Why the Bloomsbury group still fascinate in spite of their many flaws
Did the "Bloomsbury group" of writers, artists and intellectuals who flourished in London from about 1910 until the 1940s really launch modern sexual liberation? That's the premise of the TV drama series, Life in Squares, which was on BBC2 last night. It's been called "a bonkbuster", with much "copulation" between men and women and men and men amply demonstrated on screen.
One of the Bloomsbury descendants, Virginia Nicholson, granddaughter of Vanessa Bell, has said that the controversial drama has "too much sex"; the "romping in the hay, bottoms, breasts and manly chests come at the expense of the artistic legacy left by Bloomsbury". It was "squirm-making" and "embarrassing" watching explicit scenes depicting her grandparents.
Well, that's showbusiness. It's rather difficult to make a drama out of Virginia Woolf just writing at her desk and her artist sister Vanessa Bell painting at her easel without adding an element of action for the cameras.
And the Bloomsbury group did believe themselves to be pioneers of sexual liberation, and behaved accordingly. Woolf wrote that "human nature changed on or about December 1910", and proudly recorded that "the word 'bugger' is never far from our lips." This was all in defiance of the stuffier Victorian world into which most of them had been born in the 1880s.
Their sexuality was not only "liberated", by their own self-definition (and basic birth control was appearing around this time), but extraordinarily fluid.
Vanessa, Virginia's elder sister, married the very rich Clive Bell, had two children with him, and then fell in love with the painter Duncan Grant, who was "mainly homosexual, with some bisexual tendencies". Vanessa was determined to have a child with Duncan Grant, and duly succeeded in giving birth to his daughter, Angelica. Angelica would later grow up to marry David Garnett, who had been her father's homosexual lover for many years.
Virginia married the "penniless Jew" Leonard Woolf - who was a caring and saintly man, who nursed his wife through her agonising periods of insanity. For all her liberated views, Virginia was sexually frigid - she wrote to her sister that this "copulation" was over-rated. And although Leonard and Virginia were a devoted couple, she later had a lesbian fling with Vita Sackville-West, a married mother-of-two who was a predatory seducer of women. Among the most illustrious members of their set was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who had a passionate gay affair with Duncan Grant - and with other men - but later fell in love with the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, and married her.
They lost a pregnancy to a late miscarriage, which brought much sadness, but they remained lovingly together for the rest of their lives.
The Bloomsburys may have believed in sexual liberation - but, as Amanda Coe's drama itself illuminates, they also fervently believed in friendship and honesty. The one thing they didn't much go in for was divorce. Even when the fires of "copulation" died down, they continued in their marriages, because, they believed these marriages were essentially based on friendship. And children.
Vanessa Bell went on living with her husband even after her affair with Duncan Grant; presently his boyfriend David Garnett also joined them in their oh-so-tolerant ménage. Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson remained an amiable couple, and loving parents to their two sons while both pursuing gay affairs elsewhere.
So - were the Bloomsburys the pioneers of the sexual liberation which became part of the wider culture from the 1960s? Maybe - but there is a great deal they wouldn't recognise in our world and much they would deplore.
The Bloomsburys affirmed personal freedom, but they also had the money to support their way of life. Virginia Woolf was literally helpless without servants - and independence didn't extend to learning how to boil an egg. They were also, for the most part, appalling snobs. Vita Sackville-West loathed the world after 1945 because "the common man" (and common woman) had triumphed.
Virginia struggled mightily in reviewing James Joyce's Ulysses. She recognised it as a work of genius, and yet she called it "illiterate, underbred ... the book of the self-taught working man and we all know how distressing they are ..." The Bloomsburys deplored anything they thought "common", they were given to casual anti-Semitism and were infected by the fashion for eugenics. Seeing a group of disabled children in 1912, Virginia wrote that "they should certainly be put to death".
Still, they were remarkable and talented individuals, and a certain fascination with their lives endures. Though I feel sure that they would hardly have approved of the vulgar masses gawking at a simulacrum of their intimacies via a television screen.