When I am with him, smoking or talking quietly ahead, or whatever it may be, I see, beyond my own happiness and intimacy, occasional glimpses of the happiness of 1000s of others whose names I shall never hear, and know that there is a great unrecorded history.
— E.M. Forster
One afternoon – a week, six months, a year and three quarters ago, who knows? It is an afternoon, I can tell from the slant of the sunlight in this memory, and the sticky heat of the leather seat I have just plopped myself upon – I sit in the department office, among the ferns, with a massive old edition of the two-volume Michael Holroyd biography of Lytton Strachey that I have just unearthed from the overflowing bookshelves, and I tell some course-mates about him. About Strachey, that is, not Holroyd.
“He was so sharp, so cutting. He freed other people to be more themselves, I think, just by his acerbity.” An odd comment to make, I know, and one that doesn’t quite add up for the people I’m talking to; I can tell by their faces. What I mean is, Strachey lived in a world and a time where his being gay was dangerous, and Wilde’s sad fate was not so long past as to no longer be taken as a lesson. He was used to people talking around questions of sexuality; he couldn’t abide, it seems to me, disassembling among his own circles. Cattiness, yes, of course; bad behaviour, love affairs, cruelty, even sheer, emotion-addled stupidity on occasion: all of these things he seemed willing to put up with, if mockingly, but there is something about his sharpness with words that always cuts through any pretending, always reveals the blood underneath.
“Will you take that, then?” one of my friends asks. “It seems like your sort of thing, just from how it looks alone.”
The boxset – for it is a boxset, it is so large – sits heavily in my lap, a corner digging into my thigh with a pinch. Lytton’s long face looks up at me from an oval on the front, faded maroon and sepia.
“No,” I say. “No, I don’t think so.”
They have become so established in the English literary canon now, that sometimes it is easy to forget that the Bloomsbury Circle, the British Modernists, the Friday Club, whatever you want to call them, were bohemians, the avant garde, the artists that middle class mothers warned their children about.
Virginia Woolf wrote about the freedom she found in Bloomsbury – sexual, artistic, intellectual – like this:
Suddenly the door burst open and the long and sinister figure of Lytton Strachey stood in the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.
“Semen?” he said.
“Can one really say it?” was Woolf’s immediate thought to herself, but only a moment later, “… [everyone] burst out laughing.” And an illumination occurred.
“All barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good… [Before the war] when all intellectual questions had been debated so freely, sex was ignored. Now a flood of light poured in upon that department too. We had known everything but we had never talked. Now we talked of nothing else…
So there was now nothing that one could not say, nothing that one could not do, at 46 Gordon Square. It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation.”
I do not take the Holroyd book home with me because I can tell without even having to check the copyright page that this is the old edition, published sometime in the sixties, when some of the subjects were still alive and the “sexual revolution” seems mostly to have meant women gaining the right to go naked and gazed upon in even in public, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti winning the obscenity trial against Ginsberg’s “Howl” only after he and his bookstore manager were arrested and jailed.
Take, for instance, Strachey’s comments to E.M. Forster about the latter’s novel Maurice, a gay love story never published in his lifetime:
…I don’t understand why the copulation question should be given so much importance. It’s difficult to distinguish clearly your own views from Maurice’s sometimes, but so far as I can see, you go much too far in your disapproval of it.
…you really do make a difference between affairs between men and men and those between men and women. The chastity between Maurice and Clive for the 2 years during which there were in effect married you consider (a) as a very good thing and (b) as nothing very remarkable. You then make Clive marry (without any change in his high-falutin’ views) and promptly, quite as a matter of course, have his wife. (So that when he said to Maurice “I love you as if you were a woman,” he was telling a lie.) I really think the whole conception of male copulation in the book rather diseased – in fact morbid and unnatural.
It is neither the homosexual love affair nor the actual heterosexual marriage that Strachey cannot let lie. Nor is it even the idea of an asexual but loving bond, as he does not feel – and I agree with him – that that is what is meant to be depicted in Maurice. It is the shame he feels permeates the novel. He is disappointed in Forster’s (what we would now likely call) internalized homophobia, what he perceives as the apologetic bowing to societal definitions of normal and acceptable.
We are in the midst of a kind of Bloomsburyian renaissance these days, particularly with regards to Virginia and her lover Vita Sackville-West. A film about their relationship, Vita and Virginia, starring Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton respectively, is set to premiere in the midst of Pride season. Quotations from their correspondences circulate widely, particularly amongst sapphically-inclined circles, on Twitter, Tumblr, and beyond.
And yet, even as I lovingly share those same quotations to my own feeds, I find myself uneasy, sometimes, about what exactly the narrative we’re building up is. The quotations, as beautifully written, as full to the brim with lesbian love as they are, tend to focus on yearning, on separateness, on missing one another: “What is making me wild is the thought that these last few weeks are slipping by and I am not seeing you.” “Oh my lovely Virginia, it is dreadful how I miss you, and everything that everybody says seems flat and stupid.” “How I wish you’d walk into the room this moment, and laugh as much as you like.”
These are gorgeous scraps of the heart, to be sure, but I can’t help but notice how much of the body, how much of the womens’ actual sexuality tends to be left out of those that are the most circulated. The closest they reach to explicit is in perhaps the most commonly quoted excerpt from Virginia’s letters to Vita, and even that is a double-entendre:
Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.
Love is not just sex, of course, and Virginia, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, had a complicated relationship with sex her entire life besides. But neither is queerness abstract, ephemeral; it is situated in our bodies just as much as it is in our minds and hearts, even asexuality.
It is not just the removal of Vita and Virginia’s bodies that worries me, either – it is the weirdness, the openness and delight with and revelling in unconventional love affairs of Bloomsbury and Charleston that I find to be missing. I love Vita and Virginia, as writers and as lovers, and I always will, but I wonder if their affair is the one that has gained the most celebrity not because their letters are beautiful, but because it is the one most easily interpreted as conventional. Rarely, for instance, is the deep, lifelong love between Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson ever mentioned. There were so many shades of queerness running through Bloomsbury; it seems a shame to render our picture of it flat.
A morning this time, either before or after the afternoon with which I opened, and I am in the department lounge again. The same seat, even, though it is no longer hot: it’s winter now, and the snow is piled a foot high outside. I am once again speaking with a group of course mates, though this time it’s about the subjects of my own thesis, acquaintances of the Bloomsbury set Hope Mirrlees (whose Paris: A Poem was published by the Woolfs on their Hogarth Press) and Jane Ellen Harrison (the female classicist whose spectre haunts the garden of Oxbridge in A Room of One’s Own). I am trying to articulate how I know that these two women, who, once they met as tutor and student at Cambridge never again lived without each other before Harrison’s death, were lovers, or at least in love.
“But they were married!” I finally exclaim.
“What? They can’t have been.”
“Well, not officially. But they were both ‘married’,” finger-quotes make an appearance here, “to a teddy bear that Harrison had. They called him ‘The Husband’. Jane was ‘Elder Wife,’ and Hope was ‘Younger Wife’. They even signed their correspondence to each other with the constellation of the Great Bear.”
“That just sounds like a game,” one woman protests. “The teddy bear doesn’t mean anything.”
I stare at her. “The teddy bear means everything.”
Here are some of the ways the Bloomsberries loved one another:
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West stayed married to their husbands until their respective deaths. Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister was married to the artist Clive Bell, and yet lived domestically in an open relationship with Duncan Grant for over forty years, including raising their daughter Angelica together. Grant himself had exclusively homosexual affairs except for an extremely short physical relationship with Vanessa; Angelica wrote that he “was a homosexual with bisexual leanings.” Angelica herself would eventually marry David Garnett, a member of the Bloomsbury circle from her parents’ generation, and previously one of Duncan Grant’s lovers – to the horror of both Vanessa and Duncan.
Lytton Strachey had a long string of exclusively male lovers, including several that he and his close antagonist-friend, John Maynard Keynes, “stole” from one another, and even – evidently to his own horror – entertained a brief, seemingly unconsummated, fascination with Keynes after discovering that one young man whom he found charming had been happily seduced by the other. In his later life, Strachey entered a loving but nonsexual relationship with the painter Dora Carrington, with whom he lived until his death. They also lived with Ralph Partridge, who fell in love with Carrington after being introduced by her brother. Partridge and Carrington were married in 1921, though Carrington’s motivation seems mostly to have been to convince Partridge to stay around because Strachey had fallen in love with him, and she did not want to lose the latter. Partridge eventually fell in love and moved in with Frances Marshall. Not long after Strachey died in 1932, Carrington committed suicide.
The same day that Carrington and Partridge were engaged, she wrote to Strachey, “…I cried last night Lytton, whilst he slept by my side sleeping happily—I cried to think of a savage cynical fate which had made it impossible for my love ever to be used by you.” Strachey responded with the kind of love he was able to offer her: “…you do know very well that I love you as something more than a friend, you angelic creature, whose goodness to me has made me happy for years, and whose presence in my life has been and always will be, one of the most important things in my life.”
Complicated, messy, and not easily packaged up into acceptable narratives: that is how queerness ran through Bloomsbury, the same way it does for all of us now. There is a quip, widely attributed to but not actually from Dorothy Parker, that claims the Bloomsberries “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles,” but that too narrativizes their affairs too easily. It was not simply jealousy and indecision that characterized their complicated living and loving situations, the way conventional love triangles are thought to work. Rather, their guiding principle seems to have been a sort of openness, both to the kinds of love they could give one another, and to the forms in which living that love could take. Amidst personal unhappinesses and a homophobic wider world, at least they could see the importance – the codedness, the shared world, the circumventing of dominant social structures – which might hang upon a teddy bear.
DeSalvo, Louise and Mitchell Alexander Leaska, eds. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Cleis Press, 1985.
Holroyd, Michael. Lytton Strachey: The New Biography. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Knights, Sarah. Bloomsbury’s Outsider: A Life of David Garnett. Bloomsbury Reader, 2015.
License, Amy. Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Amberley, 2015.
Partridge, Frances. Love in Bloomsbury. I.B. Tauris, 2014.
Strachey, Lytton. The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005.
Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writings. Mariner Books, 1985.
Jacquelyn Deighton currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she is studying for an MA in middlebrow modernist literature. She has an affinity for foggy grey cities, having previously lived in London, Edinburgh, and Victoria, British Columbia. Her writing has also appeared at Shakespeare & Punk, Goblin Fruit, The Coast, and elsewhere, and anthologized in A Blackbird Sings.