Bloomsbury Group

Desmond MacCarthy’s claim that there “is little in common between the work of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, David Garnett, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster” (Memories 172) is a useful starting point. It provides the necessary names, his own included, and raises the crucial issue of the nature of the group. Some have made stronger claims for Bloomsbury, especially Forster, who once described it “as the only genuine movement in English civilization” (Rosenbaum, Bloomsbury Group 25), but MacCarthy’s comment that they “were neither a movement, nor a push, but only a group of old friends” (172) is closer to the way most of these “old friends” saw their relationship. “We were and always remained,” in Leonard Woolf’s estimation, “primarily and fundamentally a group of friends…. We had no common theory, system or principles which we wanted to commit the world to” (Beginning 23-25). Clive Bell’s answer to his own rhetorical question, “But did such an entity exist? All one can truthfully say is this. A dozen friends” (Rosenbaum, Bloomsbury 87), sums up the Bloomsbury view of itself.

Bloomsbury’s insistence on seeing itself as only a”group of friends” is indeed one of its defining traits. But the Bloomsbury group is based on more than friendship. One can, for example, identify specific aesthetic and ethical concerns that link the most important literary figures on Desmond MacCarthy’s list: E. M. Forster (1879- 1970), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). These concerns have their primary formulation in aesthetic terms in the theoretical writings of Roger Fry (1866-1934) and Clive Bell (1881-1964). A full account of Bloomsbury would involve consideration of the economic theory of Keynes, the political activity of Leonard Woolf, and the painting of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Although Forster’s word “movement” may be too emphatic, Bloomsbury’s shared literary history, as S. P. Rosenbaum has documented, reveals far more coherence than the disclaimers of Leonard Woolf and MacCarthy suggest. With the word “civilization” Forster pointed to what Raymond Williams describes as “the centrality [for Bloomsbury] of shared values of personal affection and aesthetic enjoyment” (45-46). However, for Williams this is a problematic notion in an argument that sees “the true organizing value of the group … [as] the unobstructed expression of the civilized individual” (61).

Because the most important Bloomsbury texts belong to the second and third decades of the twentieth century, Bloomsbury theory and practice need to be seen both as part of and as a response to high modernism. Bloomsbury’s emphasis on the private, the personal, and the domestic offered an alternative to the heroic modernism of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis. Perry Meisel sees Bloomsbury practice as a critique of modernism: “the Bloomsbury design of replacing modernist ideals in all their registers with the real structures of desire that produce them as ideological defences” (191). In its formalist aspect, however, Bloomsbury participated directly in the modernist polemic.

The terms in which its aesthetic theory is stated derive from A. C. Bradley’s 1901 Oxford lecture, “Poetry for Poetry’s Sake.” For Bradley, the poem was an “end in itself,” possessing “intrinsic value” (4). Form and content are inseparable. Like painting and music, poetry can be neither paraphrased nor translated. What the reader apprehends in a poem, according to Bradley, “may be called indifferently an expressed meaning or a significant form” (19), using a phrase that was to have a long afterlife in twentieth-century Art theory .

Family and friends of Vanessa Bell in the walled garden of her home, Charleston farmhouse, in Firle, Sussex/

Bradley did not argue, as the aesthetes of the previous century had done, that art was the end of life, only that it was one kind of human good whose value should not be determined by reference to another. Similarly, Roger Fry in “An Essay on Aesthetics” (1909) placed art in another realm “separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action” (Vision 20). For Fry, the work of art was “an expression of emotions regarded as ends in themselves” (29), the object of artistic vision “existing] . . . for no other purpose than to be seen” (25). The emphasis on the absoluteness of the object is related to Fry’s discovery of Cézanne. In the preface to the catalog of the second post-impressionist exhibition (1912; Fry had organized the first exhibition, in 1910, as well), he argued that the aim of the post-impressionists was “to express by pictorial and plastic form certain spiritual experiences” (237). They did not “seek to imitate form but to create form” (239; just as in Bradley’s terms, poets do not “decorate the mere ‘matter’ with a mere ‘form’, but… produce a new con tent-form” [31]).

Clive Bell’s Art (1914) was also directly inspired by these exhibitions. It was originally to have been part of a longer work, “The New Renaissance,” which was to trace the history of “contemporary art, thought and social organization.. . from earliest times to the present” (Civilization 9). Some of that material appeared in considerably revised form in Civilization (1928) with a dedicatory letter to Virginia Woolf describing its genesis. The 1928 text, however, is very different from the formalist manifesto of 1914, where Bradley’s phrase “significant form” reappears as the answer to the question, “What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions?” (Art 8). Bell acknowledged the subjectivity of this formulation but argued that “we have no other means of recognizing a work of art than our feeling for it” (9). What he sought was a way of linking the viewer’s emotions with the artist’s—a certain arrangement moves us “because it expresses the emotions of its creator” (49)— but he was uneasy with a formulation that suggested that significant form was “the expression of a peculiar emotion felt for reality” (100). He did nonetheless attempt to link aesthetics and ethics. Thus, the claim that “art is above morals” meant “all art is moral… because works of art are immediate means to good” (20). Such a claim derives directly from G. E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher, whose Principia Ethica (1903), emphasizing “personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature [as] good in themselves” (188), was probably the single most influential text in the formation of the Bloomsbury intellectual outlook. Here Bell was using Moore to refute Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?” with its emphasis, in Bell’s phrasing, on art’s “power of promoting good actions” (Art 114). Fry also made a similar criticism, but he saw the importance of Tolstoy’s claim that art need have no necessary connection with what is beautiful in nature as marking “the beginning of fruitful speculation in aesthetic” (Vision 292).

The issues of representation and reference involved both Fry and Bell in speculating on the relationship among the various arts. Bell felt that “if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation” (Art 25). He used music as an example of an art form that is purely nonrepresentational and reprehended the tendency (shared by himself) to hear “the galloping of horses … the laughing of demons” (32), possibly alluding to Forster’s depiction in Howards End (1910) of Helen listening to the “goblin walking quietly over the universe” (30) in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Although Bell argued that literature, unlike music, is not a pure art form—it is by definition intellectual—he assumed in Proust (1928) that the literary text could be submitted to formal analysis. Proust’s time masses were seen as similar to the impressionist’s space masses, for example. But in Bell’s view, Proust was primarily a psychologist and thus failed the test of significant form: “He gives us little or nothing that life would not give if only we could press life hard enough” (57).

Fry also argued in “Some Questions in Esthetics” (1926) that “few novelists ever conceived of the novel as a single perfectly organic esthetic whole” (Transformations 7). But he was more willing than Bell to concede that “an absolutely pure work of art has never been created” (3), although the distinction between pure and impure (following a similar distinction made by Bradley about poetry [Bradley 23, 30]) remained a useful hypothesis. Fry’s writing is on the whole of more interest to literary theory than Bell’s, for Fry maintained the applicability of his approach to all art. “In all cases our reaction to works of art is a reaction to a relation and not to sensations or objects or persons or events” (Transformations 3). Thus, for example, what is essential in great tragedy is “not the emotional intensity of the events portrayed, but the vivid sense of the inevitability of their unfolding, the significance of the curve of crescendo and diminuendo” (10). Similarly, pleasure in a “first-rate novel” does not lie in the recognition of reality; rather, the pleasure “consists in the recognition of inevitable sequences” (Artist 288).

It was Charles Mauron in The Nature of Beauty in Art and Literature (1925, trans., 1927) who provided Fry with the analogy that helped him formulate the relationship among the arts: “What analogue in literature shall we give to volume?… As the painter creates a spatial being, the writer creates a psychological being” (66-67), or, in Fry’s version, “psychological volume” (Transformations 9). This phrase, even more than “significant form,” is crucial for Bloomsbury literary theory and practice. It has considerable explanatory power for Virginia Woolf’s creation of character, for example, and it may lie behind Forster’s distinction between round and flat in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Mauron is an important figure for the linking of the aesthetic and the psychological or the formal and the representational in Bloomsbury theory. His works include Mallarmé l’obscur, L’Inconscient dans l’oeuvre et la vie de Racine, Psychocritique du genre comique, Le Dernier Baudelaire, and, in English, the two texts that were translated by Roger Fry. As much a psychological critic as an aesthetician, however, Mauron did not follow Fry to his purely formal conclusions. In Aesthetics and Psychology (trans. 1935), Mauron asked how “purely formal combinations [can] suddenly open to us … a kingdom our consciousness never reaches in real life” (27). He also found Fry’s musical analogies misleading, for “in the plastic arts, as in poetry, the zero from which the artist starts is not, as in music, pure chance, but a certain preexistent organization of the world, which he will have to destroy in order to create new combinations” (79). For Mauron, the referent neither disappears nor becomes merely a function of aesthetic design. This is obvious in his literary criticism, where, as Linda Hutcheon suggests, “even at his most formalistic, Mauron … could not underestimate the role of meaning or representation in literature; what he would do was displace the locus of both form and signification from the conscious to the unconscious” (39).

As a result of Mauron’s influence, the formalist position in Fry’s later writing was considerably modified to allow for an expanded emphasis on the artist’s emotions: “The contemplative artist is also an adventurer, a discoverer of the emotions and the mysterious significance of his own experiences in front of nature” (French 205-6). Fry and Mauron converge in Forster’s critical writing. Both were friends; both helped him look at pictures. Although Forster shared certain of Fry’s formalist assumptions concerning organic unity, especially as these were mediated by Mauron, all his literary criticism from the early essay “Inspiration” (1913) to Aspects of the Novel (1927, dedicated to Mauron) to the 1949 essay “Art for Art’s Sake” reveals his ambivalence toward formalism.

In “Anonymity” (1925), Forster assumed the formalist premise of organic unity. The poem is “a universe that only answers to its own laws,… [it] internally coheres, … a poem is absolute” (Two Cheers 81). Twenty-four years later, in “Art for Art’s Sake,” he repeated the statement with an interesting qualification: “A work of art— whatever else it may be—is a self-contained entity, with a life of its own imposed on it by its creator. It has internal order. It may have external form” (88; the use of “may” marks the distance between Forster’s position and Fry’s and Bell’s). But “order” in Forster’s vocabulary is not simply a technical term; it implies both a social critique and a metaphysics. Art, for example, is offered as “the one orderly product which our muddling race has produced, . .. the lighthouse which cannot be hidden” (90). It is the product of a creative state to which criticism has essentially no access; it is “rooted in the underside of the mind” (“Inspiration,” Albergo 121). Forster several times compared the creative process to letting “a bucket down into the subconscious” (“Anonymity,” “The Raison d’être of Criticism in the Arts”). Criticism, by contrast, “does not conceive in sleep, or know what it has said [only] after it has said it” (Two Cheers 112). The best that a critic can be is a kind of secular priest who wants to pass on his or her experience, the “glow derived from the central fire” (104). But it is the works of art that are finally empowering insofar as they can “make minor artists out of those who have felt their power” (104), for art can transform “the person who encounters it towards the condition of the person who created it” (113). Literature in this argument is impersonal and anonymous for both writer and reader. Reading thus belongs to the creative rather than the critical faculty. Although Forster repeatedly insisted on the gulf between the creative and critical states, in his own practice the distinction became blurred. He seems to have required it for what one may call his theory of the nontheoretical, an aspect of the same eclecticism that S. P. Rosenbaum suggests is both the form and substance of Aspects of the Novel, thus making it “an anti-critical work of criticism” (“Aspects” 68).

This same ambivalence marked Forster’s writing on music. In “The C Minor of This Life” (1941), he attempted to identify the essential qualities of different keys in much the same way that Fry had tried to classify the properties of colors. He acknowledged in “Not Listening to Music” (1939) that the best music was “untainted by reference” but that it was nevertheless not abstract. What he listened for was “something which [was] neither an aesthetic pattern nor a sermon” (Two Cheers 124), but he was unable to define that “something” more precisely. In terms of structure, Forster’s position was relatively formalist; in terms of response—the activity that was of greater interest to him—his stance, like Mauron’s, was psychological and impressionistic.

“Psychological” and “impressionistic” also describe Strachey’s writing—biographical, historical, and literary. In the essay “A Sidelight on Frederick the Great” he praised the book under review because it was “entirely personal and psychological… . The historian neglects Oliver Cromwell’s warts; but it is just such queer details of physiognomy that the amateur of human nature delights in” (Biographical 106-7). But the historian is not an anecdotist, for “his first duty … is to be an artist,” and he accomplishes this through his power of interpretation, for “uninterpreted truth is as useless as buried gold; and art is the great interpreter” (Spectatorial 13). The clearest statement of his revisionary project for biography occurs in the preface to Eminent Victorians (1918) and is illustrated in the four biographies that follow. His method will be to “shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses” and, using a metaphor that Forster was to pick up, to “row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket” (Eminent vii). Although Strachey does not describe his methods in the language of Fry and Mauron, it is precisely through the manipulation of “psychological volumes” that he “elucidate[d] certain fragments of the truth” (viii) in his unmasking and remaking of the Victorian past both here and in Queen Victoria (1921). Indeed, his sense of his biographical subject is very close to Fry’s and Bell’s view of the artist’s object and to Forster’s view of the atemporality of the literary text. For Strachey, “human beings… have a value which is independent of any temporal processes—which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake” (Eminent viii).

One other relatively minor Bloomsbury literary figure turns up on most lists, the journalist and critic Desmond MacCarthy (1877-1952). He is remembered today chiefly for his drama criticism, especially of Shaw’s Court Theatre plays (The Court Theatre, 1907); for his interest in Ibsen, Proust, and War and Peace (literary tastes shared by all Bloomsbury); and for the criticism he wrote under the signature “Affable Hawk.” He was literary editor of the New Statesman and, from 1928 to 1952, chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times. He appears in memoir after memoir more for his contribution to “the general social climate of Bloomsbury,” in Quentin Bell’s phrase, than for his literary accomplishment.

In Bloomsbury writing, the letter, the lecture, the essay, the story all turn into each other; they are all textualizations of voice. But Bloomsbury not only wrote conversation as an art; it practiced it as well. Virginia Woolf not only talked about painting but she composed a dinner party as one would a still life in order to talk with Walter Sickert about his painting and then imagined that conversation as an essay (“Walter Sickert”). This crossing of generic boundaries is also related to the problematizing of gender—in biographical writing in Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, for example, and, in the mode of fantasy, in Forster’s short fiction and Woolf’s Orlando. In Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, this generic revisionism is part of a feminist challenge to traditional modes of writing and their implicit ideology. Although the Bloomsbury label describes no single literary theory, the writing of the Bloomsbury group has implications for many of the developments of twentieth-century criticism, from formalism and Anglo- American n ew CRITICISM to theories of biography, narrative, gender, and genre.

Peter Allen, The Cambridge Apostles: The Early Years (1978); Quentin Bell, Bloomsbury (1968); Mary Ann Caws, Women of Bloomsbury (1990); David Cecil, Desmond MacCarthy: The Man and His Writings (1984); David Dowling, Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf (1985); Leon Edel, Bloomsbury: A House of Lions (1979); P. N. Furbank, E. M. Forster: A Life (2 vols., 1977-78), “Forster and ‘Bloomsbury’ Prose,” E. M. Forster: A Human Exploration: Centenary Essays (ed. G. K. Das and John Beer, 1979); David Gadd, The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury (1974); Angelica Garnett, Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood (1984); Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Biography (1971); Linda Hutcheon, Formalism and the Freudian Aesthetic: The Example of Charles Mauron (1984); Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968); J. K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group: A Study of E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Their Circle (1954); Donald A. Laing, Clive Bell: An Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings (1983), Roger Fry: An Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings (1979); Paul Levy, G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (1979); Perry Meisel, The Myth of the Modern: A Study in British Literature and Criticism after 1850 (1987); S. P. Rosenbaum, “Aspects of the Novel and Literary History,” E. M. Forster: Centenary Revaluations (ed. Judith Scherer Herz and Robert K. Martin, 1982), Edwardian Bloomsbury (1993), Victorian Bloomsbury: The Early Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group (1987); S. P. Rosenbaum, ed., The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary, and Criticism (1975); Richard Shone, Bloomsbury Portraits: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Their Circle (1976); Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life (1980); Raymond Williams, “The Significance of ‘Bloomsbury’ as a Social and Cultural Group,” Keynes and the Bloomsbury Group (ed. Derek Crabtree and A. P. Thirwell, 1980).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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