Where is Bloomsbury?
Bloomsbury covers an area based within a quadrangle of streets; Tottenham Court Road is the western boundary and Southampton Row is the Eastern. It reached down to New Oxford Street. I’s northern boundary is less obvious, it could be Euston Road but that is often considered part of St Pancras.
Bloomsbury contains one of the highest proportions of listed buildings and monuments per square metre of any conservation area, including many of the UK’s most iconic buildings, such as the British Museum.
It’s associated with the arts, education, and medicine and that leads us to today’s topic Literary Bloomsbury.
The Bloomsbury Set
In 1904 after the death of their father, the celebrated writer and critic, Sir Leslie Stephen, the sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury.
46 Gordon Square, their original Bloomsbury house, became a centre of artistic and intellectual activity. Their brother Thoby Stephen brought his Cambridge University ‘Apostles’ friends to the ‘Thursday Evenings’ the sisters hosted.
It was at these gatherings where everything from the status of art, to issues of Britain’s declining empire was subjected to intense scrutiny.
The ‘Bloomsberries’ embraced a new culture where sexual equality and freedoms were not only practiced but celebrated. They were influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903) and by A.N. Whitehead’s and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica (1910–13). They searched for definitions of the good, true, and beautiful. They supported sexual equality and freedom, informality and fierce intellectual debate. All largely at odds with their strict Victorian upbringings.
The Bloomsbury group was a circle of English artists, writers and intellectuals including Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, their brother Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Saxon Sydney-Turner.
From around 1910 Economist John Maynard Keynes, salon hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, painters Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, aristocratic writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson and philosopher Bertrand Russell also became members of the group.
The combination of debate and open minds was a catalyst for some of the most significant statements in English modernism. This would include Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s expressive paintings.
The group became the focus of intense dislike in the post-war period, as it was seen as elitist and self-regarding and I think could be argued both ways.
The group survived World War I but by the early 1930s had ceased to exist in its original form, with London’s intellectuals caught up with having caught up. Although its members shared certain ideas and values, the Bloomsbury group wasn’t a school. Its importance lies in the extraordinary number of talented individuals associated with it.
Virginia Woolf & Mrs Dalloway
On a quest to purchase a pencil, the narrator walks through the streets of London where she takes in all the sights:
Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty, as if the tide of trade which deposits its burden so punctually and prosaically upon the shores of Oxford Street had this night cast up nothing but treasure. With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances. Standing out in the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary house and furnish them at one’s will …
Mrs Dalloway is part of the established order. As she walks through the streets of London, her thoughts wander between memories of her landed gentry upbringing and plans for her elaborate party that evening. She wanders the streets glowing with excitement:
In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
Hazel Baker is an award-winning London Tour Guide and qualified CIGA guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Hazel’s walking tours.