Step back in time with us as Kate visits Charleston home of Vanessa Bell and important gathering place for the members of the Bloomsbury Group, that collection of writers and artists including Virginia Woolf that coalesced around Gordon Square in London. Undaunted by the ghosts of her relatives Nino Strachey, author of a new book, Young Bloomsbury, joins us to discuss the up-and-coming younger generation, such as writer Julia Strachey, sculptor Stephen Tomlin and photographer Cecil Beaton, who followed in their footsteps.
‘In the 1920s a new generation stepped forward to invigorate the Bloomsbury Group – creative young people who tantalised the original ‘Bloomsberries’ with their captivating looks and provocative ideas.
Young Bloomsbury introduces us to an extraordinarily colourful cast of characters, including novelist and music critic Eddy Sackville-West, ‘who wore elaborate make-up and dressed in satin and black velvet’; sculptor Stephen Tomlin; and writer Julia Strachey. Talented and productive, these larger-than-life figures had high-achieving professional lives and extremely complicated emotional lives.
Bloomsbury had always celebrated sexual equality and freedom in private, feeling that every person had the right to live and love in the way they chose. But as transgressive self-expression became more public, this younger generation gave Old Bloomsbury a new voice. Revealing an aspect of Bloomsbury history not yet explored, Young Bloomsbury celebrates an open way of living that would not be embraced for another hundred years.’
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Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd (Penguin) Nino recommends Michael Holroyd’s classic biography of her relative, noting that when the book was first published in 1967 it was groundbreaking in its frankness about Strachey’s private life (the law around homosexuality had only just been changed). More recently Holroyd produced this revised, shorter version with new material that had been unavailable at the time of writing his original work: ‘Lytton Strachey … was at the nexus of the literary and artistic life of Bloomsbury. In the 1960s he was seen as a progenitor of the hippy cult. Now he appears as a far more subversive and challenging figure. He revolutionised the writing of biography and smuggled deviant sexual behaviour into our history in his reassessment of Elizabethan and Victorian times. For this re-telling of his story Holroyd has had access to published and unpublished material unavailable in the 1960s when his biography of Strachey first appeared. In many of Bloomsbury’s three-cornered relationships, he had only two sides of the triangle. Now he has all three, and in a new social and political climate can tell the full story of this extraordinary world with candour, sympathy and sexual explicitness. He has cut 100, 000 words, revised much of the text and added a wealth of new material, about Strachey himself, about Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Rupert Brooke and most vividly about the tragic life of Strachey’s companion Dora Carrington.’
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey Groundbreaking and a huge success at time of publication, making Strachey a household name, according to Nino this irreverent biography is still well worth a read today: ‘Eminent Victorians marked an epoch in the art of biography; it also helped to crack the old myths of high Victorianism and to usher in a new spirit by which chauvinism, hypocrisy and the stiff upper lip were debunked. In it Strachey cleverly exposes the self-seeking ambitions of Cardinal Manning and the manipulative, neurotic Florence Nightingale; and in his essays on Dr Arnold and General Gordon his quarries are not only his subjects but also the public-school system and the whole structure of nineteenth-century liberal values.’
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey This sardonic and beautifully written novella was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1932. ‘It is a brisk English March day, and Dolly is getting ready to marry the wrong man. Waylaid by the sulking admirer who lost his chance, an astonishingly oblivious mother bustling around and making a fuss, and her own sinking dread, the bride-to-be struggles to reach the altar. Dolly knew, as she looked round at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women, too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was steadily going forward.’ Mixing comedy and tragedy Nino notes the strong thread of autobiographical truth in this, describing it, all things considered, as ‘a surprisingly cheerful read’.
Love Letters: Vita and Virginia (Penguin) A favourite read for both Kate and Nino: ‘At a dinner party in 1922, Virginia Woolf met the renowned author, aristocrat – and sapphist – Vita Sackville-West. Virginia wrote in her diary that she didn’t think much of Vita’s conversation, but she did think very highly of her legs. It was to be the start of almost twenty years of flirtation, friendship, and literary collaboration. Their correspondence ended only with Virginia’s death in 1941. Intimate and playful, these selected letters and diary entries allow us to hear these women’s constantly changing feelings for each other in their own words. Eavesdrop on the affair that inspired Virginia to write her most fantastical novel, Orlando, and discover a relationship that – even a hundred years later – feels radical and relatable.’
Orlando by Virginia Woolf (Penguin) Famously a love-letter in fictional form to Vita Sackville-West, but also partly inspired by the death of a member of young Bloomsbury, Philip Ritchie, Orlando exemplifies Bloomsbury’s openness to gender fluidity as well as being to Nino a celebration of the joyfulness of life. ‘First masculine, then feminine, Orlando begins life as a young sixteenth-century nobleman, then gallops through the centuries to end up as a woman writer in Virginia Woolf’s own time. Written for the charismatic, bisexual writer Vita Sackville-West, this playful mock biography of a chameleon-like historical figure is both a wry commentary on gender and, in Woolf’s own words, a ‘writer’s holiday’ which delights in its ambiguity and capriciousness.’
L.O.T.E. by Sheila von Reinhold (Jaracanda) Nino describes this as an amazing vision of a group of ‘lotus eaters’ in the 1920s, into which some of the characters of Young Bloomsbury appear in fictionalised versions, but with a different perspective from a black, trans protagonist. A recent read for Nino that she has absolutely loved. ‘Solitary Mathilda has long been enamored with the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 20s, and throughout her life, her attempts at reinvention have mirrored their extravagance and artfulness. After discovering a photograph of the forgotten Black modernist poet Hermia Druitt, who ran in the same circles as the Bright Young Things that she adores, Mathilda becomes transfixed and resolves to learn as much as she can about the mysterious figure. Her search brings her to a peculiar artists’ residency in Dun, a small European town Hermia was known to have lived in during the 30s. The artists’ residency throws her deeper into a lattice of secrets and secret societies that takes hold of her aesthetic imagination, but will she be able to break the thrall of her Transfixions? From champagne theft and Black Modernisms, to art sabotage, alchemy and lotus-eating proto-luxury communist cults, Mathilda’s journey through modes of aesthetic expression guides her to truth and the convoluted ways it is made and obscured.’
Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden by Sarah Raven
A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy (Slightly Foxed)
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (Penguin)
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (Penguin)
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood (Picador)
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Virago)
This Guardian article on Lytton Strachey and modern biography is a fascinating read: Sizzle, spice and not very nice: 100 years of the tell-all biography