“Virginia and Vanessa, despite their occasional differences, had an unbreakable bond of love and support. Hermione Lee expounds at length about their dysfunctional childhood which undoubtedly acted as an indissolvable glue in their relationship. But as for the rest of the Bloomsbury Group, blood – and marriage bonds – were definitely not thicker than water, especially when it came to relationships. In their quest for artistic freedom, everything was fair game. Just take a look at Vanessa Bell’s open affair with Duncan Grant amid a group household that included her husband, Clive Bell. Or David “Bunny” Garnett’s May-December marriage to Angelica Grant, his former lover’s (Duncan Grant) daughter. The web was tangled indeed.”
Virginia Woolf and her world. And what a world it was. In the early years of the twentieth century Bloomsbury was bright promise, gaiety and wit. But all the while its most celebrated novelist was battling private demons that would one day overwhelm her.The group started as a circle of intellectuals who had studied at Trinity and King’s Colleges, Cambridge, and began meeting at a salon in a house near Bloomsbury Square, central London. Their friendships were to last a lifetime despite the complicated tangle of love affairs between them.Today the Bohemian group of writers, artists and intellectuals are remembered as much for the complicated romantic entanglements that led to them being described as ‘artistic lions’ who ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’.
Leslie Stephen’s death had given his children freedom. They moved to Bloomsbury and brother Thoby began to invite his Cambridge friends, most of whom had now left the university; and it was here that, as an alternative to Victorianism, the Bloomsbury group first came into existence; a small island of bohemian thought and action in London and the aesthetic was social and personal freedom, though the deed, at that point, was very much one of words.
Then in 1906, a tragedy occurred, one that affected both the structure of Bloomsbury and Virginia’s career. Thoby died suddenly of typhoid fever after a holiday in Greece. This sudden extinction of promise became the story of Rachel in Virginia’s first novel. “The Voyage Out”, of jacob in “Jacob’s Room”, and of Percival in “The Waves”. One of the first results of his death was that Vanessa now consented to marry Clive Bell, and Virginia and her younger brother, Adrian, moved around the corner from them, into 29 Fitzroy Square.
The atmosphere in these two Bloomsbury salons reflected the differing personalities of the two sisters. The Bells, Lytton Strachey wrote to Duncan Grant, “are a wild sprightly couple. The drawing-room has no carpet or wall-paper, curtains some blue and some white, a Louis XV bed, two basket chairs, a pianola, and an early Victorian mahogany table!” Clive Bell’s hospitality was warm and jovial, reminding his guests of the hunting and shooting set in which he had been brought up, and contrasting oddly with the pictures by Picasso and Vlaminck that hung on the walls. “When the door was opened,” wrote David Garnett, “a warm stream of Clive’s hospitality and love of the good things of life poured out, as ravishing as the smell of roasting coffee on a cold morning.”
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In Fitzroy Square, guests encountered a different welcome. Adrian, who was then studying law, was a confirmed practical joker and might at any moment spit in the whiskey or put salt in the cocoa. Virginia’s shyness could be formidable. “Upon an unforeseen introduction, for instance, ” wrote Duncan Grant, “there was an expression of blazing defiance, a few carefully chosen banalities and a feeling of awkwardness”. Those who wish to proceed further had not been quenched might then find themselves in Virginia’s study. There, books littered the floor and furniture, and her tall desk- at which she stood writing for two hours each day- was positioned near the window.
But it was in Adrian’s study, well-ordered, neat, and handsomely lined with books, that the Bloomsbury group met on Thursday evenings. “About ten o’clock in the evening,” Duncan Grant later wrote, “people used to appear and continue to come at intervals till twelve o’clock at night, and it was seldom that the last guest left before two or three in the morning. Whiskey, buns, and cocoa were the diet, and people talked to each other…Conversation; that was all. Yet many people made a habit of coming, and few who did so will forget these evenings.”
One of those who regularly appeared was Lytton Strachey, and on ferruary 17, 1909, Virginia accepted his proposal for marriage. “As I did it,” Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf, who was in Ceylon as a civil servant, “I saw it would be death if she accepted me, and I managed to get out of it before the end of the conversation. The worst of it was as the conversation went on, it became more and more obvious to me that the whole thing was impossible. The lack of understanding was so terrific! And how can a virgin be expected to understand? You see, she is her name… I was in terror lest she could kiss me.”
Strachey, who was a homosexual, had made his proposal on the spur of the moment in reaction to a number of unhappy love affairs. It arose, it seems, from a wish to escape from his family, with whom poverty obliged him to live, from his homosecxual ties, and from homosexuality itself. But at least as astonishing as his proposal was her acceptance of it. Although she like him, and indeed may have loved him, she found him physically repugnant. He was the model for Sir John Hirst in “The Voyage Out” and again for Neville in “The Waves” , a lonely, uncommunicative misogamist, “doomed always to cause repulsion in those he loves.”
Why then did she say yes? Perhaps someone whose personality was strong enough to dispel the shadow of her dead father yet who would not be sexually demanding looked like a reasonable solution to her problems. It seems that she reconsidered, however, for the next day Strachey was writing to Leonard Woolf that “I’ve had an eclairissement with Virginia. She declared she was not in love with me, and I observed that I would not marry her. So things have simply reverted.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the whole affair was that at the time Strachey was proposing to Virginia, Woolf was writing to Strachey from Ceylon, statin that he intended to propose to Virginia. “You are perfectly wonderful and I want to throw my arms around your neck,” Strachey replied. “…Isn’t it odd that I’ve never been really in love with you?… If you came and proposed she’d accept… As it is, she’s almost certainly in love with me, though she thinks she’s not.”
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Strachey advised Woolf, who up to the age of twenty-five was as much a virgin as his future bride, that “there’s no doubt whatever that you ought to marry her.” With Woolf’s agreement, he sounded out Vanessa, who decided that, especially if her sister was secretly in love with Lytton, Woolf had better wait untiil he returned to England. So it was three years before Virginia heard of Woolf’s intention to marry her. When she did hear it, he failed to hear her assent, for he had chosen to ask her in a train and, because of its rattling, had to shout out, “What?”- at which she had a sudden revulsion and murmured, “Oh, nothing.”
… “I find this tendency to repetition and name calling within scholarship on Woolf’s incest and lesbianism a curious thing: repetition of outdated, commonplace cliches by so many otherwise careful and admirable scholars, and repetition in the form of the “thou shalt nots.” “Thou shalt not” define Woolf as an incest survivor; “thou shalt not” label her a lesbian: if you do you are simplistic, reductive, and crude. It is as if Woolf scholarship on incest and lesbian themes is stuck like that gramophone Woolf refers to in Three Guineas, grinding out the same old patriarchal grind–again and again and again.
Situated in the late 1990s, at times I feel like Virginia Woolf did in the 1930s, sadly observing the backlash of resistance, denial, and assimilation evidenced in these biographies which typically follows feminist movements for radical change. As Judith Herman and Diana Russell note, during Woolf’s lifetime disclosures of childhood sexual abuse by women like Virginia Woolf surfaced only to be met eventually with denial and erasure. But how can we keep this erasure from happening again? How can we resist the repetition of the same patterns of denial exemplified by these biographies? How can we sustain our positions as, in Alice K. Miller’s terms, “enlightened witnesses” and our empathy for the victim, Virginia Woolf, not “poor George?” ( Patricia Kramer )