With Nicole Kidman up for Best Actress her portrayal of Virginia Woolf just one of the many Oscar nominations for the stunning new film The Hours, attention is once more focused on the novelist and her circle of friends known as the Bloomsbury set. For OutUK Paula Martinac assesses their influence and we also look at a new CD which features songs about this London literary and intellectual mafia who laid the foundations for sexual and social liberation in the second half of the 20th Century.
Soon after their father's death in 1904, Vanessa Stephen, a painter, and her sister, Virginia, an aspiring novelist, began to host regular meetings for other wealthy young intellectuals at their London home. It was known simply as Bloomsbury after the area of London round the British Museum in which the sisters lived.
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours
©2002 Paramount Pictures
The Bloomsbury salon became a haven for artists and writers - including many gays and bisexuals - who wanted to break free from the artistic and sexual restrictions of the era.

Bloomsbury's first members were the Cambridge University friends that Thoby Stephen brought to his sisters' home for dinner - historian Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes, and writers Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf. The guests in turn invited others to the group, including artist Duncan Grant, who had been sexually involved with both Strachey and Keynes. Within Bloomsbury, these gay men found support for their sexual orientation at a time when the imprisonment of playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895 for sodomy was still a very fresh memory.

The Bloomsbury group has gone down in history for the many contributions its members made to literature, art, and the social sciences. The group's intellectual core was Virginia Stephen, who became Virginia Woolf when she married in 1912. Today she is recognized as one of the great modernist novelists. She and her husband, Leonard, founded Hogarth Press, a publishing house that brought some of the most significant literature of the era into print when no one else would, including T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. In other fields, Keynes became one of the pre-eminent economists of his day, while Strachey achieved renown as a biographer.

But the romantic record of the group's members is also noteworthy, because they demonstrated a sexual freedom and fluidity that was remarkably ahead of their time. Beginning in 1925, Virginia Woolf had a passionate affair with the dashing Vita Sackville-West. In the first flush of romance, Woolf wrote what has become a classic of queer fiction, the experimental fantasy Orlando (1927), which argued that love and passion ignore gender, and that gender itself is fluid.

Others in the Bloomsbury group exhibited similar ambisexual tendencies. Although Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell, the great love of her life was Duncan Grant, who was primarily gay and had been sexually involved with her brother Adrian. During World War I, they lived together at a country estate with David "Bunny" Garnett, who was a lover of both.

Triangular relationships with a queer twist were common within the Bloomsbury circle. Strachey was gay, but in the early days of Bloomsbury, he proposed marriage to Virginia Stephen. In the 1920s, he lived in platonic bliss with surrealist painter Dora Carrington. When they both fell in love with the same man, Carrington married the object of their mutual desire, and the three set up housekeeping together. The cross-dressing Carrington had affairs with women, confiding to a friend that she had "more ecstasy" with female lovers than with men - "and no shame."

In the early years of Bloomsbury, Keynes was also exclusively gay. But in 1923 he shocked the group by marrying Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. The happy marriage seems to have made an ex-gay out of Keynes - according to one intimate, he never again pursued men sexually.

By most accounts, Bloomsbury lost its soul and its force when Virginia Woolf - who was plagued by mental illness throughout her life - drowned herself in 1941. Some members met sporadically until the 1950s, but without the same zeal. Today, their haunts and homes in the Bloomsbury district are part of the University of London.

The Hours reviewed in OutUK's Now Playing
Woolf A New CD about Bloomsbury

 

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