23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 32


The Bloomsbury group's one bankable, collective asset: sex

s MON JENKINS Here, at last, is the big one. In London next week a film opens with the pithy title of Carrington. With Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce in the star roles it will do for the Bloomsbury set what Gone with the Wind did for the Old South.

We have had Harold and Vita and Vio- let and Virginia and Tom and Viv and Maynard and Duncan — and in any com- bination you care to name. But Blooms- bury has become rather Gilbert and Sulli- van, a greenery-yallery bunch. We have had our fill of soft-focus shots of women stroking each other's hair while a languid male murmurs, 'Such a waste, such a wasteland.'

Now the people from Bloomsbury have finally delivered. Carrington, Strachey and Partridge may have been the B-team at Gordon Square, but they have what the movie business needs just now, a unique sexual selling proposition. They have three in a bed. And not just three in a bed, but three in a bed 'based on a true story'. The advance publicity has echoed those other favourites of the British screen, the James Bond and Carry On series.

Back again are the beautiful people of Gordon Square. Back again is their vast historical significance. 'From artistic and sexual attitudes,' cries the Sunday Times, `to economics and psychology, they trans- formed the century.' (Really? Partridge and Carrington?) But economics and psycholo- gy will be left on the cutting-room floor and the star interviews have been emphatic.

Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce and Steven Waddington will definitely be in the same bed and at the same time. As to whether they will begin or end the scene by transforming 20th-century economics, go see for yourself.

I used to regard the 'Bloomsbury set' as a misnomer for an agglomeration of tal- ents, some of them outstanding, who hap- pened to take tea together. There was surely no way those limpid creatures sitting at sash windows and gazing out over the Duke of Bedford's plane trees were read- ing Moore's Principia Ethica or Keynes's Economic Consequences of the War. Moore may have written that all social progress lay in 'the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects', but had he written the opposite I doubt whether the Stephens girls would have changed their lifestyles. If such heavy- weights as Keynes, Forster or Eliot came to call of a Thursday evening, it must have been for light relief and nervous sex.

I could see no thread linking the novels of Woolf and Forster to Eliot's poetry or Keynes's economics or Moore's ethics, beyond a certain vague hedonism: write- what-you-like, spend-what-you-like, do- what-you-like. Such libertarianism was hardly new or unique, let alone by the 1920s. Others such as Lawrence and Shaw were more passionate, and original, liber- tarians. The Bloomsbury group knew each other, but they do not appear to have liked each other much and they caused each other great pain. Some were geniuses of their age, certainly Woolf and Keynes. But they were never the `movement' now claimed for them by their biographers.

As for the much-vaunted sexual freedom that emerges from the ever more explicit biographies, it was tortured and usually doomed. As a subject for further study, let alone movie-making, I assumed it would all seem commonplace and disappear from view.

How wrong I was. Sex has proved the Bloomsbury group's one bankable, collec- tive asset. The reason is not just the overt- ness of the various couplings and uncou- plings and the continuing fascination with historical homosexuality. What sets the Bloomsbury experience apart is that no group of people have been so articulate in recording their feelings. Their auto-analyt- ical output was astonishing. Woolf wrote six volumes of letters and five of diaries. Her husband (whose life was uneventful) wrote a five-volume autobiography.

Harold Nicolson's diaries ran to three published volumes. His correspondence with Vita Sackville-West formed the basis of the most poignant of love stories, Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage. The Tre- fusis-Sackville-West correspondence may be voyeuristic, but it is literate and com- pelling. So are the Carrington-Strachey and Woolf-Bell letters. The letters and diaries of Forster, Ottoline Morrell and Frances Partridge are works of literature, not up-market gossip columns but often searing insights into their relation- ships.

In his elegant Sunday Times defence of the Bloomsbury group, its Boswell, Michael Holroyd, claimed that they 'replaced Victo- rian values with a new creed that encour- aged sexual tolerance and religious scepti- cism, placed self-fulfilment above self- advancement, valued art and philosophy more than action and politics'. This is over the top. Anti-materialism is a continuous theme of British culture. Cavaliers have always fought Roundheads. The Blooms- buryites were preceded by the Romantics and the Aesthetes, and followed by others who have found Victorian values as intransigent as they did. Part of the strength of Woolf s writing on women is that it can still seem apposite today.

What I believe was unique was Blooms- bury's capacity to write about itself. These people seem to have occupied a window in history, when intelligent beings threw off personal inhibition yet were still disciplined to putting their thoughts on paper. They would write to each other often twice a day. They filled their diaries each night.

Inspired guesswork is needed to recon- struct (if we must) the emotional biogra- phies of an Austen or a George Eliot, a Dickens or a Tennyson, even an Oscar Wilde. The Bloomsbury group wrote what the Victorian dared not write, or dared write only as fiction. They produced a library of self-regard, volumes of glittering narcissism, a tangled documentary of emo- tional warfare.

This must be unique. Today we tele- phone, tape and wipe or occasionally scrib- ble. The changing moods of the famous may find outlet in the occasional interview or recording. But we are too conscious of privacy. Modern memoirs are turgid things.

Desert Island Discs is no substitute for a five-volume diary with letters. I doubt if Portrait of a Marriage could be written of any contemporary married couple. There would be too few records. The Bloomsbury biographies of Holroyd, Furbank and Skidelsky could chart the navigational cur- rents of their subject's emotions because their subjects kept a detailed log. Modern technology has no substitute for this.

The denizens of Bloomsbury wrote about the joys of friendship, of love, sex, pain and parting as it all happened round them day by day. Their talent was in harnessing the English language to the task of conveying feeling, a task at which it is not normally considered adept. They paid daily homage to written English. For that they are blessed, film or no film.

Simon Jenkins writes for the Times.