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Queer Bloomsbury, edited by Brenda S. Helt and Madelyn Detloff


Queer Bloomsbury. Edited by Brenda S. Helt and Madelyn Detloff. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 298. $125.00 (cloth); 39.95 (paper).

Queer Bloomsbury is a book in two parts, and as such, evokes two different responses. “Part One: Ground-Breaking Essays” consists of lightly-edited reprints of essays by Carolyn Heilbrun, Christopher Reed, George Piggford, Bill Maurer, and Brenda Helt ordered chronologically from Heilbrun’s 1968 “The Bloomsbury Group” to Helt’s 2010 “Passionate Debates on ‘Odious Subjects.’” “Part Two: New Essays” continues the volume’s engagement with queer studies as a useful contemporary lens through which to read the aesthetic and political projects of Old Bloomsbury. With this design, the editors’ aim is to create “a single volume drawing together important early essays (the ones we most often forwarded to colleagues and students) with exciting new work” (7). Their opening emphasis on “the ways [that] the new work draws on the older work” means that it is impossible to avoid reflecting upon one’s own scholarly introduction to the Bloomsberries when going through this section (7).

The volume encourages this mode of reading by its tone, such as in Brenda Silver’s frankly personal introduction to Heilbrun. Silver refers to a particular moment in the intellectual history of Anglo-American academe at which works such as Heilbrun’s “made it possible for those who were not part of the traditional academic scene, who were excluded from the ‘we’ that constituted the male intellectual world she had entered in the 1950s, to imagine and create a ‘we’ inclusive of those who spoke in a different voice” (21). Reed’s prefatory comment that his 1991 essay “registers the anger of an ACT-UP-generation graduate student confronting homophobic elders authorised by academic titles and scholarly publications” similarly binds the act of criticism to the contemporaneous academic moment (36). Later in the volume, Regina Marler echoes him to say “Bloomsbury had long been perceived as an old and stuffy establishment clique” before this recuperative critical work (136). Her comment sent me back to my own A-Levels classroom in Calcutta in 1999, where we confronted E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India as the last word on our country and its caves. That is no longer my Forster, or my Passage (or my caves, etc.), and Queer Bloomsbury reminds readers how relatively recent our contemporary critical habits are. With Reed, I too “find myself nostalgic for a moment when calling out the prejudices of academic authorities could be imagined to engender social change” (36). Is there value in this shared nostalgia? Queer Bloomsbury answers with an entirely persuasive affirmative.

The queer and the camp recur as critical tropes throughout the volume, building on theoretical bases offered by Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sarah Ahmed, and Lauren Berlant, among others. The focus on desire—its formation, and its search for a fit object—informs many of the essays in this volume, and Helt’s evocation of Woolf’s queer fictive method is representative of the critical mode employed by others in the volume. She writes that Woolf’s attitude towards androgyny reveals a deep suspicion of “the cultural mythos of genius,” and that Woolf locates inspiration not in the extraordinary figure of the genius but in the ordinary, lustful, sometimes-dissatisfied queer subject space (126). George Piggford’s 1997 essay on Forster’s use of an ironic, campy biographic style—“the Stracheyesque,” solidifies the critical move away from discussions of androgyny towards a more fluid conception of the artist’s engendered role (64).

Queerness overtakes older arguments stemming from gender binaries, a move that points to a particular moment in literary criticism. Piggford writes: “Generally, my examination of this subgenre serves to show that the writings of the Bloomsbury Group emphasise the modernist forces of parody and irony that have been recently taken up as central terms in the theorization of postmodernism by numerous critics, most notably Linda Hutcheon” (65). The wrangle over whether modernism gets to be parodic and ironic, or whether those features are exclusive to postmodernism, has largely fallen away from contemporary debates. Nonetheless, old arguments can prod fresh work, and rereading Piggford’s essay brings to mind recent conference panels at which scholars considered the impact of early twentieth-century writers on twenty-first-century fiction. A reconsideration of Forster seems particularly relevant to our current moment for his combination of a moderate tone with deeply held aesthetic and political beliefs. Despite a profound resistance to Victorianism as an ethos, Piggford notes, “Forster developed for his novels a style that employs mimicry of both the narrative voice of serious Victorian novels and the suburban English voices that surrounded him at home and in his travels” (83). Shuttling between styles, his work comfortably accommodates both Edwardian conventionality and the campy Stracheyesque style. Can one love and simultaneously reject the past? Piggford’s essay insistently brings the reader back to the “queerness of modernism,” its vitality and exuberance (84). These inform the Bloomsbury Group but also transcend it, becoming a marker of interwar British literary subjectivity.

The comfort with opposing dualities that Forster displays, his queer refusal of absolutes, and his profound kindness drive a new essay in this volume, Jodie Medd’s examination of the relationship, largely epistolary, between him and T. E. Lawrence. This revelatory essay begins where many of the others do, in accounts of the sexual relations, or lack thereof, between the subjects discussed. Indeed, Queer Bloomsbury sustains a lively interest in the “who did what to whom” and by and large the liaisons of this group of friends is entertaining stuff. Darren Clarke tells us that Vanessa Bell so disliked Duncan Grant’s lover Paul Roche that the latter was unwelcome at their house in Charleston and would “sleep on the Downs, catching and cooking rabbits, he and Grant communicating clandestinely by leaving notes in hollow trees for each other” (160). This iteration of literary history destroys any readerly assumption that adulthood brings gravitas. Medd’s essay, however, sensitively reins in the volume’s Stracheyesque effervescence. Lawrence was too scarred by his experiences in Deraa and the Middle East for flippant talk or intimate contact. Medd presents the correspondence between him and Forster as a “queerly enabling remediation, initiated by an unpublishable story [Forster’s “Dr Woolacott”] about the ecstatic possibilities of male same-sex love, [which] indicates the radical potential of aesthetic intimacy to transform individuals, interpersonal understandings and circuits of reading” (269). Thus, Medd argues, Lawrence became a more acute writer, and perhaps found some peace within himself, through Forster’s unattached attachment to him.

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s account of Carrington’s relationship with Lytton Strachey arrives at a similar insight by brushing aside the primacy of sex acts. The value of uncovering the sex lives of others lies, in the end, in understanding that, for instance, Strachey “gave [Carrington] a new way to relate to the world. Word play, love, new ideas of ‘home’ in a changing world were what they shared” (208). Elyse Blankley examines the relationship between Leonard Woolf and Strachey to muse on a similar theme: “How does one excavate affection from under the weight of binaries that focus instead on crudely biological acts, as the hetero/homo divide does?” (230). Kindness, friendship, the desire to share—although containing plenty of ordinary negativity, this study of Bloomsbury lives and loves highlights the difficulty and the importance of their essential values. Queerness, escaping from under the weight of dualistic thinking, leads readers of the volume towards alternative affect/ions.

To debate modernism is also to speak, at some level, of war. Reading Queer Bloomsbury sequentially does lead there (the last three essays deal directly with the First World War), but an overwhelming fear of displacement and loss find expression in other, less direct ways as well. Marler glosses Angelica Bell’s memoir of her parents, saying they “underscore the fear of abandonment and loss that motivated some of Vanessa’s life choices—and, I would add, those of her friends” (146). She ascribes this as one reason for their propensity to form queer domestic triangles and, more rarely, trapezoids, flouting convention for a variety of personal and political reasons (139). Gerzina makes a similar comment about Carrington, who boldly rejected aspects of her Victorian upbringing in 1910 but remained tied to other conventions that repeatedly made her unhappy. In her relationship with the painter Mark Gertler, “[t]he problem was a lack of interest in the sexual act with a man, but it was also her unwillingness to let Gertler go. Whenever the relationship seemed to be coming to an inevitable end, she reeled him back” (192). Charleston, where Bell arranged for Duncan Grant and David Garnett to do farm work during the First World War and which was the Bell/Grant primary home during WW II, is described as “the theatre for negotiations, advancements and retreats” in the otherwise happy life of the couple (159). Queer Bloomsbury considers the nuances of such interpersonal relationships but ultimately avoids commenting directly upon the disproportionate burden of domesticity borne by its women. Does it matter that it was Virginia Woolf who cooked the dinners, Vanessa Bell who served as matriarch and arranger of domestic harmony, or Carrington who pined for Strachey even while she “continued to paint more seriously, keep up the house, and ride her horse Belle” (205)? Perhaps not; and yet the observation occupies its own odd corner in my reading notes.

Four of the essays in this collection, including Medd’s, deal directly with war. Mark Hussey examines Clive Bell’s development into an outspoken conscientious objector (CO) in 1915 with the enforcement of conscription. At a time when pro-conscription propaganda relied on insinuations of unmanliness and lunacy in depicting COs, Bell was impelled by a “peculiar feeling for art” towards an aesthetic/ethical objection to governmental pressure (quoted 240). While laudable in itself, Hussey shows the limits of Bell’s stance as a certain essentialism. On choosing not to revise “his rather wild claims” in Art (1914), Hussey writes that Bell “wanted to preserve ‘a record of what people like myself were thinking and feeling in the years before the first War’ (10), as if such thought could now be only an historical artefact” (253).

A similar limitation arises in John Maynard Keynes’s economic theories per Maurer’s 2002 essay. Maurer delineates Keynes’s plan for the Clearing Union in which cosmopolitan officials “continually reposition themselves so that they can capture the whole . . . much as a viewer resolves the dots of a pointillist painting into forms and images” (107). Keynes thus applies Grant’s perspectival aesthetics to economic theory, Maurer suggests, allowing a critique of the “heteronormative language of globalisation and suggest[ing] possibilities for queer rethinkings of capitalism” (93). That the Bretton Woods conference ignored the anti-empiricist, anti-teleological delicacy of his plan and instead set up the IMF/World Bank structure is disappointing. More striking is when Keynes himself appeared to come up against “the limits of modernist discourses,” as in his evaluation of the British Indian economy that “studiously ignore[d] the imperial politics of early twentieth-century India,” or the thwarted utopianism that led him to consider “the ‘alternative’ modern paths of National Socialism” for a time (106, 109, 110).

In a curious way the essays speak to each other across this volume, so that Kimberly Engdahl Coates’s delineation of Woolf’s resistance to “hegemonic straightening devices” sheds sympathetic light on the terrific pressure under which Bell, Keynes, and others operated during the interwar period (278). If their public work had obvious discursive failures, this points to the insidiousness of cultural processes to which we are subject, that “as subjects, we are continually oriented, discursively and visually, toward lines of thought and action that encourage the repetition of gendered and sexualised hegemonic constructions” (278). Woolf’s war novels “refuse any easy return to history’s seemingly irrevocable and upright march toward a repetition of the same,” a decision perhaps easier to hold to in fictive worlds than in the real (278).

Queer Bloomsbury engages readers in affective/evaluative reconsiderations of texts we have read, taught, and lived with. In this sense the volume broadly echoes Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations into “the force of normativity and human precarity, particularly in the face of questions of intelligibility and even liveability” (216). Gaile Pohlhaus Jr. and Madelyn Detloff’s essay on Wittgenstein remains the most tangential, and therefore perhaps most tantalizing, of the essays collected herein. Pointing out his core theoretical similarities to Woolf’s fiction and Keynesian economics, the essay directs readers back to the “ethos of purposeful living” they share (220). On a metaleptic level the volume also asks readers to consider the value of the history of late-twentieth century modernist literary criticism. What is the value of older critical experiments, and of new, queer modes of analysis? With Pohlhaus and Detloff, we might say it is to make “sense of the world in a way that opens us up to possibility, rather than binds us to fixed ideas” (221).  

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