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'Bloomsbury' and Beyond: Strachey, Woolf, and Mansfield


'Bloomsbury' and Beyond: Strachey, Woolf, and Mansfield

From The Short Oxford History of English Literature, by Andrew Sanders: 

When the narrator of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited goes up to Oxford as an undergraduate in 1922 he decorates his college rooms with objects indicative of his 'advanced' but essentially derivative taste. Charles Ryder hangs up a reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, a painting which had been shown at the first Post-Impressionist exhibition, and he displays a screen painted by Roger Fry that he has acquired at the closing sale at Fry's pioneering Omega Workshops (a byword for the clumsily experimental interior design of the period). He also shows off a collection of books which he later embarrassedly describes as 'meagre and commonplace.' These books include volumes of Georgian Poetry (the last in the series of which had just appeared), once popular and mildly sensational novels by Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) and Norman Douglas (1868-1952), Roger Fry'sVision and Design of 1920 and Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians of 1918. These last two volumes, issued in a similar popular format in the early 1920s, are the clearest signals of the extent to which the young Ryder has been influenced by the canons of taste enunciated by the group of writers and artists who have come to be known as the 'Bloomsbury Group'. bloomsbury

'Bloomsbury' was never a formal grouping. Its origins lay in male frienships in late nineteenth-century Cambridge; in the early 1900s it found a focus in the Gordon Square house of the children of Leslie Stephen in unfashionable Bloomsbury; it was only with the formation of the 'Memoir Club' in 1920 that it loosely defined the limits of its friendships, relationships, and sympathies. The 'Memoir Club' originally centred on Leslie Stephen's two daughters Virginia and Vanessa, their husbands Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell, and their friends and neighbours Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, and John Maynard Keynes. The group was linked by what Clive Bell later called 'a taste for discussion in the pursuit of truth and a contempt for conventional ways of thinking and feeling, contempt for conventional morals if you will'. Their discussions combined tolerant agnosticism with cultural dogmatism, progressive rationality with social snobbery, practical jokes with refined self-advertisement.  When in 1928 Bell (1881-1964) attempted to define 'Civilization' (in a book of that name) he identified an aggrandized Bloomsbury ideal in the douceur de vivre and witty iconoclasm of the France of the Enlightenment (though, as Virginia Woolf commented, 'in the end it turns out that civiliztion is a lunch party at No 50 Gordon Square'). To its friends 'Bloomsbury' offered a prevision of a relaxed, permissive and élitist future; to its enemies, like the once patronized and later estranged D. H. Lawrence, it was a tight little world peopled by upper-middle-class 'black beetles'.

The prime 'Bloomsbury' text, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, suggests that it is easier to see what the group did not represent than what it did. Strachey's book struck a sympathetic chord with both his friends and the public at large. Eminent Victorians (1918), a collection of four succint biographies of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon, seemed to many readers to deliver the necessary coup de grâce to the false ideals and empty heroism of the nineteenth century. These were principles which seemed to have been tried on the Western Front and found disastrously wanting. Strachey (1880-1932) does not so much mock his subjects as let them damn themselves in the eyes of their more enlightened successors. He works not by frontal assault by by means of the sapping innuendo and the carefully placed, explosive epigram. His models, like Bell's, are the Voltaireand conversationalists of the Paris salons of the eighteenth century, not the earnest Carlylean lectures of Victorian London. When, for example, he speculates about Florence Nightingale's conception of God he jests that 'she felt towards Him as she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer'. In a review written in 1909 Strachey had endorsed the idea that 'the first duty of a great historian is to be an artist'. As his later studies of Queen Victoria (1921) and of Elizabeth and Essex (1928) suggest, Strachey was neither a great historian nor, ultimately, a great biographer, but he was undoubtedly an innovative craftsman. The 'art' of biography has never been quite the same since. It is not simply that he was an iconoclast; he was the master of a prose of elegant disenchantment. His age, if it did not always cultivate elegance, readily understood disenchantment.

Strachey's biographies challenged the conventional wisdom of interpretation. They sprang, like the disparate essays assembled in Roger Fry's Vision and Design, from an urge to establish a new way of seeing and observing which was distinct from the stuffy pieties of the Victorians. Fry's title carefully avoids the word 'form', but it is that word, linked to the crucially qualifying adjective 'significant', which weaves, by direct reference and by implication, in and out of the twenty-five short essays. Although Vision and Design is primarily dedicated to reconsiderations of painting and sculpture, the implications of its theoretical formulations for the experimental fiction of Virginia Woolf are considerable. In his 'Essays in Aesthetics' Fry distinguishes between 'instinctive reactions to sensible objects' and the peculiarly human faculty of 'calling up again . . . the echo of past experiences' in the imagination. The 'whole consciousness', he argues, 'may be focussed upon the perceptive and the emotional aspects of the experience' and thus produced in the imaginative life 'a different set of values, and a different kind of perception'. As the 'chief organ of teh imaginative life' Art works by a set of values distinct from those of pure representation. When he specifically returns to his argument in the book's final 'Retrospect' Fry offers a further definition of the term 'significant form'  as 'something other than agreeable arrangements of form, harmonious patterns, and the like'. A work of art possessing this elusive, and seemingly indefinable quality implies, he asserts, 'the effort on the part of the artist to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit'.

Virginia Woolf's criticism distils and reapplies Bell's and Fry's aesthetic ideas as a means of arguing for the potential freedom of the novel from commonly received understandings of plot, time, and identity. In discussing the revision of traditional modes of representation in her essay 'Modern Fiction', Woolf (1882-1941) insists that each day 'the mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel'. The novelist, attempting to work with this 'incessant shower of innumerable atoms', is forced to recognize that 'if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention', there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe 'in the accepted style'. The task of the future novelist, Woolf therefore suggests, is to convey an impression of the 'luminous halo' of life—'this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit'—with as little mixture of the 'alien and external' as possible. What Woolf seeks to defend in her essays is not necessarily a new range of subjects for the novel, but new ways of rendering and designing the novel. She does more than present a challenge to the received idea of realism; she reaches out to a new aesthetic of realism. Essentially, she defines her own work, and that of contermporaries, such as Lawrence and Joyce, against the example of the Edwardian 'materialists' (and Arnold Bennett in particular) who, to her mind, laid too great a stress on 'the fabric of things'. Not only did they weigh their fiction down with a plethora of external detail, they too readily accepted the constraints of conventional obedience to 'plot' and sequential development. Much as Roger Fry had seen the liberated artist 'bending' intractable material into significance, Woolf insists that the twentieth-century novelist could evolve a new fictional form out of a representation of the 'myriad impressions' which daily impose themselves on the human consciousness.

As Virginia Woolf's fictional style developed beyond the relatively conventional parameters of The Voyage Out(1915) to the experimental representations of consciousness in Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931), specific characterization recedes and the detailed exploration of the individual identity tends to melt into a larger and freer expression. The discontinuities, fragmentations, and disintegrations which her avant-garde artistic contemporaries observed in both the external and the spiritual world become focused for Woolf in the idea, noted in her diary in 1924, of character 'dissipated into shreds'. Her novels attempt both to 'dissipate' character and to reintegrate human experience within an aesthetic shape or 'form'. She seeks to represent the nature of transient sensation, or of conscious and unconscious mental activity, and then to relate it outwards to a more universal awareness of pattern and rhythm. The momentary reaction, the impermanent emotion, the ephemeral stimulus, the random suggestion, and the dissociated thought are effectively 'bent' into a stylistic relationship to something coherent and structured. A 'coherence in things' is what Mrs Ramsay recognizes in a visionary, and quasi-religious, moment of peace in To the Lighthouse as 'as stability . . . something . . . immune from change'. The supposedly random picture of the termporal in Woolf's later fiction is also informed and 'interpreted' by the invocation of the permanent and universal, much as the 'arbitrary' in nature was 'interpreted' with reference to post-Darwinian science, or the complexities of the human psyche unravelled by the application of newly fashionable Freudian theory. Although her characters may often seem to be dissolved into little more than ciphers, what they come to signify is part of a complex iconographic discourse. In the instances of To the Lighthouse and The Waves the glancing insights into the identities of characters are complemented by larger symbols (a flickering lightouse or moving water) which are allowed to be both temporary and permanent, both 'real' and resonant, both constant and fluctuating. The fictional whole thus become a normative expression of certain Modernist themes and modes. Woolf's particular preoccupation with time is closely related to her manifest interest in flux, a dissolution or dissipation of distinctions within a fluid pattern of change and decay, which she recognizes in nature and science as much as in the human psyche.

The informing presence of women characters with an aesthetic propensity, or of particular women artists, serves to moderate and condition the larger ambitions of the narratives in which they appear. Although Virginia Woolf rarely directly echoes the insistent narrative voice of a George Eliot, her own work does reflect what she recognized in her pioneer essay on Eliot (1925) as a tendency to introduce characters who stand for 'that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence' of the novelist herself. If neither Lily Briscoe nor Miss La Trobe possess the cultural significance of a Romola or a Dorothea, both are allowed, as amateur artists, to act out the ordering dilemma of the professional. In the final part of To the Lighthouse the 'weight' of Lily Briscoe's painting seems to be poised as she explores the elusive nature of mass and form: 'Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wint; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.' A similar 'visionary' insight temporarily enlightens the amateur author of the historical pageant around which Between the Acts (1941) is shaped. Miss La Trobe watches entranced as butterflies (traditional images of the human soul) 'gluttonously absorb' the rich colours of the fancy dress strewn on the grass; the possibility of a completer art briefly dawns on her, only to fall apart again. In both novels women's sensibility (and sensitivity) constrasts with the factual 'materialism' of a world dominated by the kind of men who 'negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance' or who insist, as Colonel Mayhew does in Between the Acts, that no picture of history is complete without reference to the British Army. The Mrs Ramsays, the Lily Briscoes, and the Miss La Trobes dream their brief dreams or are vouchsafed momentary 'epiphanies'; the men are often left content with a limited grasp, and presumed control, of the physical world. 

Virginia Woolf's most complete, but ambiguous, representation of the life of a woman character's mind in Mrs Dalloway is also her most thorough experiment with the new technique of interior monologue. The novel plays subtly with the problem of an identity which is both multiple and singular, both public and private, and it gradually insists on the mutual dependence and opposition of the perceptions of Clarissa Dalloway and the shell-shocked ramblings of a victim of the war, Septimus Warren Smith. Mrs Dalloway reveals both the particular originality of Woolf's fictional mode and the more general limitations of her social vision. When she returns to the problem of a dissipated identity in her extraordinary tribute to the English aristocracy, Orlando (1928), she seems to seek both to dissolve and define character in a fanciful concoction of English history nad shifting gender. The book is in part a sentimental tribute to the personal flair and ancestral fixation of her aristocratic friend and fellow-writer, Victoria ('Vita') Sackville-West (1892-1962), in part an exploration of a 'masculine' freedom traditionally denied to women. If Woolf's depiction of the society of her time is as blinkered as that of E. M. Forster by upper-middle-class snobberies and would-be liberalisms, the historical perspective which determined her feminism made for a far more distinctive clarity of argument. In the essay 'Street Haunting' (published in 1942) she writes of the pleasures of a London flâneuse who discovers as the front door shuts that the shell-like nature of domestic withdrawal is broken open 'and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye'. Almost the opposite process is delineated in the study A Room of One's Own (1929), where the existence of a private space, and of a private income, is seen as a prerequisite for the development of a woman writer's creativity. A Room of One's Own is, however, far more than an insistent plea for privacy, leisure, and education; it is a proclamation that women's writing has nearly come of age. It meditates on the pervasiveness of women as the subjects of poetry and on their absence from history; it plays as fancifully as the narrator ofOrlando might with the domestic fate of a woman Shakespeare, but above all it pays tribute to those English novelists, from Aphra Behn to George Eliot, who established a tradition of women's writing. 'Masterpieces are not single and solitary births', she insisted, 'they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.' It is in this tradition that Virginia Woolf most earnestly sought to see herself, a tradition which to her would eventually force open a way for the woman writer to see human beings 'not always in relation to each otehr but in relation to reality; and to the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves'.

Woolf's 'significant forms', shaped from glancing insights and carefully placed and iterated details, are to some degree echoed in the work of her New Zealand-born contemporary, Katherine Mansfield (the pseudonym of Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, 1888-1923). If Mansfield's success with reviewers and readers seems to have stimulated Woolf's jealousy rather than critical generosity (Woolf generally found Mansfield 'inscrutable'), both writers can be seen as developing the post-impressionist principle of suggestiveness and rhythm from a distinctively feminine point of view. Mansfield worked determinedly on a small scale, concentrating on carefully pointed, delicately elusive short stories. Her succint narratives, collected as In a German Pension (1911), Bliss, and Other Stories (1920), and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922), are brief triumphs of style, as style which serves both to suggest a pervasive atmosphere and to establish a series of evanescent sensations (creaks, yawns, draughts, cries, footfalls, bird-calls, and cat's miaows). Where In a German Pension conveys a fastidious dislike of Teutonic manners and mannerisms (though Mansfiedl declined to have the volume reprinted during the Great War), her later stories move towards a greater technical mastery and to a larger world-view. She draws significantly on the landscapes and flora of her native New Zealand (in, for example, 'The Aloe'), she attempst to explore the responses of a wide spectrum of social types, and, by means of a style which takes on a yet more shimmreing elusiveness, she endeavours to describe the mysterious 'diversity of life . . . Death included'. Her own untimely death from tuberculosis cut short a remarkable innovative career.

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