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Tea, Scones & Radicalism

A small group of well-educated, individuals discussing art and society over tea and scones is nothing unusual. If the group started meeting well over a century ago in a once trendy London suburb, it would seem far removed from contemporary society, Moreover, if none were politicians, entrepreneurs or media magnates their influence would be negligible. Unless they were very talented, well educated and well connected people.

Many books have been written on the original members of the Bloomsbury Group – a collection of legendary British intellectuals some of whom like E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf became internationally famous. The most recent work is by Nino Strachey entitled Young Bloomsbury and deals with the generation which followed the original members.

Young Bloomsbury by Nino Strachey.

Taking their name from the London suburb where most of the original members lived, they were never a formal group with official membership but loose collection of individuals with shared values and often exceptional talents. Rejecting the Victorian values and models pertaining to the arts and society of previous generations, Bloomsbury became synonymous with modernism – not only in the arts of painting and literature but in a broader social context concerning human rights and relationships.

Why does this collection of individuals still intrigue authors and academics? What relevance does a bunch of socially privileged highbrows discussing art and society have for us? Are they still relevant in the 21st century? Most of the original members are largely forgotten. At first glance, they might easily be dismissed as a bunch of privileged but talented upper middle class elitists.

Their social context and their forms of activism are key to explaining their lingering effects on contemporary society. Unlike other groups, their form of activism was through subtle methods: their innovative art, unconventional lifestyles and by using their employment and social contacts to advantage.

Activism can take various forms: from overt acts such as public rallies and demonstrations to more subtle methods such as academic debates and literary works. The former affects a large group of people; has immediacy even shock value; the latter is not so obvious or immediate but its effects can be more pervasive and of greater duration.

Two of the most prominent members are cases in point; economist John Maynard Keynes and author Virginia Woolf. The former had a great influence on the laissez faire economics of the time; basically he illustrated that government had a role to play in stimulating the economy during periods of depression. One consequence was that the most vulnerable had some form of safety net. His ideas have evolved into a school of interventionist economics. Nowadays this is taken for granted but nearly a century earlier it was seen as radical. He saw economic issues in very broad terms as something that operated among nations on a global level. With this perspective in mind, he advised against excessive punitive measures against Germany following World War I. Unfortunately, his pleas for leniency to the allies were ignored and the negative consequences he warned of materialised twenty years later in a resurgent Nazi Germany. 

John Maynard Keynes

Author Virginia Woolf not only developed a significant literary style but also tackled issues of social justice. In both her fiction and non-fiction she examined gender inequality and critiqued the existing class system. In addition, her sociological critique was so ‘controversial’ it raised the ire of the Nazis who placed her on their hit list of prominent enemies of the Reich. With her husband Leonard, she founded a publishing house which produced works more conventional publishers avoided and providing a forum for the more ‘radical’ ideas and authors who otherwise would not have been heard. For example, they were the first publishers of the complete works of Sigmund Freud in English. While today Freudian concepts hardly ruffle any feathers, at the time (1924), concepts such as libidinal drives and universal sexual repression were considered by many as shocking even pornographic.

Virginia Woolf

When the Bloomsbury Group started meeting before the First World War, modern society was very different. Far more than today, their world was much more sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-semitic. For example women in the UK did not even have the right to vote and were excluded from certain professions and even some universities. It was a very conservative time of narrow definitions of gender and sexuality. Social and economic privilege was the domain primarily of white males from the middle classes. As a cultural phenomenon, Bloomsbury was one subtle means whereby this status quo might be altered, albeit very gradually.

Meaningful social change does not occur quickly. For example, it took decades of activism for women to achieve the vote in the UK. and still longer for male homosexual acts to be decriminalised. Such legal reforms are often the result of protracted lobbying by subtle and not-so-subtle means. While social change may take decades, the Bloomsbury Group shows that a group of articulate and well-connected individuals can effectively stimulate and even begin the reform process.

Bloomsbury as a cultural phenomenon was not always in vogue. In the decades following the Second World War, it was largely overlooked even forgotten. It is no coincidence that it was during the conservative eras which harked back to supposedly traditional values. Conversely, It was rediscovered during the 1960s with the rise of the women’s movement and campaigns for racial equality and the birth of Gay Liberation. Bloomsbury’s views on gender and sexuality were unconventional to say the least.

Aside from their innovations in art and social policy, the Bloomsbury Group was an oasis of acceptance in a desert of intolerant conformity. In subsequent decades, the personal freedoms they extolled would extend beyond the privileged middle class to the general public. By questioning the restrictive boundaries of gender and sexuality of their time, they set an example for later generations to follow. Their example illustrates how an intelligent, articulate group of well connected individuals can lay the foundations for significant social change.

Many of them were gay or bisexual or what we now term non-binary. Open relationships were common and some members set up homes with partners of both sexes. Given the social mores and legal sanctions of their time, they had to be relatively closeted beyond their immediate circle..But they left plenty of documentation of their ives and loves in letters, diaries and their published works which would be rediscovered and celebrated by later generations. Originally a small group of largely unknown non-conformists speculating on everything from society to human rights and relationships, they unwittingly paved the way for future generations.

The Bloomsbury’s privileged status meant they could indulge in such ‘forbidden fruit.’ Unfortunately, they had to wait decades (and after most of them were long dead) before they could come out of the closet. But they were an example to those in their circle or loosely connected with it such as family members, employees and companions.  

Although most of them did not live to see the reforms they advocated, they provided role models for successive generations to emulate. Their lives reflected that it was possible even in a very conservative society to carve out a niche of security for those who did not conform to rigid sexual stereotypes. Through the values they espoused and the lifestyles they pursued they were precursors of the sexual revolution which began in earnest  during the late 1960s whose effects are still being felt. For example, the contemporary activism for queer and trans rights are merely the latest aspect of it. No wonder the Bloomsbury Group and its unconventional ethos are still  remembered and celebrated in contemporary literature.