Young Bloomsbury: The Generation that Reimagined Love, Freedom and Self-Expression

by Nino Strachey

Two Roads, £25, pp.348

It’s been a century since the heyday of the Bloomsbury Group and now Nino Strachey, a descendant of one of the key Bloomsbury families, has written a superb, sparky and reflective book charting the doings of the younger members of the artistic and intellectual coterie. While it is easy to identify Old Bloomsbury – the old familiar names include Lytton and James Strachey, Duncan Grant, David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Desmond and Molly MacCarthy – naming the younger ‘Bloomsberries’ (Molly MacCarthy coined the subversive spelling) is a slippery task.

Do we count Dora Carrington (1893-1932), who loved Lytton to distraction, and after his death found she could not live without him? In order to be with Lytton Carrington married the man he loved, Ralph Partridge (1894-1960), who then married Frances Marshall (1900-2004). James Strachey (1887-1967) married Alix Sargent-Florence (1892-1973); he had a life-long affair with Noël Olivier (1892-1969) , and Alix had a lesbian fling or two. Bisexuality was the Bloomsbury norm, and Nino Strachey’s ‘Young Bloomsbury’ rubric includes the brothers Angus (1898-1980) and Douglas Davidson (1901-1960), Eddie Gathorne-Hardy (1901-1978), Raymond Mortimer (1895-1980), Philip Ritchie, Dadie Rylands (1902-1999), Eddy Sackville-West (1901-1965), Roger Senhouse (1900-1970), Sebastian Sprott (1897-1971), John Strachey (1901-1963, the left-wing politician who was the author’s distant cousin), Julia Stachey (1901-1979), Stephen Tennant (1906-1987), Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin (1901-1937) and the Americans Henrietta Bingham (1901-1968), Mina Kirstein (1896-1985) and Esther Murphy (1897-1962).

Nino Strachey intriguingly invites us to think of Bloomsbury as a brand, embracing Woolf’s, Garnett’s and Forster’s novels, Lytton’s biographies, his brother James’s contributions to psychoanalysis, Clive Bell’s and Roger Fry’s criticism, the art of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Carrington and the decorative arts of the Omega Workshop.

Most of the personnel lived in Bloomsbury, though the Group’s origins lay in the Cambridge Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles, a select and secret discussion club that was founded in 1820, and whose best-known guru was the philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958). Apostles tended to help each other to climb social and professional ladders, as did Bloomsberries. Strachey sees both lots as ‘finding new ways to connect: a commitment to honest communications between the sexes, to freedom in creativity, to openness in all sexual matters. A family of choice, they created ties of love that lasted a lifetime, embracing queerness, acknowledging difference, defying traditional moral codes.’ This comes across as a generous love-letter to Bloomsbury, and Strachey allows that she has skin in this game, ‘as the mother of a teenager who identifies as gender-fluid and queer.’

So far, so commendable. Strachey’s analysis of young Bloomsbury as addicted to truth, but rejecting ‘faith, fidelity, heterosexuality and patriotism’ is not just woke but wide awake. After 1918 this second generation of young men were free from the threat of conscription that blighted the youth of their elders, but it is here that Strachey goes a little wrong. She even calls Lytton and James pacifists on p. 224, But Lytton’s plea for exemption to conscription of 7 March 1916 said explicitly that

I have a conscientious objection to assisting, by any deliberate action of mine, in carrying on the war. This objection is not based on religious belief, but upon moral considerations, at which I arrived after long and careful thought. I do not wish to assert the extremely general proposition that I should never in any circumstances, be justified in taking part in any conceivable war;…

In this statement, which was taken as a model by most of the Bloomsbury conscientious objectors, Lytton makes it plain that he is not a pacifist. While all absolute pacifists are presumably conscientious objectors, not all conscientious objectors are pacifists. There is a clear parallel here to the young American conscientious objectors who rejected serving in Vietnam.

But then, as I argued as early as 1972, in Lytton Strachey: The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers, Lytton and his peers had more in common with the generation of 1968 than they did with their Edwardian cohort. Not only were they in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, but as enthusiasts for female suffrage they were precursors of Women’s Lib. From Lytton’s poem ‘The Haschish,’ printed in the New Statesman and Nation in 1937, we can justifiably infer that they were in favour of the legalisation of soft drugs.

Young Bloomsbury loved parties with jazz music, dancing, dressing up and the odd spliff. It seems that most of them were being psychoanalysed. If they were not very concerned with racism, those few Black people with whom they did interact they seemed to have considered social equals; and on the Strachey side there was definite and positively regarded Anglo-Indian ancestry, plus Sephardi Jewish lineage.

What about their achievements? If Frances Partridge qualifies as Young Bloomsbury, I think it’s clear that her published diaries will be seen as classics. Carrington’s paintings are highly valued, as are Stephen Tomlin’s portrait busts of Lytton, Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf, all of which are in public collections. Julia Strachey’s novel Cheerful Weather for the Wedding remains in print, and if Eddy Sackville-West’s fiction does not, he is still remembered as an acute music critic and collector. Raymond Mortimer was for years literary editor of The New Statesman and subsequently the lead critic for The Sunday Times. Dadie Rylands, who influenced and graced the Cambridge theatre scene, was one of two academics in this cohort; the other was Sebastian Sprott, a social psychologist. Roger Senhouse became a major publisher and rescued Secker and Warburg.

The socialist M.P. and journalist John Strachey, though he lived in London with Eddy Sackville-West, seems almost alone in this company in being heterosexual, and married the American heiress and would-be writer, Esther Murphy.

Nino Strachey might have included a few others in her survey, for example Frankie Birrell, Rachel MacCarthy (Lady David Cecil) and Barbara Strachey Halpern. She says her subjects had in common that they rejected ‘the traditional social and moral ideology of the British upper classes’ but shared ‘the desire to find an alternative way of living,’ whereas Lytton’s generation ‘never sought a fundamental change to the organisation of their country.’ In this she is mistaken about the older Bloomsbury radical politics. Here is Lytton’s stance, as he wrote to James Strachey on March 31st 1916: ‘God blast, confound and fuck the Upper Classes.’