Tuesdays this Spring—Seminar in the City: Queer Bloomsbury/Buggersbury

When I was a senior in college in 1974, I used to walk to my favorite class, a seminar named simply Bloomsbury, with a friend I’ll call Ruth who needed my support before claiming her seat next to her beloved teacher. New Criticism, then in vogue, forbade us to delve into authors’ private lives, so Mrs. N. kept us focused strictly on the texts at hand. Still, Ruth was not the only one who found fantasy material in that seminar. In my own dreams I was welcomed with open arms into the ranks of Bloomsbury by Virginia Woolf, whose madness magically abated at my touch.

A few years late, when Gay Liberation hit, most of the members of that seminar came out, and Mrs. D, who had lived for a while with both Ruth and her husband, got rid of the latter. Bloomsbury was like that. And as I thought about a name for this seminar in the city, I knew that while I would follow down the path Mrs. D had paved, I would also veer away from it. I wanted to include something that would have made her wince. Bloomsbury/ Buggersbury, then.

To be fair, the title was coined first by Virginia Woolf herself. In her memoir Old Bloomsbury, it is 1908, two years after the orphaned Stephen sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, lost their brother, Thoby, to the typhoid fever he had contracted on holiday in Greece. He’d been in the habit of bringing home his friends from Cambridge, in particular Lytton Strachey, or The Strach, as Thoby affectionately called him. After his death , the same group of young men continued to meet in the sisters’ comfortable drawing room. Virginia tells it far better than I could.

Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr. Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress. “Semen?” he said…With that one word all the 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.” ( Old Bloomsbury, 54) One would have to look far to find a queerer beginning. But in fact, Buggersbury had started well before Virginia’s epiphany. While the Stephens sisters, like other cultured women of their time, were being educated at home, most of the male Bloomsbuggers were at Cambridge, where they were elected to an exclusive “conversazione” club, the Apostles. Its tradition of Hellenic Love can be best summed up by Oscar Wilde’s famous courtroom speech on “the love that dare not speak its name.” (1895) . “It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect,” Wilde rhapsodized. “It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”

Contrary to the claim of one of its later members who complained that it had been poisoned by “predacious pederasts” (sic) Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey,” The Apostles’ creed had already been firmly in place in 1829, when Alfred Lord Tennyson joined with his friend, Arthur Hallam to whose ghost he later dedicated his poem “In Memoriam,” with the inscription “To HIM Whose Name is LOVE.” Some critics have suggested that the Apostles were so torn between the Platonic ideal of love between two intellectual and social equals and their actual objects of desire—young, masculinelooking working class boys, that their adventures were mostly in their heads. But overwhelmingly clear evidence points otherwise. Strachey complained to his gay brother, James, that Keynes had come to him “reeking of that [Grant’s] semen.” (Letters, 143). And Duncan Grant himself told an interviewer in 1970, “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I had relations with anyone who would have me.” ( Levy, 80) While High Buggery could flourish in the refuge of Cambridge, Oscar Wilde’s fate hung over Bloomsbury like a dark shadow. Wilde, who was found guilty of gross indecency under the Labouchère Amendment, or Section 11, also known as The Blackmailer’s Charter and only abolished in 1967, might have counted himself lucky to have been acquitted of the first charge, buggery, which had held a death penalty in England until 1861. Among other punishments during his two years of hard labor, the gently raised Wilde had to walk a treadmill for six hours a day. He never recovered from his incarceration, and died destitute and broken in 1900 when E.M. Forster, a fringe member of Bloomsbury but the only one besides Virginia whose work is well established in the canon, was an impressionable seventeen. No wonder Forster, who only managed to have sex (with an Egyptian tram porter) at age thirty nine, kept his gay short stories and novel, Maurice, under wraps during his lifetime. In one scene in that novel, an adolescent Maurice, as manly, stout and ordinary an English boy as Forster himself was an enervated, slender outsider, goes to his family doctor to inform him “with a touch of scorn in his terror”. “I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” Predictably, the doctor dismisses Maurice’s feelings as “rubbish.” Later poor Maurice goes to a hypnotist, who diagnoses him with “congenital homosexuality”—of the incurable sort. But not all the older gay men Forster knew ended miserably. Edward Carpenter‘ s Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship (1896) was known as “The Buggers Bible.” An academic at Cambridge, Carpenter left that life to live and farm in the country with his “husband” a working class young man, George Merrill. Amazingly, considering the forces stacked against them, the two lived in harmony for the rest of Merrill’s life. Forster visited Carpenter, and found his friendship and philosophy comforting and influential. Maurice ends happily when Forster’s eponymous hero withdraws to the pure, untouched country with his own young working class lover, Alec Scudder. While the other members of early Bloomsbury were less prone to camping it up than the Strach, with his long cloaks and high voice, all the rest , including economist, John Maynard Keynes; painters, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Desmond McCarthy, and Clive Bell; and critics and editors Desmond McCarthy and Sidney Saxon Turner—enjoyed, as George Piggford politely puts it, “sexuality in all its polymorphous perverse forms.” Piggford points out that even the one unambiguously heterosexual member of the group, Vanessa, who welcomed her lovers’ boyfriends into her home, regularly committed adultery, another crime against Christian morality. Leonard Woolf alone of the men did not extend “High Buggery” beyond his Cambridge days. Perhaps he was not terribly highly sexed, as whatever sexual passion Virginia’s vulnerability to madness allowed her was directed not at him but at Vita Sackville West, the “notorious sapphist” and the model for Virginia’s two-gendered hero/ine Orlando, but never a Bloomsbugger herself.

The Bloomsbuggers were as incestuous as most other such groups. S. P. Rosenbaum gets into trouble in his introduction to Lytton Strachey’s “Monday, June 26th 1916,” his attempt at stream of consciousness. On that day Lytton visiting Wissit, a farmhouse that Duncan Grant’s aunt had left him, in which he and Bunny (David Garnett) were avoiding conscription into the army by farming fruit. With Lytton was Harry Norton, a Cambridge friend and former suitor of Vanessa, who had followed Duncan there with her two young boys, Quentin and Julian, (Duncan, who had rejected her in favor of Lytton now preferred Bunny.) Vanessa’s daughter Angelica, not yet born, later married or was married to Bunny, a mistake she complains about convincingly in her Deceived with Kindness. (1984) Some years earlier, Lytton had proposed to Virginia, who had actually seriously considered accepting him before her marriage to Leonard Woolf, “that penniless Jew.” The beloved “L” in the piece refers to Lytton’s current squeeze, the young painter, Henry Lamb, though his attention throughout the day is on the young postman whom he has seen biking down the lane and schemes to run into again. It may be hard to picture painting and writing getting done in this atmosphere, but it undeniably happened. Bloomsbuggers produced ground-breaking art as well as works of philosophy, economics, history, essays and novels—not to mention the letters, journals, gardens, and painted walls and furniture they poured out and collected for posterity.

The identity of one’s enemies can be as instructive as that of one’s friends. Racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis snarled about “ pseuderasts and Bloomsbuggers” while working class D. H. Lawrence was so simultaneously drawn to and terrified by the group that he wrote to Lady Otteline Morrell, “I simply can’t bear it. It truly makes me scarcely able to live.” (1915 ) While Lawrence’s reaction is extreme, it is not unique. Bloomsbury’s mixture of privilege, creativity, and pleasurable nonconformity has inspired and inspires almost mythic attention. In the upcoming Seminar in the City, we will discuss how Virginia, her brother Adrian, Lytton, Duncan Grant and three others, with the help of robes, turbans, blackface and in Virginia’s case, a little facial hair, managed to fool the British Navy into believing they were the Emperor of Abyssinia and his court in the famous Dreadnaught Hoax. I hope to see you there.