In the elegant town houses and garden squares of Edwardian London, an eccentric circle of writers, intellectuals and artists gathered in a haze of dinner parties and entangled love affairs. Comprised of some of the most significant cultural figures of the twentieth century, including Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, the Bloomsbury Group was united by a spirit of rebellion and desire for greater intellectual freedom. Their bohemian lifestyle and experimental approach to art paved the way for many subsequent literary movements, and their profound legacy continues to echo through contemporary culture today.
At the heart of the Bloomsbury ethos was a core belief in the primacy of art over all other aspects of life, and their shared rejection of stifling Victorian conservatism saw them create a new innovative landscape for literary exploration. Creativity was not only central to personal self-expression, but also a means of connection and transcending the boundaries of convention.
The group’s literary output certainly embodies this experimentation, embracing new modes of writing and particularly exploring the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Virginia Woolf’s novels are among the most famous and ground-breaking contributions to modernist literature. Her characteristic use of interior monologue and fragmented narrative enabled Woolf to explore themes of gender, identity and memory with far greater nuance and depth than had previously been possible in mainstream literature, making her (at least in my opinion) one of the finest writers in history. Equally committed to modernism was E.M. Forster, whose novel A Passage to India is often cited as one of the greatest examples of modernist writing for its shifting perspectives and exploration of colonialism.
Artistic collaboration became another hallmark of the group, as they sought to incorporate paintings into novels and vice versa to create interdisciplinary masterpieces. Virginia Woolf’s sister, artist Vanessa Bell, was also a core member of the group and, in an act of sisterly collusion, designed decorative illustrations for the dust jackets of nearly all of Woolf’s novels (much to the despair of Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband and co-founder of Hogarth Press, who named them “the worst printed books ever published” owing to their lack of marketing potential).
The Bloomsbury Group was notorious for its unconventionally liberal approach to sexuality, gender and relationships. Many members engaged in open marriages or same-sex relationships – usually with one another – which was virtually unheard of in early twentieth-century Britain. Vanessa Bell was openly bisexual, pursuing relationships with other women from within her open marriage to art critic Clive Bell, and her work often depicted sensual, abstract representations of the female body.
This fluidity extended beyond traditional gender roles as well, with a number of women within the group assuming dominant positions in both romantic relationships and artistic endeavours. Woolf’s seminal essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ remains one of the most influential feminist texts of all time, unapologetically advocating for the right of women to have their own autonomous space in which to exercise creative freedom.
The Bloomsbury Group also made an essential contribution to the world of literary criticism and biography. Traditional methods of literary analysis were revolutionised at the hands of its members, whose discussions – often conducted in coffee shops and pubs – were precursors to what we now know as postmodernism. Woolf wrote a number of essays on the nature of criticism and sought to democratize culture, coining terms such as ‘common reader’. Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, meanwhile, was a landmark work of biography that explored the intricacies of its subjects’ inner lives and motivations, rather than merely presenting the facts of their existence.
There are certain elements of the Bloomsbury Group’s legacy that remain contested. Their association with elitism and occasional dismissive attitude towards working-class and lower-middle-class people certainly represents a challenge for contemporary readers. They were inescapably a privileged, mainly upper-middle-class circle of individuals and, while they certainly embraced liberal values, they initially only did so in a limited form.
Despite its controversies and criticisms, however, it is undeniable that the Bloomsbury Group’s irreverent desire to push boundaries, embrace difference and live their own lives on their own terms still resonates and inspires today, not only within literature but throughout contemporary culture. Their affirmation of the value of individualism, creativity and self-expression persists to remind us that true creative innovation and progress often emerge from the freedom to live our lives beyond “squares” and love outside of “triangles”.
Image by Mark LaFlaur on Flikr