Gender fluidity? Pansexuality? Throuples? Chosen families? Cross-dressing? Kinks? How avant-garde — and how old-fashioned.
The interactions among these writers, artists, scholars and sensual adventurers made for a cauldron of contradictions — loving and heartbreaking, productive and chaotic, gossipy and protective, open-minded and cliquish. The group was astonishingly inventive and fiercely devoted to intellect, beauty and fun. But Young Bloomsbury could also be entitled, petty and parochial. In other words, they were human, which one can all too easily forget in the face of sometimes fusty Bloomsbury worship.
Nino Strachey, a curator and cultural historian, is descended from an illustrious family of intellectuals, civil servants and politicians who trace roots back to the 1600s. In addition to the biographer and critic Lytton Strachey, the family includes another Old Bloomsbury stalwart, his brother James Strachey, who was a famed psychoanalyst. Their niece Julia Strachey — a novelist, model and photographer whom the author describes with particular empathy and subtlety — was among the Young Bloomsbury talents. While Stracheys run predictably rampant across these pages, the large cast of characters also includes the brilliant and catty Bloomsbury den mother, Woolf; the painters Duncan Grant and Dora Carrington; the writers and cousins Eddy and Vita Sackville-West; the artists Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin and Stephen Tennant;and many more. In seven sections, the author explains the pre-World War I evolution of Old Bloomsbury, its postwar reassembling with new, younger adherents; the legendary parties; the “cult of the effeminate”; the polyamorous orbits around Lytton Strachey; Bloomsbury’s literary and other intellectual cadres; and its American and continental European offshoots as fascism rises and another world war approaches.
Throughout, there is sex. Lots of sex. Varied sex. One would need a supercomputer and a bevy of Rand Corp. data analysts to keep track of all the couplings, love triangles and more ornate carnal geometries referenced.
Consider Ham Spray, a farmhouse where Lytton Strachey made his home with Carrington and her eventual husband Ralph Partridge, an ex-army officer who worked for Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Partridge primarily loved Carrington who loved Strachey who loved Partridge who also came to love the bookseller and diarist Frances Marshall. Strachey entertained a roster of other intimates as well, including translator and publisher Roger Senhouse. “Lytton loved to be spanked, and Senhouse happily obliged.”
Visiting Ham Spray, Julia Strachey would find her father, Oliver, entertaining a mistress and hear her uncle Lytton’s assorted lovers discuss details of their encounters with him. There, she was pursued by the bisexual sculptor Tomlin, whose “affections were notoriously unrestrained,” both before and during their subsequent marriage.
Tomlin’s “intense love affair” with American flapper Henrietta Bingham (who was also deeply involved with her Smith College composition teacher, Mina Kirstein) “had run alongside relationships” with the bookseller and publisher David “Bunny” Garnett, the artist Grant, the novelist and music critic Eddy Sackville-West, and Angus Davidson, a writer and assistant at Hogarth Press.
And so on.
Nino Strachey puts Bloomsbury’s orgiastic side in useful context. “Later accounts tend to fetishize sexual connections,” she writes, but those were “just one facet of a many-sided emotional equation.” To illustrate, she cites Lytton Strachey, Grant and economist John Maynard Keynes, who “may all have slept with each other in the early 1900s, but these were brief interludes in relationships that lasted a lifetime.”
The climate of sexual transgression nonetheless fed back into the work of those who observed it. Vita Sackville-West was the inspiration for her lover Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando,” which craftily shimmied past censorship of the “Sapphist” literature of the day. But as Nino Strachey explains, Woolf was also influenced by the genderqueer society around Vita’s cousin Eddy. Nationalistic right-wingers targeted such “painted and powdered” young men for persecution, but in “Brideshead Revisited” fashion, the effeminate met the parodic in the defiant aesthetes’ pursuits. One Strachey scion played cricket for Magdalen College “wearing a large French peasant’s hat adorned with trailing pink ribbons.” Androgyny, cross-dressing and costume were de rigueur for the golden-boy bon vivant and artist Tennant and Vogue photographer Cecil Beaton at their fetes.
In some cases, the painted on-porcelain visages hid medical maladies. Eddy Sackville-West suffered from hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, “which could cause agonizing lesions” in organs and skin. The makeup “became a necessity when your cheeks could be covered in creeping red spider veins or suddenly erupt in bleeding sores.” Similarly, the delicate Tennant’s art studies were interrupted by an extended battle with tuberculosis.
Some of the painted and powdered men were pressured to undergo a type of conversion therapy in Germany that combined “psychoanalytical techniques with painful protein injections.” Amusingly, however, one such patient fantasized about using the opportunity for “skiing over the snow fields hand in hand with a divine Celtish boy, a Laplander, or a German” or “sitting in the Casino, while … boys of all nationalities drift past or sit sucking their mochas with glances so frank, candid, fresh and lovely that one might take them for invitations.”
It is in such concisely explained, well-researched details that “Young Bloomsbury” flourishes. Its cinematic specifics and pace make the reader feel the bravery and solidarity among these nonconformists who risked ridicule, ostracism and sometimes prison in trying to become their authentic selves.
“Young Bloomsbury” wears its political and personal intentions proudly. “As the mother of a child who identifies as gender-fluid and queer,” Nino Strachey writes in her introduction, “I have learned some sad truths about the ongoing impact of prejudice. Queerness is no longer seen as a mental illness in Britain, but the mistreatment of queer young people persists.” She writes, “My child and I have found much to celebrate in the world of Young Bloomsbury and in the queer history of our own family.”
Here, across the Atlantic, hate crimes surge; the courts and legislatures erode women’s bodily autonomy; some activists fear the revival of anti-sodomy laws; the Commonwealth of Virginia restricts the rights of transgender students; and conservative states target drag shows. Old Bloomsbury sparked — and Young Bloomsbury fanned — freedoms that seem always under the threat of being extinguished. Clearly, there is much for Americans to learn from and celebrate in this lively account of Bloomsbury’s freethinking pioneers.
Alexander C. Kafka writes about books and the arts for numerous publications.
The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England
By Nino Strachey
Atria. 304 pp. $29
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