by Richard Kaye

from The Gay & Lesbian Literary Heritage, ed. Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), which is the best references work on GLBT Literature. CAPITALIZED NAMES & TERMS refer to related articles in the book.

Seeking to explain the phenomenal popularity in the 1970s of biographical studies of those artists and intellectuals associated with Bloomsbury, the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick pinpointed its "gay liberation, its serious high CAMP." Whether one considers Bloomsbury as a self-infatuated coterie, a forward-thinking commune, a circle of "New Athenians," or a mean-spirited mob, Bloomsbury's open acceptance of erotic license and its hostility toward social convention lend it considerable interest in the history of homosexuality among the English upper classes.

The novelist E. M. FORSTER called Bloomsbury the "only genuine movement in English civilization." Its name was taken from the London neighborhood encompassing Gordon and Fitzroy Squares, where the sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephen established residence after the death of their father, Leslie, in 1904. Those avowedly homosexual figures associated with Bloomsbury, notably Forster, the biographer LYTTON STRACHEY, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the painter Duncan Grant, found exuberant advocates in their fellow-traveling Bloomsbury friends VIRGINIA WOOLF, Vanessa Bell, Virginia's husband, Leonard Woolf, the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, the painter Dora Carrington, and the hostess Ottoline Morell, whose estate Garsington was a Bloomsbury outpost of amorous badinage, infatuation, and gossip, much of it homosexual in character. "Sex permeated our conversation," recalled Virginia Woolf before the London Memoir Club in 1922. "The word bugger was never far from our lips."

Undoubtedly the most flamboyant of the "Bloomsbuggers," as the homosexual members of Bloomsbury were called, was Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), son of a distinguished soldier and Indian administrator. While a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Strachey met Keynes and Leonard Woolf and later went on to head the Apostles, Cambridge's exclusive intellectual society to which also belonged several other figures associated with Bloomsbury, including Forster, Leonard Woolf, and Keynes. Strachey's classic Eminent Victorians (1918) was in some ways Bloomsbury's definitive text, a withering attack on the Victorian era's earnest promotion of self-improvement, chauvinism, and hypocrisy. Skewering Cardinal Manning as a Machiavellian careerist, Florence Nightingale as a manipulative neurotic, the educator Dr. Arnold as a middle-brow prig, and General Gordon as an imperialist crank, Strachey targeted a whole system of repressive values left over from the previous era. Eminent Victorians, along with Strachey's Queen Victoria (1921) and Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928), was among the earliest biographical works to employ Freudian analytical techniques. (Strachey's brother James was the first English translator of Freud.) Lytton's fondness for comic biographical detail - Cardinal Wiseman's Irish servant respectfully referring to the heavy-set cardinal as "your immense," Florence Nightingale employing soldiers' wives to clean her laundry during the Crimean War - made Strachey the architect of an altogether new literary genre: camp biography.

Indeed, Strachey was the true heir of OSCAR WILDE in the irreverent brio of his wit, captured in Strachey's celebrated retort to an officer who, confronted with the writer's pacifist objections to joining the army, demanded to know what he would do if a Hun attempted to rape his sister. "I would," Strachey responded coolly, "insert my own body between them." Asked by a woman during the war years why he was not fighting for civilization, he answered, "I am, Madam, the civilization for which they are fighting."

Although none of Strachey's published work addressed homosexual issues, his correspondence is a testament to the ardor that Strachey lavished on the young men with whom he was continually, guiltlessly smitten. "His face is outspoken," Strachey wrote of Duncan Grant, "bold and not just rough. It's the full, aquiline type, with frank grey-blue eyes and incomparably lascivious lips." His brief account of Bloomsbury life, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's free-associative fiction, captured Bloomsbury's quality of pastoral homoeroticism: "Perhaps it was because of the easy goingness of the place and the quantities of food, or was it because... and then the vision of that young postman with the fair hair and the lovely country complexion who had said 'Good evening, sir', as he passed on his bicycle, flashed upon me." Strachey's Ermyntrude and Esmeralda (composed in 1913 but published in 1969), a semipornographic epistolary novel written as an exchange of letters between two naive seventeen-year-old girls, is a send-up of, among other matters, sodomy among the middle classes. Strachey, with his rationalist attitude toward homosexual sex and his tone of ironic detachment, was the most characteristic Bloomsbury figure. He could inspire, however, keen contempt among outsiders. The novelist VITA SACKVILLE-WEST loathed him, while the poet Rupert Brooke described a meeting with Strachey as a "most unbearably sickening disgusting blinding nightmare."

The bearded, wiry, and bespectacled Strachey conducted several homosexual love affairs, among them a relationship in the winter of 1905-1906 with his cousin Duncan Grant. Grant's sexual charisma was famously overwhelming. "Anyone could fall in love with Duncan if he wanted to," noted Keynes. (A common quip had it that Bloomsbury could be defined as a congeries of men and women in love with Grant.) "I have fallen in love hopelessly and ultimately," Strachey wrote to Clive Bell after beginning his affair with Grant. "I have experienced too much ecstasy." Soon, however, the affair fizzled, for not only was Grant distressed by Strachey's unchecked enthusiasm, he had recently begun a relationship with Harold Hobhouse, and subsequently, with John Keynes, a romantic involvement that lasted from 1908 to 1912.

The still-smitten Strachey, meanwhile, continued to correspond with Keynes over his love for Grant. "He's a genius - a colossal portent of fire and glory," gushed Strachey to Keynes of the painter. On learning of Grant's affair with Keynes, Strachey was at first crushed and then attempted, in typical Bloomsbury fashion, to put a cheerful face on what conventional society would have deemed an impossible situation. "If you were here just now I should probably kiss you," he told Keynes, "except that Duncan would be jealous, which would never do." The friendship between Grant and Keynes endured until Keynes's death in 1946.

One of Strachey's strongest emotional attachments was to Dora Carrington, who, though aware of his taste in men, idealized Strachey for some seventeen years even as she conducted an affair with the Russian Jewish emigre painter Mark Gertler. "When one realizes it is there - a part of them [homosexuals] and a small part - it is worthwhile overlooking it for anything bigger and more valuable," she wrote. On Strachey's death, Carrington committed suicide, claiming she could not survive without her lifelong confidant. The Strachey-Carrington-Gertler triangle served as a defining myth of Bloomsbury's appeal as an enlightened, close-knit enclave open to same-sex amours. Carrington's death and Gertler's subsequent suicide before the Second World War lend the affair a pathos that undermines Bloomsbury's reputation as a place of endless lighthearted mischief, much as did Virginia Woolf's suicide shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

Woolf's attenuated affair with Vita Sackville-West, wife of British MP Harold Nicolson, was a notable romantic escapade in Bloomsbury's history. "Am I in love with her!" wondered Woolf in her diary, "But what is love?" Sackville-West wrote to Nicolson, "Oh my dear, what an enchanting person Virginia is! How she weaves magic into life." An outsider to Bloomsbury, Vita became the inspiration for the heroine of Woolf's novel Orlando (1928), the story of a time traveler who changes sexes through different historical epochs. Woolf remained giddily taken up with the homosexual antics of her fellow Bloomsburies, a fascination that began as an ingenue's awakening to the preponderance of homosexual males in her circle. "I knew there were buggers in PLATO's Greece," Virginia wrote, "but it never occurred to me that there were buggers even now in the Stephen sitting-room in Gordon Square." To the extent that Woolf held an interest in homosexual literary themes, that interest was subsumed under the novelist's promotion of an "androgynous" creative outlook as an escape from the suffocating binaries of masculine and feminine. Other Bloomsburies were similarly absorbed with the subject of androgyny. At Cambridge, Duncan and Vanessa had decorated Keynes's rooms with a series of alternating panels depicting androgynous male and female types.

Equal in stature to Virginia Woolf and Forster, John Maynard Keynes saw enormous fame outside Gordon Square as the architect of one of the twentieth century's most influential economic theories. Strachey, like other members of the Bloomsbury set, considered Keynes a Bloomsbury anomaly in his insufficiently evolved aesthetic sense. (Virginia complained that Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace "goes on influencing the world, although it is lacking in artistic worth," a remark that may have been generated by Keynes's once having suggested to Woolf that she limit her writing to nonfiction.) Keynes's marriage to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova in 1925 struck many Bloomsburies as a betrayal of personal allegiances. Yet of all the "Bloomsbuggers," Keynes was the least susceptible to effete malice. In his memoirs, he hazarded that "We [members of Bloomsburyl had no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraint of custom.... It did not occur to any of us to respect the extraordinary accomplishment of our predecessors in the ordering of life (as it now seems to me to have been) or the elaborate framework they had devised to protect this order."

Despite the close attention devoted to homosexual affairs by Bloomsbury and its inspired attacks on middle-class morality, its followers contributed few theoretical or creative insights to questions concerning same-sex eros, though Forster, who claimed he was not an authentic member of the Bloomsbury set, could write powerfully on homosexual themes. While pacifist in outlook, Bloomsbury harbored no politically activist impulses of the kind that animated the contemporaneous Fabians and that might have given their self-confident advocacy of bisexuality resonance beyond the self-preening confines of Gordon Square. Although Leonard Woolf was a socialist and Virginia's Three Guineas became a landmark of feminist thought, Bloomsbury was too remorselessly and independently skeptical to embrace a "homosexual cause" - or, for that matter, any cause.

The group's intellectual affiliations partly stemmed from the philosopher G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica, an influential text for the youthful Strachey, Bell, Forster, and Keynes as students at Cambridge. In a passage that could have constituted Bloomsbury's credo, Moore asserted that "by far the most valuable things which we can know or imagine" are "certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects." The Fabian thinker Beatrice Webb called Moore's book "a metaphysical justification for doing what you like and what other people disapprove of." Webb's criticism reveals the fissures between the activism of Fabian socialism and the hedonism of Bloomsbury philosophy, suggesting, too, why Bloomsbury retains the reputation of a largely apolitical Edwardian idyll.

With the exception of Virginia, Bloomsbury was more anti-Victorian than promodernist, its followers more the heirs to Paterian AESTHETICISM than participants in the unfolding modernist awakening inspired by Joyce, LAWRENCE, ELIOT, and STEIN. Moreover, Bloomsbury grew to distrust any hint of sincerity or philosophical utilitarianism. "Were all truths equally good to pursue and contemplate?" asked Keynes in his recollection of Bloomsbury before the Memoir Club. "We were disposed to repudiate very strongly the idea that useful knowledge could be preferable to useless knowledge."

Enemies of Bloomsbury usually cast it as a site of homosexual self-indulgence and self-preening snobbery. The writer Wyndham Lewis called Duncan Grant "A little fairy-like individual who would have received no attention in any country except England." D. H. Lawrence, who inserted a portrait of Duncan into Lady Chatterley's Lover as a "dark-skinned taciturn Hamlet of a fellow," complained that Bloomsbury members "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." Taking an instant dislike to David Garnett's friend, the emphatically homosexual Francis Birrell, Lawrence wrote to Garnett, "You must leave these friends, these beetles, Birrell and Duncan Grant are done forever. Lawrence's own insecurities as a working-class artist with homosexual inclinations, a graduate of Nottingham University and not Cambridge, undoubtedly fed his disgust. Bloomsbury paid him and other critics little mind, however. Garnett would later take Grant as a lover, and, in an astonishing development, Vanessa Bell's and Grant's out-of-wedlock child, Angelica, became at age twenty-three Garnett's wife.

Perhaps the most devastating critique of Bloomsbury came from Angelica Garnett. In 1984, she published a memoir, Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood, in which she detailed her shock at discovering as an adult the identity of her real father and her realization that her husband had been her father's lover. The book's note of mournful betrayal in the face of what Garnett termed Bloomsbury's "precarious paradise" of damaging ambiguities provided a sobering coda to what had become the much-burnished myth of 46 Gordon Square.

A sun-dappled Brook Farm for bisexual transcendentalists, Bloomsbury stands as an alluring if rarefied instance in the history of personal relations.


Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, 1972. * Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. New York: Lippincott, 1979. * Gadd, David. The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomrbury. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. * Garnett, Angelica. Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. * Holroyd, Michael. Lytton Strachey: A Biography. New York: Penguin, 1971. * Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary and Criticism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975. * Skidelsky, Robert. John Maynard Keynes: Volume 1, Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920. New York: Penguin, 1986. * -- . John Maynard Keynes: Volume II, The Economist as Saviour, 1920-1937. New York: Penguin, 1994

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