slaves. But this fact, belatedly noted, was somewhat discounted by the observation that while it was a great work, it “now needs all doing over again,” for while Thornton was acutely aware of the evils of slavery, he was totally insensitive to the evils of “commercialism.”
Had Forster’s friend, Lytton Strachey, been writing of the Clapham Sect he would have been frankly contemptuous of those high-minded Evangelicals who drew their spiritual sustenance from prayer, their material sustenance from commerce, and their moral sustenance from philanthropy. That was not Forster’s tone. He was tolerant, even respectful, of his ancestors, making it clear that so far from being bigoted or hypocritical, they were intelligent, cultivated, urbane, humane, their religiosity expressing itself more in moral conduct and good works than in theological dogma or rituals. But he did not conceal his own sense of remoteness from them, a remoteness not diminished by his childhood memories of Clapham or by his considerable knowledge of the family history. His biography of Marianne Thornton is a period piece, charming but slight, as if any serious work might have obliged him to be more critical. Read in the context of his own life and work, it only serves to accentuate the enormous distance between the Clapham of his forebears and the Cambridge and Bloomsbury that were his own natural habitats.
At one point, introducing another prominent member of the Clapham Sect, Forster asked, “Who on earth was Zachary Macaulay?” to which he replied, “Mr. R. C. Trevelyan’s great-grandfather.” It was a typical Forster (and Bloomsbury) ploy: to reduce the sublime, so to speak, to the ridiculous, the Clapham worthy to the Bloomsbury acolyte. R. C. Trevelyan (Bob Trevy, as he appears in the memoirs of his Bloomsbury friends) was a minor poet and playwright, “amusing but vague to a degree,” as Lytton Strachey described him. Zachary Macaulay would surely have preferred to be identified as the great-grandfather of G. M. Trevelyan, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, or, better yet, as the father of T.B. Macaulay, one of England’s greatest historians.
T.B. Macaulay was not only the historian-laureate of Victorian England; he was a perfect specimen of the second-generation Evangelical. Lacking the religious fervor of his father, he cherished the moral and civic values that he knew to be the bequest of that Evangelical heritage. When he criticized Bentham’s utilitarianism, it was on the ground that such a philosophy could not satisfy the moral instincts of men, the need for an “ought” that was not identical with the “is,” a sense of obligation that was not the same as self-interest. Christianity provided that additional element, he explained, because it held out the prospect of an “infinite happiness thereafter” in compensation for whatever sacrifice of happiness was required in the pursuit of duty on earth. “This is practical philosophy. . . . A man is told to do something which otherwise he would not do, and is furnished with a new motive for doing it.” It was, to be sure, a “practical philosophy” based upon a much attenuated religion. But even in that form, as a kind of evangelized utilitarianism, it was far removed from the secularized utilitarianism of the Benthamites—and still farther removed from the later philosophy of Bloomsbury which provided no ground, either in utility or in religion, for doing anything save what one wanted to do.
A similar intellectual and moral line age can be traced in other families that were in a direct line of descent from Clapham to Bloomsbury. James Stephen, a passionate Evangelical and dedicated abolitionist, moved to Clapham to be close to the sect and married into it when he took as his second wife Wilberforce’s widowed sister. Like the Macaulays, each generation of Stephens witnessed a successive diminution of religious faith. Leslie Stephen, the grandson of James and the father of four of the charter members of Bloomsbury, was so far gone in disbelief as to call himself an agnostic. But like most agnostics of that late Victorian generation, he believed irreligion to be entirely compatible with the most rigorous and conventional morality. His credo was simple: “I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality etc., etc. I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible.” His Science of Ethics was one of many attempts to base ethics upon evolution and altruism upon egoism, and it was no more successful than the others. But the impulse behind it was clear: to provide a “scientific” basis for a moral code that made the good of others more compelling than the good of oneself. If that secular moral code, the code of a “gentleman,” separated him from the Clapham of his grandfather, it separated him still more from the Bloomsbury of his children.
Not all the members of Bloomsbury traced their descent from Clapham. But most of them were related to that “intellectual aristocracy” which, by the end of the century, included some of the most notable Victorian names: Macaulay, Trevelyan, Tennyson, Wilberforce, Thornton, Stephen, Strachey, Fry, Wedgwood, Darwin, Huxley, Arnold, Thackeray, Booth. (Conspicuous omissions in this aristocracy are Mill, Carlyle, Ruskin, Eliot, and Newman, who, for one reason or another, left no progeny.)
Those who were not related by blood or marriage developed even closer ties in the still more exclusive aristocracy spawned by Cambridge. All of the men later identified with Bloomsbury (with the exception of Duncan Grant) had been at Cambridge, and most of them had belonged to that most coveted and select society, the Apostles. Since membership in the Apostles was a lifetime affair, the few undergraduates (“embryos”) fortunate enough to receive that distinction had the privilege of associating with the “angels” of previous generations. Thus Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Maynard Keynes, and Saxon Sydney-Turner found themselves, in the Saturday evening meetings of the society, engaged in discussion with G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Roger Fry, E. M. Forster, Desmond MacCarthy, and others who were to become lifelong friends. (Clive Bell was one of the few Bloomsbury men who was not an Apostle, and he felt the slight all his life.) In a sense Bloomsbury was to be another kind of select society, a continuation of university life in the more bohemian environs of London, close to the center of literary and artistic life and far from the respectable, conventional homes of their parents.
If “Victorianism,” in the familiar sense of that word, antedated the reign of Queen Victoria (a good case can be made for locating its origins in Evangelicalism), it did not long survive the death of the Queen. It was a nice accident of history that Edward VII, that very un-Victorian Prince of Wales, should have ascended to the throne in January 1901, thus inaugurating a new century as well as a new era. Three years later Leslie Stephen died and shortly afterward his children moved from the family house in Kensington to the then unfashionable Bloomsbury. It was to be, his daughter Virginia was determined, the beginning of a new life. “Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.”
By the end of the decade (and the end of Edward’s reign), Bloomsbury had become the home, or home away from home, for Vanessa, Virginia, and Adrian Stephen (the older brother Thoby having died a few years earlier), Clive Bell (married to Vanessa), Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Desmond MacCarthy, Roger Fry, and Saxon Sydney-Turner; Leonard Woolf joined his old Cambridge friends when he returned from India in 1911 (and married Virginia the following year). This was the hard core of Bloomsbury. As with all such groups there was a circle of fellow-travelers or sympathizers, which included E. M. Forster, James Strachey (Lytton’s brother and the translator of Freud), R. C. Trevelyan, Francis Birrell, and others who drifted in and out of the Bloomsbury orbit. And as with all such groups, there were those among them who insisted that they were too varied to constitute a group. The disclaimer is disingenuous; no one has suggested that they were homogeneous or monolithic. But they did have a good deal in common, and they did think of themselves, and others thought of them, as “Bloomsbury.” They were, in fact, more organized than most such groups, gathering regularly before the war at Thursday soirées in Bloomsbury (Saturday evenings being reserved for the Apostles at Cambridge), and during the 20’s and 30’s meeting as a Memoir Club for the express purpose of reminiscing about themselves. (At one time the painters among them met on Fridays and another group on Tuesdays for the reading of plays.)
If the “Bloomsberries” (again their term) did not review each other’s books quite as consistently and effusively as their enemies claimed, they certainly had more opportunities than most to do so. In the 20’s Leonard Woolf became literary editor of the Nation (after it had been reorganized financially by Keynes), while Desmond MacCarthy was literary editor of the New Statesman and, later, the senior literary critic of the Sunday Times. And it is not many such groups that can boast their own publishing house, the Hogarth Press, which even had its own printing press. Nor was it only the literary faction of Bloomsbury that was so well-connected. Roger Fry’s first Post-Impressionist exhibit of 1910 had been exclusively French, but his second, two years later, was more cosmopolitan; of the nine English painters, three were pure Bloomsbury—Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Fry himself—and the non-Bloomsbury painter, Wyndham Lewis, was represented by a portrait of Lytton Strachey. Clive Bell, who was later to protest that they were not a group, suggested to Fry in 1917 that he paint a “great historical group portrait of Bloomsbury.” Fry himself did not paint such a portrait, but Vanessa started to do one of “Old Bloomsbury,” the original group. Although that picture was never finished, she later painted one of the group which included the younger generation, with portraits of the deceased members in the background.
Bloomsbury was, in fact, as much a group (or circle or coterie) as Clapham was a sect. And it performed something of the same function, setting the tone and agenda for the cultural “vanguard” of the nation. Where Clapham had inspired a moral and spiritual reformation, Bloomsbury sought to effect a moral and spiritual liberation—a liberation from Clapham itself and from those vestiges of Evangelicalism and Victorianism that still persisted in the early 20th century. If Bloomsbury was not much concerned with religion, of the Evangelical or any other variety, it was because its parent generation had already abandoned conventional religion. What had not yet been abandoned by that older generation, however, was a moral and social ethic that was as compelling as the religious ethic of Clapham. The late Victorians were as philanthropic-minded as the early Evangelicals, but lacking the religious imperative for philanthropy, they made of it a science and a profession. Instead of founding Sunday schools, they instituted a system of compulsory day schools; instead of improving the morals and manners of the poor, they improved their housing and working conditions; instead of engaging in family prayers, they observed the moral proprieties that had become a surrogate for religious pieties. (There were, of course, mavericks among the late Victorians: Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons, and the other fin-de-siècle “aesthetes” and “decadents.” But they never had anything like the influence of Bloomsbury; and Bloomsbury itself felt no connection with them.)
It was against the whole of this late Victorian ethos, the public and the private, that Bloomsbury rebelled. “How does one come by one’s morality?” Virginia Woolf asked. “Surely by reading the poets.” It was an answer that would have appalled her father, who suspected poetry of being a prescription for immorality, an invitation to be “morbid” and “unmanly,” to indulge one’s private emotions and fancies at the expense of one’s personal and public duties. In invoking poetry as a source of morality, Virginia was claiming for aesthetics that absolute, peremptory quality her father had assigned to ethics. And in making the novel a species of poetry, as she tried to do, she was removing it from the domain of social reality where it might have intimations of social morality. The true novel, Virginia Woolf maintained, was held together not by a story or plot but by the emotions of the author. “She is a poet,” Forster said of her, “who wants to write something as near to a novel as possible.”
As Virginia Woolf made a morality of poetry, so Roger Fry and Clive Bell made a religion of art. “Art is a religion. It is an expression of and a means to states of mind as holy as any that men are capable of experiencing.” It was, moreover, the distinctively modern form of religion. “It is toward art that modern minds turn, not only for the most perfect expression of transcendent emotion, but for an inspiration by which to live.” That “inspiration” was entirely private and personal, not a way to live in society but a way to live with oneself, with one’s own feelings and sensibilities. True art was autonomous: “completely self-consistent, self-supporting, and self-contained—constructions which do not stand for something else, but appear to have ultimate value and in that sense to be real.”
When Virginia Woolf made her famous pronouncement, “In or about December 1910, human character changed,” she may have chosen that date because of the Post-Impressionist exhibit of that time which had so altered the artistic sensibilities of the generation. But her more immediate frame of reference was literary—the passage from the “social realism,” as we would now say, of the Edwardian writers (H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy) to the “impressionism” of the Georgians (E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, James Joyce, and, of course, herself). For the former, the novel was inseparable from external reality; it was incomplete without an account of the social milieu or physical surroundings. For the latter, it was self-sufficient, a thing-in-itself; its world was what the author chose to make of it.
If the modern novel was, in this sense, free, unconstrained by reality, so was the modern author. The “human character” that changed in December 1910 was the character of the artist, not of the common man. Ordinary people were bound, as they had always been, by the habits and customs devised for “timid natures who dare not allow their souls free play.” But writers and artists could no longer be so circumscribed; they had to be free to follow the “vast variety and turmoil of human impulses.” Their own characters were as autonomous as the characters they created. To look upon them as ordinary people, to place them “under an obligation to others,” to put them in the position of “living for others, not for our-selves,” was to violate their nature and endanger their calling.
This was the Bloomsbury credo: living for “our-selves.” Not, significantly, for “oneself.” The Bloomsberries were not Nietzscheans, “proud solitaries . . . hard, strict, continent, heroic,” each drawing upon his own inner resources to resist the conventions and illusions of his culture. They derived their strength and independence from each other. If they recognized no obligations to “others,” to society at large, they did recognize (in their own perverse fashion) a loyalty to each other. Like the Apostles who professed to find only themselves “real” and referred to everyone else as “phenomena,” the Bloomsberries extended their affections only to their intimates; for the rest of the world they had at best an amused tolerance, at worst (and more often) an undisguised contempt. It was because they were so conspicuously a group that they were able to found an “adversary culture” strong enough to challenge the bourgeois culture. And it was for this reason too that they were spared the total solipsism that would otherwise have been their individual fates.
The basic tenets of Bloomsbury derived from the philosophy of G. E. Moore. For Virginia the move to Bloomsbury in 1904 was the beginning of a new life. For most of the men in the group—her brother Thoby, her future husband Leonard Woolf and her future brother-in-law Clive Bell, her friends Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, and Desmond MacCarthy—the beginning came in Cambridge several months earlier with the publication of Moore’s Principia Ethica. “I date from October 1903,” Strachey wrote Moore at the time, “the beginning of the Age of Reason.” Keynes, in retrospect, was even more rhapsodic. “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, we were not afraid of anything.” Again and again in the pronouncements of Bloomsbury one hears that triumphal acclaim of the new. Thus Vanessa Bell: “A great new freedom seemed about to come.” Or Leonard Woolf: “We were out to construct something new. . . . We were in the van of the builders of a new society which should be free, rational, civilized.”
Moore, the author of that new dispensation, was only a few years older than his disciples. (Keynes was twenty and Strachey twenty-three when the Principia appeared; Moore himself, having earlier discussed many of the ideas of the book with the Apostles, was all of twenty-eight when he started to write it and not quite thirty when it was published.) For these young men the Principia was a manifesto of liberation, a release from the old morality and, they suspected, from all morality. The heart of the book, as they read it, was the last chapter, “The Ideal,” where Moore argued that the fundamental truth of moral philosophy involved “states of consciousness” (not, as traditional moral philosophy had it, of conscience), and that the highest states of consciousness were “the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.” These were the only “goods in themselves,” desirable “purely for their own sakes”; they included “all the greatest, and by far the greatest, goods we can imagine.”
If Bloomsbury had any philosophy it was this: a total commitment to “personal affections” and “aesthetic enjoyments.” This was not, to be sure, the whole of Moore’s philosophy. But it was the part that appealed to the Cambridge undergraduates and Apostles who later made up Bloomsbury. Even Virginia Woolf, who had no taste for philosophy, read the Principia in 1908, persevering in spite of great difficulties; according to Leonard Woolf, Moore was the only philosopher to have influenced her. (The book appears in the novel she started to write in 1909, The Voyage Out, where the reader is expected to recognize it by its familiar dark brown binding.)
While Moore himself was not a “member” of Bloomsbury (he did not attend Virginia’s Thursday “evenings,” although his work was often discussed there), he remained a presence in the lives of Keynes, Woolf, Bell, and the others. Long after they left Cambridge, they continued to see each other at meetings of the Apostles and at the reading parties organized by Moore.
In a memoir read to the surviving members of Bloomsbury many years later, Keynes spoke movingly of Moore’s effect upon them. They accepted, he explained, Moore’s “religion” while discarding his “morals.” “Indeed, in our opinion, one of the greatest advantages of his religion, was that it made morals unnecessary—meaning by ‘religion’ one’s attitude toward oneself and the ultimate and by ‘morals’ one’s attitude toward the outside world and the intermediate.” What they did not accept was the feeble concession to conventional morality in the penultimate chapter of the Principia, where Moore suggested that in those cases where one was unable to foresee the long-term consequences of any particular mode of conduct, one should observe the existing rules of morality. This, Keynes insisted, violated the most important principle of Bloomsbury:
We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. 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.
What Bloomsbury took from Moore was a philosophy that sanctioned, if not immorality, then at the very least amorality. For the “states of consciousness” that were at the heart of that philosophy had nothing to do with conduct or consequences. “Being good” was their objective, not “doing good.” And being good was being in those heightened states of consciousness, those “timeless, passionate states of contemplation and communion” which were conducive to “love, beauty, and truth”—not virtue. And even love, beauty, and truth were carefully delineated so as to remove any taint of utility or morality. Useless knowledge was deemed preferable to useful; corporeal beauty to mental qualities; present and immediately realizable goods to remote or indirect ones. Thus, Keynes recalled, Bloomsbury “lived entirely in present experience,” repudiating not only the idea of “duty” but any kind of “social action,” and not only social action but the “life of action generally,” a life that might entail such disagreeable pursuits as “power, politics, success, wealth, ambition.”
Writing thirty-five years after the delivery of the “new dispensation,” when he himself, having engaged very successfully in a life of action, had achieved a fair measure of the goods of that life, Keynes was able to be wry and even critical about some aspects of the Bloomsbury creed. It was based, he came to realize, upon too rational and utopian a view of human nature; it did not appreciate how thin and precarious the crust of civilization was, how dependent men were upon “customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom.”
That judgment, made in the fall of 1938, on the eve of World War II, did not require great insight or boldness. More remarkable is the fact that even at that time and at his mature age, Keynes should have taken the occasion to reaffirm the essential tenets of the creed. Whatever its faults, he found it still “nearer the truth than any other that I know, with less irrelevant extraneous matter and nothing to be ashamed of.” In retrospect he was confident that “this religion of ours was a very good one to grow up under.” And not only to grow up under but to live with, for it was still, he went on to say, “my religion under the surface.” Nor did he shrink from the implication of that “religion”: “I remain, and always will remain, an immoralist.” Keynes did not claim that Moore was an “immoralist”; what he did say was that Bloomsbury found in Moore’s philosophy the rationale for immoralism. This interpretation of Moore was not peculiar to Bloomsbury. Beatrice Webb deplored the influence of the Principia on Bertrand Russell and some of the young Fabians. “I never can see anything in it, except a metaphysical justification for doing what you like and what other people disapprove of!”
In one sense Keynes is the most interesting of the group, because he defied at least one of its precepts. He not only lived a “life of action,” he did so in the most bourgeois and materialistic of professions. If it was partly accident that originally drew him to economics, it was talent and ambition that kept him there. Yet even while pursuing that sordid occupation, at Cambridge and at the Treasury, he made it clear that he regarded economics as a separate and altogether inferior sphere of life and that he personally deplored any emphasis on economic motives or criteria. Bertrand Russell recalled that while Keynes “escaped into the great world,” he did so with the air of a “bishop in partibus”; when he ventured forth into the mundane world of economics or politics, “he left his soul at home.”1
In fact something of the “soul” of Bloomsbury penetrated even into Keynes’s economic theories. There is a discernible connection between the Bloomsbury ethos, which put a premium on immediate and present satisfactions, and Keynesian economics, which is based entirely on the short run and precludes any long-term judgments. (Keynes’s famous remark, “In the long run we are all dead,” also has an obvious connection with his homosexuality—what Schumpeter delicately spoke of as his “childless vision.”) The ethos was reflected as well in the Keynesian doctrine that consumption rather than saving is the source of economic growth—indeed, that thrift is economically and socially harmful. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written long before The General Theory, Keynes voiced his suspicion of the “virtue” of saving. The capitalists, he said, deluded the working classes into thinking that their interests were best served by saving rather than consuming. That delusion was part of the age-old Puritan fallacy:
The duty of “saving” became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated. Individuals would be exhorted not so much to abstain as to defer, and to cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation. Saving was for old age or for your children; but this was only in theory—the virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.
In his public life as well, Keynes kept faith with Bloomsbury, in spite of the suspicions of his friends. Although he was much criticized for not resigning from the Treasury in protest against World War I, he managed to oppose the war in his own way, and perhaps more effectively than he might have done had he retired to private life. He used his official position, for example, to promote the view that military conscription and food rationing were both unnecessary and impractical and that Britain’s resources were inadequate for a serious, full-scale war. And he intervened on several occasions on behalf of friends who were seeking to be relieved of military service on the ground of conscientious objection. He himself, like most of the Bloomsbury men, applied for exemption on that ground and withdrew his application only when he decided to continue at the Treasury and thus was automatically exempt. Whatever discretion he exercised in public, to his friends he made no secret of his hostility to the war. When the proposals for peace talks broke down late in 1917, he wrote to Duncan Grant: “I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.” Nor did he think better of the British government or its allies at the Versailles Conference. The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1920, had something of the same tone and character as Strachey’s Eminent Victorians which had appeared the previous year, Lloyd George, Wilson, and Clemenceau seeming to be as hypocritical and venal as Cardinal Manning, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon.
World War I, which took so heavy a toll among just that class represented by Bloomsbury (and which is so movingly described in Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That), left Bloomsbury itself with no casualties. The only ones to come anywhere near the front lines were Desmond MacCarthy who was with the Red Cross in the first winter of the war, and David Garnett who served briefly with a Friends’ ambulance unit. The rest were either excused from military service for medical reasons or were conscientious objectors assigned to farm labor. Grant and Garnett, for example, spent the last years of the war at Charleston, a farm in Sussex rented by the Bells. Only four miles from the home of the Woolfs, Charleston became the wartime center of the clan—“Bloomsbury-by-the-Sea,” Quentin Bell called it.
Even in its opposition to the war, Bloomsbury distinguished itself from other conscientious objectors—indeed gave as much offense to them as to the supporters of the war. It was not pacifism that inspired Bloomsbury; its objections were not to war in general but to this war. And to this war not on specific political grounds but rather on social grounds, so to speak, because of disaffection with the society and the country at large. Duncan Grant explained to his father, a major in the army, why the war seemed to him to be a crime against “civilization.” He was, he confessed, “unpatriotic” as most artists were. “I began to see that ones enemies were not vague masses of foreign people, but the mass of people in one’s own country and the mass of people in the enemy country, and that one’s friends were people of true ideas that one might and did meet in every country one visited.”
This contempt for the masses, as well as for the bourgeoisie, is dramatically illustrated in the familiar anecdote about Strachey’s request to be exempted from military service. Before an audience packed with friends and relatives, Strachey slowly inflated an air cushion, carefully seated himself upon it (he claimed to have piles), and adjusted a traveling rug over his knees, before finally deigning to address himself to the questions of the tribunal. One question proved irresistible. Asked what he would do if he saw a German soldier trying to rape his sister, he solemnly looked at each of his sisters in turn and replied, in his high-pitched voice, “I should try and interpose my own body.” Even if one discounts this episode as Strachey at his most outrageous, it is harder to discount the delight with which his friends received this quip, or the comment of Quentin Bell, a true son of Bloomsbury, that Strachey’s attitude was “at once intelligent and irreverent.”
If there were fewer such episodes after the war, it was because Bloomsbury chose to épater les bourgeois in other ways. But the basic attitude toward public affairs persisted—a combination of irreverence, indifference, and aristocratic disdain. In 1938, about the same time that Keynes was preparing his memoir, Forster wrote an essay that perfectly captured the Bloomsbury spirit. “I do not,” the essay opened, “believe in Belief.” What is more, he did not regret his lack of belief; indeed he disliked and distrusted belief. His lawgivers were not Moses or St. Paul but Erasmus and Montaigne; his temple stood not on Mount Moriah but in that Elysian Field “where even the immoral are admitted”; his motto was: “Lord, I disbelieve—help thou my unbelief.” But pressed for his own belief, he would oblige by invoking “personal relationships,” the only good and solid thing in a world full of violence and cruelty. This was the one article of faith he could unequivocally affirm: “I certainly can proclaim that I believe in personal relationships.”
It was in this essay, written after the rise of Communism and Nazism and under the shadow of war, that Forster made the much-quoted statement: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” For Forster and his friends that choice did not take guts; it was only another way of asserting the primacy of “personal relationships” they had always prided themselves on and the contempt for public affairs that was really a contempt for the public. Nor did it take guts to give only “two cheers for Democracy.” “Two cheers are quite enough,” Forster insisted, “there is no occasion to give three. Only Love the Beloved Republic deserves that.” The two cheers were for variety and criticism which were stimulated by democracy, and which, in turn, nourished the true aristocracy: “Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” It might have been Bloomsbury Forster was alluding to when he described an aristocracy whose members have a “secret understanding when they meet,” and who represent “the true human condition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.”
Forster’s two cheers for democracy were not a rousing two cheers; they were more like a well-mannered “hear, hear.” They were intended on the one hand as a rebuke to those who were inclined to give democracy no cheers at all—to the Communists who cared little for criticism or variety and wanted only to impose their own version of a Beloved Republic under the aegis of the party. But they were also a rebuke to those who were so misguided as to give three cheers for democracy, not realizing that the best part of democracy, its saving remnant, was the aristocracy that was not beholden to it, an aristocracy whose ultimate loyalty was to “Love the Beloved Republic,” and who would betray, if need be, their country but not their friends (still less their lovers).
An earlier version of the “two cheers” theme was Forster’s statement, to a congress of writers in Paris in 1935, that he was “a bourgeois who adheres to the British constitution, adheres to it rather than supports it.” That lecture also suggested that Forster was not as immune from the “virus” of Communism as Keynes supposed all of Bloomsbury to be. To a group that included many Communists, Forster explained that while he himself was not a Communist, he might have been had he been “a younger and a braver man,” for in Communism he could see hope; although it did many evil things, “I know that it intends good.” (He went on to devote the bulk of his speech to the “Fabio-Fascism” that was menacing England, the major example of which was the censorship of a homosexual novel, Boy.) While Forster’s tolerance for Communism disappeared in later years, his distrust of democracy did not. He was convinced that the war, however necessary, would inevitably bring totalitarianism with it. “Sensitive people,” he wrote just after Munich, knew what the politicians did not, “that if fascism wins we are done for, and that we must become fascist to win.”
“Love the Beloved Republic”—that motto is a cruel parody of Bloomsbury. Only recently have we discovered how large a part love played among its members and what form it took. It is fitting, as Hilton Kramer has pointed out, that so much of the attention given them should focus upon their private lives rather than their work. For in spite of their enormous productivity, the fact is that (with the notable exception of Keynes and the possible exception of Virginia Woolf) their memoirs, letters, and diaries have proved more memorable than their novels, biographies, essays, and paintings. Indeed it is hard to see how they could have written and painted as much as they did in view of the enormous amount of time and effort that went into all those memoirs, letters, and diaries, to say nothing of the extraordinary amount of psychic energy that went into their complicated personal lives. (Virginia Woolf herself left five volumes of diaries and six of letters.)
If they were so absorbed with themselves—how many such groups could sustain a Memoir Club over a period of two decades?—it is little wonder that others have shared that interest. Nor is it surprising that they should be exposed to the kind of biographical scrutiny that Strachey made fashionable, and their public lives, their work, should be seen as a reflection of their private lives. Thus Eminent Victorians is thought to be more an expression of the personality and mentality of the author than of his ostensible subjects. And Virginia Woolf survives today less as a minor novelist than as a woman desperately seeking her sexual and psychic identity; when her novels are not being probed for feminist messages, they are being ransacked for autobiographical allusions and revelations.
It is ironic that people who prided themselves on their honesty and candor, especially in regard to their much vaunted “personal affections”—in contrast, as they thought, to Victorian hypocrisy and duplicity—should have succeeded for so long in concealing the truth about those personal affections. Even so perceptive and psychoanalytically-minded a critic as Lionel Trilling was able to write a full-length study of Forster in 1943 without realizing that he was a homosexual. Nor did Roy Harrod, in his biography of Keynes published in 1951 (the definitive biography, as it seemed at the time and as it remained for more than thirty years), see fit to mention Keynes’s homosexuality—a deliberate suppression since Harrod was a friend of Keynes and was perfectly aware of his sexual proclivities and activities. Nor did Leonard Woolf, in a five-volume autobiography that was entirely candid about his wife’s mental breakdowns, give any indication of the frenetic sexual affairs of everyone around him. (Woolf was perhaps the only monogamous and heterosexual one among them—and probably also celibate, since Virginia Woolf was sexually frigid, at least in relation to men.) Nor was James Strachey, Lytton’s younger brother, more forthcoming; it is especially ironic that the disciple, translator, and popularizer of Freud should have forbidden access to Lytton’s papers for more than thirty years after Lytton’s death, and that he raised innumerable objections to the biography in which they were finally used. (He did, however, intervene to preserve Keynes’s letters to Strachey when Keynes’s brother threatened to destroy them.)
As late as 1968, Quentin Bell, the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, published a book on Bloomsbury in which he admittedly “suppressed a good deal that I know and much more at which I can guess.” He could hardly claim that such information would be damaging to those who were long since dead (only Leonard Woolf and Duncan Grant were then still alive). Instead he offered an explanation worthy of the most proper Victorian: “This is, primarily, a study in the history of ideas, and although the moeurs of Bloomsbury have to be considered and will in a general way be described, I am not required nor am I inclined to act as Clio’s chambermaid, to sniff into commodes or under beds, to open love letters or to scrutinize diaries.” That explanation is especially incongruous in the case of people who made an art form of letters and diaries, and who were themselves not at all averse to sniffing into commodes and under beds.
It is now apparent that what was being suppressed was not the fact of homosexuality itself; that was far too commonplace to qualify as a revelation, let alone to warrant suppression. The true revelation, which first emerged in Michael Holroyd’s two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey in 1967-68 and which has since been confirmed in a host of memoirs and biographies (of which the most notable is the first volume of Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes published in 1983, this a truly definitive one), is the compulsive and promiscuous nature of that homosexuality. Bloomsbury itself marveled at the “permutations and combinations” of which it was capable. In 1907, for example, Strachey discovered that his lover (and cousin) Duncan Grant was also having an affair with Arthur Hobhouse, who, in turn, was having an affair with Keynes. The following year Strachey was even more distressed to learn that Grant was now having an affair with Keynes as well. He apprised Leonard Woolf, then in Ceylon, of this latest development: “Dieu! It’s a mad mixture; are you shocked? We do rather permeate and combine. I’ve never been in love with Maynard and I’ve never copulated with Hobbes [Hobhouse], but at the moment, I can’t think of any more exceptions.” Thirty years later Keynes recalled that period as “a succession of permutations of short sharp superficial ‘intrigues.’ ”
The wit who described Bloomsbury as a place where “all the couples were triangles and lived in squares” did not do justice to them; some more polygonal figure would be required to describe those “couples.” Vanessa Stephen, for example, was regarded by the others as the most solid and stable of them all—“monolithic,” they called her, a “solid feminine integrity,” one historian has described her. In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell, in part, as she recognized, to console her for the loss of her beloved brother Thoby who had been Clive’s friend. (She had earlier rejected Clive and agreed to marry him two days after Thoby’s death.) Four years later, with the tacit acquiescence of her husband (who had been having a series of affairs, including one with Molly MacCarthy, Desmond’s wife), Vanessa started an affair with Roger Fry. The ménage à trois had lasted two years when Roger complained to Clive that Vanessa was transferring her affections to Duncan Grant, who had suddenly (and, unhappily for Vanessa, only temporarily) acquired a taste for heterosexuality. (Duncan had earlier been her brother Adrian’s lover as well as Strachey’s and Keynes’s.) The following year Vanessa gave birth to Angelica. Although everyone in the circle knew that Duncan was the father, the child was registered under the name of Bell and was brought up to think of him as her father. (This was partly for the benefit of Clive’s parents who helped support them.)
By the time Angelica herself was married to David (“Bunny”) Garnett, she knew the identity of her real father. What she did not then know was that her husband had been her father’s (Duncan’s) lover and had tried (for once unsuccessfully) to have an affair with her mother as well—this about the time when she was conceived. Out of pique and jealousy, Garnett had boasted, on the day of her birth, that he would marry her twenty years hence. And so he did, his timetable off by two years because he had to wait for the death of his wife. He had started his affair with Angelica, however, some two years earlier, and he even managed to make his first sexual overtures to her in a car, with Duncan in the back seat and in sight of his invalid wife who sat watching for their arrival from her window. Although Duncan and Vanessa were somewhat disturbed by the thought of the marriage of their daughter to their old friend, they were not sufficiently so to try seriously to prevent it; they were far more disturbed by not being invited to the wedding.
“The world is damned queer—it really is. But people won’t recognize the immensity of its queerness.” We are only now beginning to recognize how “queer” that world was—not only homosexual but bisexual, androgynous, near-incestuous, and polymorphously promiscuous. If the biographer or historian of Bloomsbury is obliged to take this seriously, it is because his characters did, because they made a morality (or “religion,” as Keynes put it) of “personal affections” as well as of “aesthetic enjoyments.” Indeed the two were of a piece, the “new dispensation” inaugurating an ethic of “modernism,” so to speak, together with the aesthetic of modernism.
The “Higher Sodomy,” as they called it, seemed to them to be not only a higher form of sexuality; it was a higher form of morality. In sex as in art they were autonomous and self-contained, free to experiment and express themselves without inhibition or guilt. That sense of autonomy and liberation, the cultivation of states of consciousness and feeling, the exaltation of the self and the denigration of society, the emphasis upon immediate gratification, all contributed to the narcissism and egoism, the perversity and promiscuity that Keynes himself recognized to be a form of immorality. If this was a vulgarization of Moore, it was one to which Moore was susceptible and which Bloomsbury exploited. Strachey once explained to Keynes the difficulty of converting the world to “Moorism”:
Our great stumbling-block in the business of introducing the world to Moorism is our horror of half-measures. We can’t be content with telling the truth—we must tell the whole truth; and the whole truth is the Devil. Voltaire abolished Christianity by believing in god. It’s madness of us to dream of making dowagers understand that feelings are good, when we say in the same breath that the best ones are sodomitical.
They had, in fact, too much contempt for the “dowagers” of this world to try to convert them. Instead they themselves chose to live with that “whole truth.”
Perhaps in a hundred years, Strachey speculated, when their letters were finally published, everyone would be converted. Now that those letters, and so much else as well, are being published, we can begin to take the measure of their “truth.”2 We can also, finally, begin to discard the myths that they circulated about themselves and that have been perpetuated by their admirers. These myths have a long history and come to us on good authority: from Leonard Woolf before World War I proclaiming Bloomsbury “the builders of a new society which should be free, rational, civilized”; to Virginia Woolf a decade later assuring a friend that Bloomsbury’s view of life was by no means “corrupt or sinister or merely intellectual” but rather “ascetic and austere indeed”; to Forster in the midst of World War II commemorating Strachey for his “wit and aristocratic good manners,” his implacable “pursuit of truth,” his belief in “fidelity between human beings” and “constant affection”; to Quentin Bell praising his parents’ generation for seeking “a life of rational and pacific freedom,” of “reason, charity, and good sense”; to the historian, J. K. Johnstone, describing Bloomsbury’s mission as carrying forward “the highest and most spiritual ideas of the past into a century which has paid scant attention to the things of the spirit”; to the distinguished biographer, Leon Edel, who takes his title, A House of Lions, from Virginia’s comparison of Bloomsbury with the lions’ house at the zoo where “all the animals are dangerous, rather suspicious of each other, and full of fascination and mystery,” and who transforms that lions’ house into an eminently “humanistic world,” where they were all bound together by a chain of love and sex happily freed of “Victorian guilt and shame”; to all the others who continue to pay tribute to the brave new world of Bloomsbury, a world devoted to beauty, truth, and love.
Against that view the few dissenting voices have seemed churlish and priggish. Keynes’s memoir had been provoked by an earlier paper by David Garnett recalling the bitter hostility of D. H. Lawrence to the Cambridge-Bloomsbury group. Garnett quoted a letter Lawrence had written him in 1915:
To hear these young people talk really fills me with black fury: they talk endlessly, but endlessly—and never, never a good thing said. They are cased each in a hard little shell of his own and out of this they talk words. There is never for one second any outgoing of feeling and no reverence, not a crumb or grain of reverence. I cannot stand it. I will not have people like this—I had rather be alone. They made me dream of a beetle that bites like a scorpion. But I killed it—a very large beetle. I scotched it and it ran off—but I came on it again, and killed it. It is this horror of little swarming selves I can’t stand.
To Garnett the issue was simple: Lawrence was jealous of Garnett’s friends and vexed by a rationalism so at odds with his own penchant for intuition and instinct. Keynes took a more complicated view of it, seeing Lawrence as simultaneously repelled and attracted by a “civilization” that was alien to him. But Keynes, while affirming his own commitment to that civilization, went on to admit that there was some justice in Lawrence’s attack. Bloomsbury’s civilization, he said, was a thin veneer beneath which seethed the reality of “vulgar passion”; its rationalism was a disguise for cynicism, and its irreverence and libertinism were a form of “intellectual chic.”
Reviewing Keynes’s memoir after its posthumous publication, F. R. Leavis saw it as an unwitting confirmation of Lawrence’s views. Even at that late stage of his life, Leavis found, Keynes still did not appreciate the full enormity of the “Cambridge-Bloomsbury ethos.” He still took it seriously, not realizing that its gravest flaw was that it was “inimical to the development of any real seriousness.” What looked like articulateness and sophistication was callowness, conceit, and complacency, an acute case of arrested development and undergraduate immaturity. In place of Lawrence’s image of a large, hideous beetle, Leavis invoked what he took to be its equivalent: the figure of Lytton Strachey. “Let it be remembered that the ‘civilization’ celebrated by Keynes produced Lytton Strachey, and that the literary world dominated by that ‘civilization’ made Lytton Strachey a living Master and a prevailing influence.” And then, as if to point up still more the heinousness of that fact, he asked: “Can we imagine Sidgwick or Leslie Stephen or Maitland being influenced by, or interested in, the equivalent of Lytton Strachey? By what steps, and by the operation of what causes, did so great a change come over Cambridge in so comparatively short a time?”
Leavis wrote that review long before Holroyd’s biography of Strachey gave us the full measure of the man, and before a host of other biographies and autobiographies gave us the full measure of Bloomsbury. We can now appreciate that Strachey was not an anomaly in Bloomsbury but was, as Leavis implied, its essence. And we can also appreciate the contrast between the generation of Strachey and that of his elders—those late Victorians whom Strachey, and Bloomsbury, so mercilessly derided.
We may also better appreciate the force of Nietzsche’s warning: that the late Victorian Englishmen for whom “morality is not yet a problem” would give way to a post-Victorian generation for whom morality would be not only problematic but nonexistent. For what Nietzsche saw, and what Leavis did not, was the precariousness of that late Victorian morality, a morality that was all the more admirable, perhaps, because it tried to maintain itself without the sanctions and consolations of religion, but that was too impoverished, too far removed from its original inspiration, to transmit itself to the next generation.
1 Leonard Woolf also ventured into the “great world”; he was an active member of the Fabian Society, served on parliamentary commissions, and was deeply involved in Labor party politics. (He once even sought a seat in Parliament.) But then Woolf was never regarded as a full-fledged member of the clan. In his novel, The Wise Virgins, a roman à clef written while he was courting Virginia, one character complains, “You talk and you talk and you talk—no blood in you! You never do anything.” When his friend asks why he thinks it important to do things, he replies, “Why? Because I'm a Jew, I tell you—I'm a Jew.” No one in that circle ever forgot that Woolf was a Jew, least of all Virginia (although she was very grateful to him and, in her way, loved him). Years later, she recalled, “How I hated marrying a Jew—how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewelry, and their noses and their wattles.”
2 Virginia Woolf's letters and diaries make especially painful reading. Clever, perceptive, often scintillating, they are also unremittingly snobbish (her contempt for the middle classes was matched only by her disgust with the working classes), anti-Semitic, malicious, and even cruel (toward servants, most notably). Moreover, these traits spill over into her literary judgments, as in her comments on Joyce's Ulysses: “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating.” Her husband, who rarely permitted any sexual comments to appear in his edition of extracts from her diaries, evidently thought there was nothing objectionable in this entry.