To the Editor:
I have been reluctant to comment critically on “From Clapham to Bloomsbury: A Genealogy of Morals” by Gertrude Himmelfarb [February] because of my indebtedness to the author’s brilliant scholarship in the past. Still, I feel that Miss Himmeltarb’s indictment of the Cambridge-Bloomsbury ethos is rather severe and one-sided. She states that the line of intellectual and spiritual development of that group, the genealogy of its morals, as contrasted with that of the Clapham Sect, was, to borrow a phrase of Leonard Woolf’s, “downhill all the way.” It appears to me that she reaches this damning conclusion because, in part, she restricts herself to the morality of Bloomsbury’s marital and sexual relations and ignores, relatively speaking, other ethical dimensions of social life. In my opinion, she documents her case with some questionable assertions—for example, that Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey gave us “the full measure of the man”; my reading of that excellent work does not support such a sweeping, critical dismissal of Strachey.
Miss Himmelfarb’s evident extreme distaste for Bloomsbury and its morality seems to stem from her passing directly from her description of its members to an appraisal of their behavior without very much attention to that intervening variable of psychology. Her implicit premise throughout her piece seems to be that Bloomsbury homosexuality was simply the result of moral choice, whereas I think that such behavior is better described in the current terminology of the American Psychiatric Association as an “orientation.” And, from that standpoint, being homosexual is no more a choice than being heterosexual.
It is notable that in reviewing the deviant sexual behavior of the “Bloomberries,” Miss Himmelfarb makes no mention of the long and happy marriage of John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova or of the loyalty of Carrington to the despicable Strachey.
In her best polemical style she reviews remarks of those who had anything good to say about the “Bloomsberries”—Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, Quentin Bell, J.K. Johnstone, and even Leon Edel—in order to ridicule this “brave new world . . . devoted to beauty, truth, and love.” She drags in F.R. Leavis, the British critic who carried on a bitter literary feud with Bloomsbury, though he is hardly the most objective person to appraise its morality. Why does she omit the evaluation of Noel Annan who, she admits, “has written the classic study of that intellectual aristocracy,” the Clapham Sect? In the Listener, February 8, 1951, Annan wrote:
The new virtues which people in the 1920′s derived from [a pillar of Bloomsbury, the philosopher G.E.] Moore . . . were humility toward the intellect, hostility toward worldly success, personal affection, liberation of the emotions, admiration of sensibility, hatred of philistinism and compromise, and, above all, ruthless honesty about oneself. Human beings had to be judged according to their own merits and for no other reason.
There is no recognition in Miss Himmelfarb’s article of these new virtues as stated by one whom she apparently respects as a scholar of Victorian culture.
The “acids of modernity,” it must be acknowledged, have eroded much of the foundations of the old Victorian morality, but to celebrate only the morality of the past is to ignore the new challenges of the present. Somehow, as I reread the superb essays in Miss Himmelfarb’s Victorian Minds, I sensed a genealogy of rhetoric from the balanced appraisals of that book to the much more partisan critique of this essay.
Charles H. Hession
Bellport, New York
Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:
I am grateful to Charles H. Hession for his kind remarks about my other writings. And grateful too for being directed to an essay by Noel Annan which I had not read. As an admirer of Annan, I am pleased to find that that essay confirms some of the points I made. For Annan makes it clear that the “new virtues” derived from Moore were entirely private ones and were exercised at the expense of social virtues. In the same paragraph quoted by Mr. Hession, Annan goes on to speak of the “ruthless bad manners” that were part of the new ethic, the “rudeness” that was regarded as a “virtue” by these free spirits, the “cruelty” they thought it proper to inflict upon acquaintances who were “boring” or “stupid and unconverted” or simply less “clever” than they. He describes the “demimondaine quality” of the 20′s which exhibited itself in a restless search for novelty in conduct as well as art, a desire “to be in the vogue, with the vogue continually changing,” a contempt for society and the social code of the “ancien régime.” In all this there was little room for “public life,” such political ideas as they had being notably simple-minded—a “blend of idealism and cynicism,” Annan wryly comments, that was “not a highly intelligent view of politics.” This is not exactly a paean to the new morality.
Mr. Hession complains that I confine myself to the marital and sexual relations of Bloomsbury and ignore, “relatively speaking, other ethical dimensions of social life.” But the point of my essay is precisely the moral and social dimensions of an ethos which celebrated “personal affections” and “aesthetic enjoyments” to the exclusion of any “social duties,” which was so intent upon immediate gratification that even in economics it could make no allowance for the long-term, which made a “religion” of art in place of morality and of “personal relationships” in place of social relationships, which was so enamored of “Love the Beloved Republic” that it seemed natural and proper to choose to betray one’s country rather than one’s friend. It may be that their sexual “permutations and combinations” are more striking than their views on religion, morality, art, philosophy, economics, and politics. But in fact their sexual affairs occupy only two pages toward the end of my essay. So, far from ignoring the “ethical dimensions of social life,” I made this the subject of the greater part of the essay (eight of the ten pages).
The issue is not whether homosexuality is an “orientation” rather than a “moral choice.” It is whether sexual morality (either homosexual or heterosexual) is a “moral choice.” Bloomsbury did not merely act in accord with its sexual orientation; it made a virtue of its sexual liberation, which took the form of promiscuity and infidelity, egoism and narcissism. It celebrated the “Higher Sodomy” not as a biological or physiological orientation but as a higher form of morality. Keynes may be commended for his long and happy marriage to Lydia Lopokova. But the historian or social philosopher may be more impressed by the ethic which he took to be the “religion” of Bloomsbury and which he himself reaffirmed toward the end of his life: “I remain, and always will remain, an immoralist.”