6 NOVEMBER 1942, Page 10


By HAROLD NICOLSON N all ages and at all places, whether at Nishapur or Babylon, I men and women of sensibility have gathered together into little groups, protecting themselves thereby against the enmity or the incomprehension of a philistine world. The patterns assumed by these groups, the actual course of their agglomeration and dispersal, are often similar ; the younger generation rise to adolescence and the more alert among them react against the conventions of their parents ; this reaction produces what they believe to be a new formula, and in order to fortify each other in asserting this formula they form an alliance, coalition or brotherhood, inspired by friend- ship and high thoughts. Gradually, their formula ceases to be a heresy and becomes a doctrine, and as this happens the several members of the brotherhood drift into marriage, ill-health, or successful ways. It is curious also to observe how those who have most benefited in their youth from this group habit often become in middle age the most embittered opponents of all literary or artistic cabals. Tennyson, for instance (who in 1832 and even in 1842 owed so much to the support and encouragement of the Cambridge Apostles), was wont in his later age to grumble grievously about the " coteries " formed by those who worshipped Swinburne or founded societies for the discussion of Browning. Yet, in fact, such groups and cliques are both inevitable and salutary ; nor would many minority movements have survived were it not for the unguents of mutual admiration and the stimulus of co-operative praise.

In common with many others, I have been readihg recently Mr. William Gaunt's study of The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy. I admire this book not only for the wealth of interest and information which it provides, but because, from the technical point of view, it is a truly remarkable achievement in biography. It is a comparatively easy thing to write the biography of a single individual, since the biographer is provided in advance with the elements of his "com- position " in that the central figure, his attributes, and the main distribution of light and shade are governed by a single unity. But when a biographer has to handle six or seven main characters, each one of whom brings with him an attendant mass of attributes and detail, it is indeed an achievement to maintain proportion, to keep the lighting uniform, and to leave the reader with a unity of im- pression. It is easy to say that Mr. Gaunt has simplified his problem by the device of painting his central character, Rossetti, in neutral tints ; but Holman Hunt and Morris are also central characters sharply lit. If anybody doubts Mr. Gaunt's skill and scholarship, let him try to weave a work of art out of six major characters and a complete diversity of warp and woof. The effect would not be that of a tapestry ; it would be that of Nanny's work- basket with its dented thimble and its jumble of different coloured threads. It would not leave any unity of impression, nor would it display for us, as Mr. Gaunt has displayed, the almost chemical processes by which these human substances fused for a moment in a glowing incandescence and then dissolved. I should have thought less of Mr. Gaunt's book had he sought to interpret this phenomenon in terms of Rossetti's "guiding genius." He does, it is true, give to Rossetti a constantly phosphorescent quality from which, in different degrees, his disciples acquired a glow-worm quality of light. But he leaves unsolved the major riddle why, at that par- ticular phase of English taste, these different substances should have fused together, dissolved, and then fused a second time.

It is interesting to compare the Pre-Raphaelite nucleus with other English agglomerations. The early Cambridge Apostles, intense and ardent though their incandescence was, appeared to lose their glow when Arthur Hallam died. They dissolved between 1832 and I840 into personal preoccupations with politics, theology, vegetarian- ism, Swedenborg, F. D. Maurice: or the domestic idyll. A closer analogy is to be sought for in what in our own day has been known as the Bloomsbury Circle. The men and Women who in the last thirty years have been identified with Bloomsbury never possessed so definite a formula or so tight a coalition as the Pre- Raphaelite brotherhood. The fact that so many of them, after the first war, congregated around the area of Tavistock Square and Gordon Square was due to no deliberate emigration or accretion, nor did they ever regard themselves as a group or clique. Their identity was imposed upon them by outside observers. Yet, in fact, they did possess a certain common attitude towards life, and this attitude did lead them to adopt certain recognisable habits and certain recognisable mannerisms. They were both concentrated and dispersed ; their faith (which united them with a bond finer and more durable than the aesthetic idealism of the P. R. B.) was a hard, astringent, caustic, often arrogant, always incorruptible belief in intellectual integrity. To them a weakness of the flesh was always pardonable ; they were unforgiving to any weakness of the mind. It was this high austerity of intellect 'which induced those of us who watched them from outside to regard them with awe. Yet this awe was always mitigated by the delight which they took in the pleasures as well as the ordeals of the mind.

* * * Their arrogance was indeed graced by something more than ordinary curiosity ; they were vividly inquisitive. It was not only that they would exult in leaving the corridors of their ivory tower for the meadows, and even the marshes, outside ; it was that, unlike the P. R. B., they were continuously alert to minds and habits differing from their own. Off they would go to Estramadura or the Garonne, arrayed with sense rather than with luxury, eschewing the glint and pale blue crockery of the dining-cars, preferring bread and oranges and the flask of Chianti tinlding in the rack above. Rich indeed were the vintages of experience and delight which they plucked from such excursions and which, in their bare Bloomsbury tenements,, they would decant on November evenings while a small gas-fire popped and spluttered in the grate. Angrily would they have scorned the suggestion that there could exist any analogy between them and the self-conscious aesthetes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ; yet if one pressed the point they would admit a certain similarity, which they dismissed as mere coincidence, but which in fact was something more. Each of these groups developed in two successive waves of inspiration ; there was the first crop of foundation members (Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and so on) corresponding to the original P. R. B. nucleus of Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais and Woolner. And then flowered the second crop, corresponding to the phase which added Burne Jones and Morris to the Pre-Raphaelites. Nor were these the only analogies. Bloomsbury also would paint deal doors and bookcases, not it is true with Lancelot and Guinevere, but with Europa and Narcissus. And Bloomsbury also adopted tricks of language and an intonation all its own.

* * * In the centre of this revolving circle was Virginia Woolf. The crystal of her mind was cut with many facets and illumined with such radiance that in each facet the drab and the garish flashed with equal light ; she could give to any umbrella the sparkle of a chandelier. With her the line which separates derision from sympathy was faintly drawn ; this aroused uncertainty, delight and awe. She was not a very conversational person, but she caused conversation ; she was able, with quiet intuition, to suggest to other people images which they had never imagined and associa- tions of which they had never thought. Yet when one left her, one was conscious of a feeling deeper than ordinary exhilaration ; a feeling of satisfaction. One knew at such moments that integrity was not a fiction ; that there was, after all, such a thing as correct values, and that the future therefore was divine.