To the Editor:
Virginia Woolf was one of the novelists I always included in a course on the 20th-century novel I taught for several decades. I therefore looked forward to reading Elizabeth Powers’s “The Stain on Vanessa Stephen’s Dress” [November 1997], believing that here at last was going to be a balanced response to all those supercharged books and articles analyzing Woolf as a pioneer of feminism, a victim of Victorian patriarchy and male lust, and an example of the excellence a woman can achieve as a writer only when freed from such oppression.
Alas, after reading the article, I was more baffled than enlightened. Elizabeth Powers was ostensibly discussing a new biography of Virginia Woolf, but her real target turned out to be Bloomsbury itself, a group she characterizes as “privileged pygmies (John Maynard Keynes excepted).” I presume, then, that the characterization would hold for E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, and Lytton Strachey as well.
Now the Bloomsbury circle does not belong in any moral pantheon, but to call a fine novelist like Forster, a brilliant mathematician-philosopher like Russell, and an eminent (and notorious) biographer like Strachey “pygmies” is like denouncing the military skill of Ulysses S. Grant because he drank too much.
My main argument with Elizabeth Powers, however, is her contention that it was Virginia Woolf’s interaction with Bloomsbury that contributed decisively to her feeling of alienation and murky sense of inner and outer reality. Although Miss Powers does admit early in her article that Virginia’s “family tree reveals sufficient evidence of madness, melancholy, and mental affliction,” she seems to stress Virginia’s Bloomsbury connection as the major factor in her collapse. But she fails to present sufficient evidence to prove that these “privileged pygmies” had so giant an influence on the keenly sensitive and discerning Virginia Woolf.
American International College
To the Editor:
Whether or not Virginia Woolf suffered from a “patriarchal” background, the Bloomsbury group into which she was “thrown” hardly consisted of “pygmies,” as Elizabeth Powers asserts. She seems blind to Bloomsbury’s cultural importance, comparable to that of the pre-Raphaelites several decades earlier.
The Woolfs found themselves in the midst of a small, brilliantly gifted community of modernists. Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, a perceptive writer for the London newspapers, also wrote novels. Virginia’s sister Vanessa, like Duncan Grant, achieved much as a painter (though, admittedly, Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell tended to mediocrity). Lytton Strachey—whose satirical bent gives Elizabeth Powers the title of her piece—created a new style of biography.
Considering all the critical acclaim Bloomsbury has received over the years, its legacy has much significance. Efforts to treat it with derision are in poor taste.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
To the Editor:
I am grateful to Elizabeth Powers for finally finding the right language, examples, and focus for describing Bloomsbury. The group’s combination of snobbism, self-satisfaction, and sneering hostility to the existing morality and culture still attracts people, though I hope the article will help to destroy its remaining authority.
I have always had one question about Bloomsbury, however: what can possibly explain the air of discovery with which the Bloomsberries trumpeted their way of life? The Victorian-Edwardian culture they denounced was certainly not one of moralistic pieties and simplicities. It was a world in which Joseph Conrad and Henry James wrote and were rather popular. Religious doubt and the struggle with it had been one of its central preoccupations for over a half-century. The worship of Art was already a century old.
As for sexual life, George Eliot, the pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, Wilde, Beardsley, Edward VII and his mistresses, Lloyd George, Asquith, and Mrs. Randolph Churchill, to name only a few examples, would have been surprised to hear how sparse and constrained were their opportunities.
How could the Blooms-bury crowd have so misunderstood the elite world in which they were growing up? And how could they get away with a representation of it so fundamentally fraudulent? Answering these questions would help solve the mystery of a sudden decline in culture that we, the heirs of its successive episodes, still need to understand.
Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.
School of Advanced
Johns Hopkins University
Elizabeth Powers writes:
Milton Birnbaum has a wider conception of Blooms-bury than I do. Bertrand Russell? Why not include Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, and the Sitwells? E.M Forster is a bit more problematic. He was at Cambridge with Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, et al., but he did not come into the Bloomsbury orbit until after 1911, well after the period I consider to have had a major effect on Virginia Woolf’s personal and artistic development.
Mr. Birnbaum further faults me for making Bloomsbury the “major factor” in Virginia Woolf’s collapse. But I did not rule out the possibility that she was manic-depressive. My argument, rather, was that her work, from her first novel to her final memoir, records her growing recognition of the sterility of Bloomsbury’s values.
As for David Lawson, to compare the meager, derivative output of Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant with the high artistic endeavor and achievement of the pre-Raphaelites is ludicrous. It is instructive, in connection with the sterility of which I am speaking, that neither Bell nor Grant can point to any artistic heirs.
What is crucial about Bloomsbury is the way it enthroned the private prejudices and judgments of its members. In that, of course, it has legions of heirs. Bloomsbury seems to encapsulate an attitude that has become more and more prevalent in modern life, the smug “air of discovery” of which Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr. rightly complains. It is epitomized in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, with its knowing condescension toward forebears—an achievement, one should note, that for all its influence did not prevent Bertrand Russell from concluding that Strachey himself was not a great man.