Why the Bloomsberries still fascinate the very people they would have despised

Establishing an explicitly exclusive and anti-populist club is, of course, a long-established route to long-term popularity.

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How can we explain the enduring prominence of the Bloomsbury Group? And what would they have made of their appeal to a mainstream audience that they explicitly despised and ridiculed? The two questions are connected.

Life in Squares, a TV miniseries that began on 27 July, dramatises the group’s friendships and famously tangled sexual relationships. The demands of limited space precludes a full summary of Bloomsbury affairs. As Dorothy Parker quipped, they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.

It is Bloomsbury season. In the past 12 months there’s also been a new ballet at the Royal Opera House, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, two historical novels and the Charleston Festival, an ongoing success. About 20,000 people a year visit Charleston (the group’s country retreat in East Sussex). A common question, the curator says, is why the beds are so small. Sleeping wasn’t their central purpose.

Bloomsbury’s modern appeal stems partly from a contradictory split in its character, at once progressive and yet fiercely reactionary. The group was also archly modern in its legendary permissiveness. The BBC series dramatises a notorious incident: Lytton Strachey, having seen a stain on Vanessa Bell’s dress, casually asks, “Semen?”

And yet, for all their progressive ideas, they could scarcely have been less democratic in taste or temperament. Wanting nothing at all to do with ordinary people or their pastimes was a feature of the group’s identity. As John Carey explored in his sparkling book The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), one strand of Bloomsbury thinking imagined the group as a kind of aristocratic inspiration to the uncivilised masses.

Clive Bell’s 1928 book Civilisation (on which Virginia Woolf acted as a consultant) hoped that “the barbarian” in his “suburban slum” might notice the contempt of “civilising elite” for his gross, Everyman pleasures (“football, cinema”) and aspire to more refined pastimes.

The emotional response of the masses to an artistic experience, however, should be discounted immediately. Bell argued that true art was concerned not with “what the grocer thinks he sees”, but in serving “educated persons of extraordinary sensibility”. The wider population, apparently, would “never be capable of making delicate aesthetic judgments”.

I doubt that this is how most of those tuning in on BBC2 or buying a pretty poster at Charleston perceive the relationship between artist and viewer. Paradoxically, the idea of the Bloomsbury Group as socially, intellectually and artistically exclusive is bound up with its wider appeal. Close the door and people come knocking.

The BBC commission is oddly appropriate from a Bloomsbury perspective. Bell, after all, believed that the state should fund and support lives of taste and discernment, given that “almost all kinds of money-making are detrimental to the subtler and more intense states of mind”.

Bloomsbury’s long-term reputation was also helped by its intertwining with feminism. Bloomsbury’s star writer, Virginia Woolf, is one of feminism’s patron saints. Bloomsbury was also ahead of its time in pioneering shabby chic. The look might have been born of necessity – whenever the upper-middle class takes a hit economically, the appeal of wearing Granny’s dresses and adopting her watering can increases exponentially – but it has proved a recurrent motif in high-street fashion.

Bloomsbury now finds itself in the position of being probably more highly regarded within mainstream culture than by the critical elite. (The art critic Waldemar Januszczak once confessed that just typing the word Bloomsbury “brought on a severe attack of RSI”.) The brand has never been stronger but its artistic legacy is mixed.

Establishing an explicitly exclusive and anti-populist club is, of course, a long-established route to long-term popularity. (This even applies to sport: think of Lord’s and Wimbledon, private members’ clubs that host wildly popular matches.)

Saki described the paradox in his 1912 novella The Unbearable Bassington: “Once let the idea get about that the Christian Church is rather more exclusive than the Lawn at Ascot, and you would have a quickening of the religious life such as this generation has never witnessed.” Substitute the idea of Bohemia and artists (in place of the Church and the clergy) and Saki’s paragraph stands as a partial explanation of the Bloomsbury Group’s longevity and bourgeois appeal.

An intriguing footnote is Bloomsbury’s relationship with sport. “Cricket?” Virgi­nia scoffs in Living in Squares, “Men lobbing balls at each other!” So I was surprised to discover a photo of her, aged 12, playing an immaculate forward defensive stroke. Vanessa rightly applauds from silly point. Virginia later described it as a “tomboy” phase: “We played cricket, scrambled rocks, climbed trees.” Maybe it is not so surprising, given that her father, Leslie Stephen, was a superb mountaineer in the “golden age” of Alpinism.

Woolf’s fiction, however, suggests that as an adult she viewed organised sport with revulsion, a symbol of conformity, militarism and masculinism.

It may be granting too much influence to a small group, but I wonder if that contempt for sport – subtly appealing to a particular kind of privileged and yet anti-establishment Englishness – partly explains why sport retained a kind of intellectual illegitimacy in England far deeper into the 20th century than in the United States, Europe or the Commonwealth.

The perception that sport and sensitive living are intrinsically opposed is a rare instance of Bloomsbury’s influence remaining underrated.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double