London History Podcast - Buckingham Palace

Episode 60: Virginia Woolf and The Bloomsbury Set

The Bloomsbury Set embraced a new culture where sexual equality and freedoms were not only practiced but celebrated. 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.

Hear your host Hazel Baker, discuss all things Bloomsbury with Enke Huang, from the Foundling Museum.

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Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Today’s guest is Enke Huang.




Enke HuangEnke Huang

Enke is the Commercial Development Manager at the Foundling Museum, a cultural anthropologist and a Bloomsbury enthusiast. Frustrated by the lack of cultural information provided to Chinese travellers, she created a social enterprise project to produce fun, engaging and accessible content about London. Where did she start? Bloomsbury, of course! Her platform centres around a character called The Cowman – a cool, laid-back, witty and extremely knowledgeable Londoner through whose eyes she writes in-depth articles about all London’s hidden gems, often emphasising the unexpected parallels between British and Chinese culture. Over the past two years she has written 50+ articles, gaining an audience of millions and probably making Bloomsbury a little more famous among Chinese readers.



Hazel Baker: Welcome Enke!

Enke Huang: Hello Hazel. Nice to meet you and thanks for having me. 

Hazel Baker: It’s lovely to have you today. We are talking about something that I absolutely love, which is literature. And that’s not just exploring the authors and the storylines and the characters, but what I love is getting on a pair of shoes and exploring the streets that the writers lived in and wrote about. And Bloomsbury is a special place. Wouldn’t you agree, Enke?

Enke Huang: Yeah absolutely. It’s my favourite place in London.

Hazel Baker: And why is that?

Enke Huang: Mainly its diversity of heritage that it has, it contains. And it’s the literary hub. It’s a home to Bloomsbury publishing, the Bloomsbury set, Charles Dickens. And the historical children’s playground is home to the Foundling hospital, UK’s first children’s charity and public art gallery. And it’s also the home to the first hospital for sick children, which is now the Great Ormond street hospital. I’ll first 

Hazel Baker: Our first literary link to Bloomsbury is the Bloomsbury Set. In 1904 after the death of their father, the celebrated writer and critic Leslie Steven, 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 were subjected to intense scrutiny.

The Bloomsbury embraced a new culture where sexual equality and freedoms were not only celebrated, but practiced. 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. And I’ve written more about them in a blog post, which I’ll add to the show notes.

So Enke, why do you think the Bloomsbury group was important then and do we benefit from their endeavours now?

Enke Huang: Basically it’s the most important group of people who influenced your modernism in the UK and pioneer to so many things.

They all found a home in Bloomsbury. Basically there was an idea that is deeply shaped modernism from so many aspects like literature, ascetics, economics, and their lifestyle also greatly influence a lot of the contemporary attitudes towards feminism, sexuality, and in general, just love and friendship.

And those things still influence us today. So it’s really, really interesting for me to see the connections between history and contemporary lives.

Hazel Baker: I think that’s a really good parallel to draw on.

Enke Huang: There is a very interesting quote from Dorothy Parker, which captures how they existed. She said “they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”. Living in squares as in, they lived in the square gardens of Bloomsbury, which is a very typical Victorian kind of street. In order to allow people in that Victorian time to gain access to views beyond their windows, to have a shared square in the middle of the houses. To paint in circles refers to their shared interests and their belief in art. To love in triangles without any doubt tells how complicated and wonderful their love relationships were.

Hazel Baker: And it’s a bit of an odd time in history, really? Because we’re talking about 1907 to 1930. So you’ve got the first world war in there, as well as being the era is just at the end of 1928 when women are getting the vote. So there was a lot of friction and tension and I think they could not only taste the future, but they were living it as they saw it, which was a problem for some people wasn’t it? 

Enke Huang: Yeah, exactly. And also I think there’s specifically because of the first world war and the woman’s movement at that time kind of nurtured lots of new ideas. And then from say Virginia Woolf, there were lots of novels and essays of Virginia wolves that has direct comment or indirect comments from the social environment back then, which I think is really interesting to bring in, , to actually actually be read Mrs.

Stole away during lockdown. It’s really, really interesting because. For Virginia Woolf. She, at that time, was exactly experiencing a very similar social change. Like now the pandemic, because the first world war is normally like the biggest attention people draw on. When, when we talk about Bloomsbury novel say Mrs. Dalloway, but actually herself got Spanish flu. So 1918 was when the Spanish flu hit London and Virginia. She experienced the whole Spanish flu pandemic like us. She moved out of London hub, Bloomsbury, flat to Richmond to kind of quarantine interestingly in the countryside.

I really think they are a very interesting group of people that are almost unable for anyone or any group of people to replicate because obviously they were friends at university at Cambridge. Lots of them were friends at Cambridge and then they used Virginia wall’s house. And Vanessa bell actually, Vanessa bell is flats in Bloomsbury as a base, as a London base to half.

Regular chats and regular gatherings, Virginia Vanessa Bell had this flight a Friday club thing to start with together. People like informal Gadarene, but it becomes something really wonderful, like a network where the people from different disciplines and different professions come together, share ideas.

And promote each other’s work in their careers. And also a kind of love relationship with one another. 

Hazel Baker: She said, we’ve got all these writers, philosophers, artists, economists, all coming together, sharing the ideas and ideals promoting each other as well. In a social setting that is quite laid back, it’s not formal, it’s someone’s house as well, which means you behave differently don’t you, rather than being out in public? Do you think that this was a way for all of these friends and intellectual rules to push back against the Victorian upbringing that they’d all had?

Enke Huang: Yeah, definitely. I think all of them, born from a very upper middle class professional family, they were all very well educated in Cambridge or elsewhere, the men anyway. All of them were very much against a kind of Victorian social morality, like the various strict rules of what intellectuals should be or what a woman’s role should be.

Many of them basically use their work, their ideas and their lives to show they could break through. Vanessa Bell is a very good example. I think comparing her with Virginia Woolf. I like to compare with generals and Vanessa Bell because most of the time people’s attention is all like critiques attention on Virginia Woolf because she’s just so famous. But then I think Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, first of all, they have very different personalities. Virginia Walls is very kind of critical, very cynical and Vanessa bell is more kind of gentle and more well-rounded. I would say you can know so much from Vanessa Bell’s paintings.

Not just because, not just when she was living in Bloomsbury, 46 Gordon Square, but also her paintings from when she was living in Charleston. She draws so many flowers and interiors of very colourful paintings of everyday scenes within the indoor space, which actually is quite remarkable.

Because first of all, at that time, women don’t normally have their own house, their own space. And that’s a very distinct distinction between what women used to draw and what Vanessa draws to because of the fact that they were so keen on having their own space. And so keen on this idea of a woman having to have money and have to have their own room.

The power to decorate and the power to control. What they put in their own room is a very strong manifestation of their own space. They own the right to speak. They’ve owned the right to influence their surroundings, which used to be an exclusive right to man. In the old days, women were born in their family’s room and then moved to their husbands room and then moved through their children’s room.

They never really have their own room of their own. And the fact that Vanessa bell used her pains to draw these things that all the space that belongs to her is very, is very much kind of equivalent to what the general group uses with her pan too. Right? 

Hazel Baker: I think it’s important to have a room of your own. I’m lucky I’ve got that. Which also means you yeah, you have your intellectual time and your emotional time. You don’t have to always be on for other people. You can be on or not for yourself. 

Enke Huang: Yeah. And also having the own of yourself, meaning that you can invite people in, you can have social gatherings. That’s exactly what Vanessa bell and Virginia, both dent. Yeah.

Hazel Baker: Then that’s brilliant. So we’ve mentioned that you re-read Mrs Dalloway during a pandemic. What are your favourite bits about that book pulling in your knowledge about Bloomsbury? 

Enke Huang: Mrs. Dalloway captured one day in London, but not just a random day, but June in 1923, which was exactly five years after the first world war and three years after the Spanish.

Hazel Baker: And here is an excerpt: “I love walking in London said Mrs Dalloway “really, it’s better than walking in the country”. 

And here’s a little bit more: “In the people’s eyes in the swing, Trump and trudge in the bellow and the uproar, the carriages monk to cause I’m the bus is round sandwich, men shuffling and swinging bras buns borrow logons in the triumph and the jingle and the strange highs singing of some airplane overhead was what she loved life London, this moment of June and she continues passing glimpsing, everything seemed accidentally, but obviously sprinkled with beauty as if the tide of trade, which deposits its burden. So punctually and presumably upon the shores of Oxford street had this night cost up nothing but treasure. 

Enke Huang: There were some descriptions and writing about how Virginia Woolf enjoys the kind of buzzing life of London after her time in a countryside to avoid Spanish flu or that fluent influenza back then.

And she wrote Mrs. Dalloway in her flat 52 Tavistock Square. Sustaining discovery. As I said, like, I think the first time I read Mrs. Dalloway when I was young, my focus is more on how she lived after the first world war. But then, because I was re-reading it in a pandemic and I actually found this very, very subtle hint that she asked the background of Mrs Dalloway. She mentioned that Mrs. Dalloway has had this illness that she doesn’t, she doesn’t speak about. And then he mentioned he dropped, I think just once or twice about she had influenza, she was actually impacted by the influencer. And that was a rediscovery of mine during my reading independent make.

And, and I think it brings a whole new perspective to me to kind of understand Virginia Walls. Intention in writing the story of Mrs. Dalloway and the kind of parallel narrative between Mrs Dalloway and the soldier because obviously I think she intended to put Mrs. Dalloway was the survivor of the influenza and Septimus as survivors of the first world war and brought in this parallel.

Of the ending, the death of the soldier and a survival of Mrs. Dalloway way which is really, really interesting. And then I discovered that the reason why she was so kind of reluctant to give more attention to influenza. Was that because of the, because of first world war people back then, lots of writers are painted was actually quite reluctant to, to mention influenza because they think the voice will, war is a more important thing more social issues to focus on.

So that’s the reason why Virginia Woolf could have very little mention of it. It’s a Wednesday in the novel.

Hazel Baker: Good stuff. I think we’ve all implanted something today. Wonderful. Thank you anchor for everyone listening. Don’t forget. I have an associated blog post for you to read a bit more about the Bloomsbury set and Bloomsbury itself.

So have a little look at that and that will be available in the show notes. That’s all for now. See you next week.

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