The Bloomsbury Idea
Downhill all the Way.
by Leonard Woolf.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 259 pp. $5.95.
Bloomsbury. The word itself is enough to lower one's spirits slightly. To hear once again about how a number of gifted and socially privileged people came together in Cambridge at the turn of the century, and then again in London just before and after the First World War; to be told about the ethos of the group, with its rejection of all the Victorian pieties and the elevation in their place of a morality of skepticism, personal affection, and aesthetic enjoyment; to read about the creative and critical works which the members of the group produced, and the influence which they were able to exercise over the development of English high culture in the years between the two wars . . . no, one feels tempted to decline the invitation.
For one thing, the subjects have been gone over so often, both in memoirs and criticism by various members of Bloomsbury—Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, and E. M. Forster among them—and in the studies of a host of literary critics and historians who have busied themselves with the period. Then, the group and its period have the disadvantage of being too distant from us to be directly relevant to our own concerns, yet still close enough to appear merely out-of-date rather than truly historical. But what tells most against the idea of Bloomsbury, for me, is simply my own lack of enthusiasm for its two central literary figures, the writers whom everyone regards as having been most characteristically, quintessentially Bloomsbury—Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.
So fashion drives out fashion. It may well be that my rather low opinion of their work, which I know to be shared by many contemporaries, is merely another illustration of that dismal rule. Of course, I don't think that it is; but perhaps that is how critical fashion always works, persuading one that a flaccid participation in a general mood is in fact a firm, reasoned, independent expression of judgment. At the age of twenty or thereabouts I read Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians with enjoyment and felt I was learning a great deal from it. Today the affectation and self-regard of its style just set my teeth on edge; much of the book appears silly and vulgar precisely because the author is so anxious to impress us with his own cleverness and refinement. Again, the novel of Virginia Woolf's which I remember being most impressed and moved by is To the Lighthouse. Dipping into it now, at random, I come across innumerable sentences like this: “The spring without a leaf to toss, bright and bare like a virgin fierce in chastity, scornful in purity, was laid out on fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.” So it was on the strength of that kind of sub-Swinburnian prose, filled with such wearily secondhand images and rhythms, that the author was once acclaimed as an exquisite stylist and the creator of truly new forms!
Well, there are better things one can say about some of Virginia Woolf's work in To the Lighthouse and elsewhere; and her driven, sacrificial relationship to literature has in any case its own deep pathos. If all that was necessary to produce significant new artistic forms was the ardent, abstract, bookish desire to do so, she would surely have succeeded. But her position and Strachey's having been as important as they were to Bloomsbury and within Bloomsbury, an adverse judgment on what they actually accomplished must affect one's attitude to the group as a whole, and to the claims that in effect it made for itself. The self-assurance, the certainty that Bloomsbury was manning the very frontier-posts of cultural and artistic advance, the insistence that nothing and no one, and especially not the members of the group, were exempt from its mocking, radical, critical spirit, the belief that its standards and tastes were unquestionably the best that were going, and that its easy access to the centers of cultural power was therefore no more than it deserved—all these appear today to have been more a function of the social position of the group than of the real intellectual distinction of its members.
Now in the volumes of autobiography which he has been bringing out over the last few years, Leonard Woolf totally accepts Bloomsbury's assumptions about itself, not least in taking for granted the profundity and importance of Virginia Woolf's art and the fineness of Lytton Strachey's achievement. Furthermore, he does indeed give us a fairly detailed history of Bloomsbury once more, describing the members of the group individually and collectively and attempting to sum up what they represented in English intellectual life. It may seem, therefore, that everything I have written above is an elaborate way of trying to belittle or dismiss his work. In fact, I don't know how better I can indicate the quality of his autobiography than by saying that though my feelings about Bloomsbury are and remain as I've described them, I have read almost all of the four volumes1 Mr. Woolf has so far published with interest, sympathy, admiration, and a feeling of something like personal affection for the author. He begins the first volume, Sowing, with an account of his middle-class childhood in late-Victorian London; he proceeds steadily and straightforwardly with the tale of his extraordinarily variegated activities and friendships until the fourth and present volume ends with the outbreak of the Second World War. The author was then in his sixtieth year; he is now approaching his nineties, but his vigor as a chronicler and portraitist appears unimpaired. Throughout he writes with an attractive and baffling mixture of simplicity and complexity; frankness, even innocence, and evasiveness; involvement and detachment.
I suppose the author's detachment would alone prevent the autobiography from entering the very highest class of its kind: it lacks the quality of obsession—not so much with the self as with its experience, if the distinction is permissible—which marks all the great English autobiographies from Gibbon's, say, to that of Robert Graves. Yet this detachment, which throws a veil of reflection and doubt between the author and the events presented, is also one of the strengths of the work. Intellectually, the author may belong totally to Bloomsbury, or at any rate to a rather narrow, dry, slightly self-congratulatory tradition of rationalism and liberalism which one inevitably associates with Cambridge and Bloomsbury. Emotionally, however, he seems to stand apart, even more so than he himself realizes; he appears to belong to no one. Not even to Bloomsbury; not even to the wife he cared for so devotedly, and about whom he writes, as a friend said to me, looking for words to describe his dispassionate tone, “as if she were his sister.”
In fact, had she been his sister he wouldn't have written about her at all. Mr. Woolf was one of a large family, and the portraits he gives us of his parents and grandparents in the first volume, Sowing, are some of the finest in the work. Thereafter, except for a parenthetical reference here and there, all the members of his family simply drop out of his story. Clearly, he didn't belong to them. He certainly doesn't belong to the Jews. Having described the nature of his parents' beliefs and what remained of religious practice in their house, the fact that he is a Jew simply doesn't come up again, it just doesn't enter into his life: at any rate not until he mentions that he was warned to avoid traveling in Hitler's Germany before the outbreak of the war. Did his being a Jew never affect, one wonders, his career or social life in the seven years he spent as a colonial official in Ceylon, his only companions during that time being other colonial civil servants—not in general the most enlightened, tolerant, or tactful of British social groups? Did it not arise in the political work he carried out later in England, especially during the rise of Nazism? We can't say; he doesn't think it important enough to tell us. In his reticences as in his candor, here and elsewhere, this particular Jew, product of St. Paul's School and Trinity College, Cambridge, provokes one to declare that the English are simply impenetrable, the most opaque people in the world, sphinxes all.
One can continue setting paradox upon paradox in an attempt to convey the impression of the author's character as it emerges from this work. He is ambitious, he admits readily; and he dislikes ambitious people. He is scrupulously conscientious, to the point of fanatacism, about any job he undertakes; but he is dubious about the value of much of the work he has done, and some of it he believes may have been positively harmful. He is a firm believer in the preservation of law and order, and admits he was a severe judge when he had to try offenders during his term as a colonial officer; but he regards judges as morally no better than the criminals they condemn. He believes in leadership; and he profoundly distrusts all leaders of men. He insists that he is a physical and mental coward; yet it is obvious that when he was serving in Ceylon he often put himself into positions of extreme danger for the sake of the people he governed. However, one cannot accuse him, as one can accuse so many latter-day liberals, of busily working both sides of the street, of doing one thing and congratulating themselves for feeling another. He is merely being faithful to his own experiences and character, both of which are rather more unconventional, as I have already suggested, than the ideas he employs to explain them or to set them in order.
Anyway, the contradictions in his character are reflected in the sometimes startling juxtapositions of the social groups among which he has lived. The son of an immigrant (though quite well-to-do) Jewish mother finds his friends and eventually his wife among the interrelated members of an English intellectual aristocracy. The member of the famous and exclusive Cambridge “secret society,” The Apostles, rules over thousands of acres of Ceylonese swamp and jungle, combating outbreaks of rinderpest disease among cattle and outbreaks of religious violence among men. The zealous and dedicated former colonial servant serves for years on committees established to bring about the abolition of the British Empire; he also acts as secretary to the second of the celebrated post-Impressionist Exhibitions held in London just before the outbreak of the First World War. He lectures on the cooperative movement, stands for Parliament, writes books, edits journals on politics and international affairs, and establishes and manages the Hogarth Press, which soon becomes a commercially successful publishing house, bringing out the work of Freud and T. S. Eliot, among many others. To all these tasks he is compelled to add that of nursing his wife through one nervous crisis after another, some of them taking the form of spells of outright insanity. (Indeed, the Hogarth Press was at first literally nothing more than a hand-operated press which he bought so that his wife might learn printing as a form of occupational therapy.) The amount of work he got through is astonishing, and so is the number of eminent people in political and literary life he knew; and he writes with as much zest about the details of publishing or political lobbying as about dining with the Webbs or meeting Jawaharlal Nehru.
The volume of the autobiography which, I believe, has been most widely read is Beginning Again, in which the author writes in great detail about the course of his wife's illness. (It was to lead ultimately to her suicide in 1940.) The success of that particular volume is understandable, for the story it tells is dramatic and touching, and his remarks on the relationship between Virginia Woolf's illness and her writing are completely persuasive. But my own favorite among the volumes is Growing, the one devoted to his years in Ceylon. That part of his life can be said to belong truly to history in a way that the others do not, for the imperial world it portrays has disappeared utterly. Perhaps for that very reason Growing seems to me to be written with a more openly acknowledged depth of feeling than its companion-volumes. Many former colonial officials have published their memoirs of service in remote corners of the globe; but few of them have had Mr. Woolf's background or shared his political views; few of them have been able to combine his passion for his work with his absence of illusion about it. “Civilized men,” wrote George Orwell, himself a former servant of the Empire, “do not readily move away from the centers of civilization, and in most languages there is a great dearth of what one may call colonial literature.” Quite apart from the wonderful fund of anecdotes it contains about wild animals and wilder men, one feels that in Growing there is a full and fair reflection of all that was admirable, and all that was corrupting both to governed and governors, in the British imperial enterprise.
Downhill All the Way, the most recently published volume, is often bitterly elegiac in tone: in it the author records the death of many members of what he calls Old Bloomsbury, and the ever-increasing shadow thrown over his and everyone else's private life by the political disasters of the inter-war period. In the book we are able to see exactly how Bloomsbury acted as a kind of foster family to what eventually became the “established” New Stateman-ish English Left of the 30's. And just as in the earlier volumes the author seldom if ever gets seriously to grips with the damaging criticisms of Bloomsbury made in different ways by people like D. H. Lawrence, F. R. Leavis, L. H. Myers, the novelist, and (according to Mr. Woolf) Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, so, in the latest volume, he fails to deal with or even to mention the criticisms of the fashionable Left of that time made by George Orwell. In a way, this second failure is almost more surprising than the first, for it is clear that Mr. Woolf himself never had any of the illusions about Stalin's Russia that were cherished by the New Statesman and many of the writers associated with it. If anything, his detestation of the Communists is even more intense than his feelings about the Nazis, because of the nature of the ideals which the former have corrupted.
“I have lived nearly half a century since the end of the 1914 war, watching go by what must have been probably the most senselessly horrible 50 years in human history”—that is the note he is forced to strike again and again in Downhill All the Way. To which, all differences of opinion aside, one can only say that Mr. Woolf has not merely watched the years go by: he has done far more than most people to make them a little less senseless and a little less horrible.
1 The first three volumes, all published by Harcourt, Brace & World, are Sowing, 224 pp., $4.50; Growing, 256 pp., $5.95; and Beginning Again, 288 pp., $4.95—Ed.