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.
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