'Such Friends': Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group
Entrance to Gordon Square
Welcome to Bloomsbury! I’m Dr. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly and I’ll be your guide for this walk. You should be standing at the entrance to Gordon Square, facing the garden, with the small cafe on your right. Before we get going, I'll tell you a bit about myself, and today's walk.
As you can tell from my accent, I’m not from around here. I’m American, and for the last few years I was based in Dublin doing research on the writers and artists of the early 20th century. Now I teach here in the UK.
I’ve always been interested in creative people, and wanted to find out more about how their relationships, friendships, marriages, affected their work.
One group included William Butler Yeats and his friends who founded the Abbey Theatre. He said in one of his poems,
‘Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
and say my glory was I had such friends,’
so I have used ‘Such Friends’ as the title for all my work about ‘my’ writers.
Today's walk is about novelist Virginia Woolf and her relatives and ‘such friends’ who made up the Bloomsbury group. They spent their days writing and painting, and their evenings in drawing rooms—or salons—where they ate, drank, fell in and out of love, argued and talked. We'll explore their lives when they were just starting out, before Virginia became well-known for her writing. As we go, I’ll tell you about the relationships among these interesting—and creative—‘such friends.’
Let's start walking now. Go into the garden through the gate, and make your way up the path to your right. VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically, so put your phone away and focus on your lovely surroundings. My directions will keep you on track. There might be some silences, but you can keep walking and my voice will kick in at each location.
Follow the path to your right, to the eastern square entrance
Keep following the path ahead of you that bends to the right.
Much has changed in the area, but this garden looks much the same as it did back when the Bloomsberries lived nearby.
Although now it is quite a posh area of London, in the early 20th century, Bloomsbury was considered to be really seedy, a cheap place for students and artists to live.
Remember as we walk around, that in those days, people didn’t own the places they lived in. The land was owned by the aristocracy somewhere; the inhabitants just rented.
Just ahead is another gate, leading out of the garden. Let’s pause here for a minute.
Standing here, you can see most of the buildings that the Bloomsbury group lived in during their years in Gordon Square.
Just to your right, you'll see number 46, with the black door and plaque. That's where Vanessa Stephen, then 25, moved her brothers and her sister, Virginia who was just 22. It was in the autumn of 1904, after their widowed father had died. Vanessa saw this as a release from the dark old house they had been brought up in, just off Hyde Park.
Their brother Thoby started having ‘at homes’ on Thursday evenings, when his friends from Cambridge University would know that he would be ‘at home’ for them. His sisters would sit quietly while university men like Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell, also in their 20s, would knowingly discuss ‘the nature of good.’
And then, in November of 1906, big, strong, athletic, strapping Thoby…died. Aged 26. They had all been on a disastrous trip to Europe, and everyone had gotten sick. Thoby’s typhoid was misdiagnosed, and in a few days, he was gone. They were all devastated. Two days after Thoby’s death, his friend Clive Bell proposed—again—to Vanessa. And this time she said ‘yes.’
Clive moved in here, and Virginia and her other brother, Adrian, moved over to Fitzroy Square, which we’ll visit later.
For now, turn to the left and walk a little way up Gordon Square.
Numbers 37 and 41 Gordon Square
You're now passing number 41, on the right. Many members of the Strachey family, including Lytton and his mother, made their home there, mostly in the 1920s. I'll tell you more about him soon.
The last house on this block is number 37. In the 1920's, Vanessa Bell lived there with Duncan Grant. He was a fellow painter, and her lover at the time, although he was a few years younger than she was, and gay.
For now, turn around and make your way back down the street, towards the main road where we started the walk. I'll tell you a bit more about Gordon Square as we walk down there.
After the first world war, the Bloomsbury group played musical chairs with the houses here. Vanessa was mostly out in Sussex with her kids, so their friend, economist John Maynard Keynes took over the lease on number 46. Her husband Clive Bell hosted many of his mistresses there. The group gave lots of parties—a celebration when the Armistice was announced in 1918, a soiree for the visiting Russian ballet and Picasso the following year.
In the 1920s, Keynes wrote to Vanessa about Gordon Square. He said, "if Lydia [his soon-to-be wife] lived in 41, and Duncan [his lover] and I lived in 46, you and family in 50, and we all had meals in 46, that might not be a bad arrangement…We all want both to have and not have husbands and wives."
Look out for number 51, on your left. One of the most well-known Bloomsberries, the biographer Lytton Strachey, lived here on the ground floor. I’ll tell you more about him as we head over to Fitzroy Square, so turn right to walk past the garden entrance where we started.
Turn right and walk down Gordon Street
In my research I found that in every group there were certain roles: There was always a ‘Star’—the one they all knew was the most talented, like Virginia Woolf. Each ‘Star’ had a ‘Hostess,’ like her sister Vanessa Bell, who took care of everyone in the group. The Earth Mother. And every group had an ‘Irritant’: And there was no more irritating person than Lytton Strachey.
Lytton was a true British eccentric, with a high pitched voice and a long red beard. He drove them all nuts—but they loved having him around. Don’t we all know people like that?! He had affairs with his cousin, Duncan Grant, and Duncan’s lover, Maynard Keynes, and even proposed to Virginia once! But he thought better of it the next day.
If you want to see an excellent depiction of Lytton, I recommend Jonathan Pryce’s performance in the film Carrington, about his long term relationship with the painter Dora Carrington, played by Emma Thompson. That’s your video tip for the week.
To balance off the Irritant, every group also had an ‘Angel,’ someone who everybody just loved. In the case of Bloomsbury, it was the painter Duncan Grant. Aaaah, Duncan. They all loved him. Most of them even slept with him! He was a bit younger than the others, and had a certain innocence about him. He also lived until he was 93.
For my research, I had to pinpoint the time when each group started and ended. For Bloomsbury, I consider the beginning to be the day that Vanessa and Clive Bell married, in the spring of 1907. That's also when Virginia and her brother, Adrian, moved to Fitzroy Square.
The Bells still held salons on Thursday evenings at number 46 Gordon Square, but now, after dinner, the party would often move to Virginia and Adrian’s living room, probably walking the same route that we are on right now.
They were young, creative people, and they were enjoying their new found freedoms. Later, Virginia wrote that the whole world changed in one moment in Gordon Square in 1908.
She said, “It was a spring evening. Vanessa and I were sitting in the drawing room...Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr. Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress. ‘Semen?’ he said. 'Can one really say it?' I thought and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the 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. It is strange to think how reticent, how reserved we had been and for how long.”
Turn right at Gower Street
Cross over Gower Street at the pedestrian crossing ahead. Once you’re safely across, turn right and keep walking up to Grafton Way. I’ll tell you about Clive Bell’s role in the group while we head up there.
Clive came from a very wealthy family, whereas the others would be considered more middle class. He became an influential art critic, with his most famous book called Art. A bit pretentious I’ve always thought.
Clive was the person in the group whom I call ‘The Observer.’ They are definitely part of the group, but a bit to one side, watching what is going on. They usually are active in lots of other social circles as well, and this was true of Clive. After the birth of their two sons, he and Vanessa had an ‘open’ marriage and he had many affairs, while still keeping a room all his own at Vanessa’s house, at Charleston.
One of Thoby’s Cambridge friends was Leonard Woolf. You might have been wondering when he would show up in our story to marry Virginia.
After graduating from Cambridge, Leonard joined the Colonial Service and was assigned to represent the crown in Jaffna, Ceylon. He spent seven years there, and, ironically, while Thoby Stephen was being misdiagnosed back in London, Leonard was successfully treated for typhoid in the jungles of Ceylon.
Leonard realized the absurdity of a 25 year old with no experience being assigned to take charge of an entire country of Ceylonese people. He was not happy in the post, and in 1911 he applied to come back to England on leave. Leonard had kept in touch with his university friends—many of whom were, like him, members of the Cambridge association, the Apostles.
Although the Apostles were then a ‘secret’ society that students had to be invited in to, they became less secret in the 1950s. Government officials Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were revealed to be passing top secrets to Russia during the Cold War. Part of the scandal was that they had both been recruited by the Communist Party when they were Apostles at Cambridge.
Even in Ceylon, Leonard remained close to Lytton Strachey. Lytton wrote him letters about the lovely evenings he would spend in conversation with Virginia, Vanessa, Duncan, Clive and Maynard. So when Leonard came home, he couldn’t wait to get back in to the cultural and social life of his friends who were now writers and artists in Bloomsbury.
Leonard had met Virginia and Vanessa years before when they had come to visit their brother Thoby at Cambridge. Later, Leonard wrote of his first impression of the Stephen sisters.
He said, "Their beauty literally took one's breath away...One stopped astonished...It was almost impossible for a man not to fall in love with them and I think that I did at once."
He and Virginia became re-acquainted when he came to dinner one summer night at Gordon Square in 1911.
Turn left here on to Grafton Way.
As you turn, you'll see a large hospital on your left.
As you might imagine, Virginia and Vanessa’s relatives were quite scandalized when they found out the young Stephens were moving to this part of town, to live on their own! And have their college friends visit! And stay overnight! Vanessa was so glad to be rid of her other relatives, she told one shocked aunt, ‘It will be all right. And the Foundling Hospital is nearby, in any case.’
It may not have been much consolation, because the Foundling Hospital is actually not this one - it's all the way on the other side of Bloomsbury! This hospital is the University College Hospital, but the story works quite well here.
Loved in Triangles and Lived in Squares
When Vanessa got married and started a family, the still single Virginia was a bit jealous. She even started a flirtation with Clive at one point. Virginia described her sister and brother-in-law in a letter to a friend.
She said, “[They] live...much like your ladies in a French salon; they have all the wits and poets; and ‘Nessa sits among them, like a Goddess."
After ‘everything changed’ in 1908, the Bloomsberries' relationships became more tangled than ever. Lytton started bringing his cousin and lover, painter Duncan Grant to the Thursday evenings. Lytton’s Cambridge friend John Maynard Keynes took rooms in Fitzroy Square and joined in the fun as well. In fact, he began sleeping with Duncan.
You can see why the Bloomsbury group has been described as those who ‘loved in triangles and lived in squares’
Cross over Tottenham Court Road, continue to Fitzroy Square
Be careful crossing Tottenham Court Road up ahead - it can be quite busy. Once across, continue walking straight ahead towards Fitzroy Square.
We're nearing Fitzroy Square now, where today's walk will end.
As you walk, let me tell you a little more about Maynard Keynes. He played a key role in the Bloomsbury group: The Bridge.
I found that every salon of writers had one person who was actually from a different field. Keynes, for example, did some writing, but his main work was, of course, in economics. He was a brilliant professor at Cambridge, and then went to work in the Treasury department during World War I. His Bloomsbury friends, who were famous pacifists, were not happy about this job, and this eventually lead to the break-up of the group.
The Bridge is important because he brings a different point of view. A bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing all the time isn’t very creative. I think it is the presence of someone who looks at the world from another angle that makes these salons so creative. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.
Indian YMCA and Fitzroy Square
The modern building on your left is the Indian YMCA. This is one of your ‘tips’ on where to eat; they have a lovely cafeteria that serves hot lunches.
The reason I know this is that I attended a travel writing workshop here a few years ago. It had been advertised in the Guardian newspaper, and I figured it was a good omen for me that it was being held in Bloomsbury.
The writer who taught the day-long session gave us an assignment for our lunch break. When he announced what it was, I couldn’t believe my ears. He wanted us to ‘write about this neighbourhood.’ Seriously. The same neighborhood I have been researching for the past twenty years!
#33 Fitzroy Square, the Omega Workshops (and bench)
We're now at Fitzroy Square, and I've just got two more things to show you. Walk straight ahead, towards the four story block, and look out for number 29, the one that has two plaques on it. Go up to it and I'll tell you more.
[PAUSE: 2 SEC]
The plaque tells you that George Bernard Shaw’s family lived here in the late 19th century. But in 1907, the 25 year old Virginia moved in, with her brother. While her painter sister decorated Gordon Square with the latest in cubist art, Virginia and Adrian kept their interior simple. Adrian had a study full of books that looked out here onto the square.
In her own home, hosting her own salons, Virginia’s confidence grew. The evenings were for conversation, and as Virginia wrote later, she would
“stumble off to bed feeling that something very important had happened. It had been proved that beauty was—or beauty was not—for I have never been quite sure which—part of a picture.’
Now with ‘a room of her own,’ she began a novel, 'The Voyage Out.'
In 1911 Leonard decided he wouldn’t go back to Ceylon but would propose to Virginia. After months of persuasion, she accepted. They married in August 1912 and moved to their own flat in Clifford’s Inn.
Now, turn your back to number 29 and look for number 33 on the corner. You can go over to it, or take a seat on the bench while you listen to my last story.
[PAUSE 2 SEC]
Number 33 is where art critic Roger Fry opened the Omega Workshops.
Fry didn’t begin socializing with the others until a fateful day in 1910. He’d lost his job with the New York Metropolitan Museum, and had to commit his wife to an asylum. Fry ran into Vanessa and Clive Bell at the Cambridge railway station. He'd met them once before, so they chatted, and by the time they reached London, Roger was in the group!
At 43, Fry was older than the others, because each salon had a ‘Link’— someone with better connections, who helped the younger ones become more mainstream.
Fry used inherited money to rent number 33. In 1912 he opened the Omega Workshops with Vanessa and Duncan. Vanessa suggested having a Bloomsbury party to celebrate.
She wrote, “We should get all our disreputable and some of your aristocratic friends to come, and… there should be decorated furniture, painted walls, et cetera. There we should all get drunk and dance and kiss, orders would flow in, and the aristocrats would feel they were really in the thick of things.”
The Omega was successful for about five years, with customers such as Yeats and Shaw buying the fashionable handmade pottery and textiles.
As groups of friends do, the Bloomsberries broke up. In early 1915 they all started to spend more time outside the city.
Although they saw each other frequently, the days of wandering in and out of each others’ houses, staying up late drinking whisky and cocoa, were over. Virginia remembered this time, saying, "Talking, talking, talking,…as if everything could be talked—the soul itself slipped through the lips in thin silver discs which dissolve in young men’s minds like silver, like moonlight."
Thanks for walking with me and our ‘Such Friends.’ I hope you've enjoyed their company.