Unfair to Bloomsbury

In yesterday’s episode of Life in Squares, the BBC drama serial about the Bloomsbury Group, the First World War came and went.

It incommoded them slightly, one gathered. The chaps had to get themselves muddy on a farm, pretending that they were doing work of national importance to avoid conscription, and all of them got a bit miserable, but by and large the war was less important to them than their own romantic tangles.

The same with their books. We learnt that Virginia Woolf worked hard at writing The Voyage Out, and was very pleased when it was published. Lytton Strachey too looked smug when opening a copy of Eminent Victorians. But nobody seemed very interested in what was inside these books – not nearly as interested as they were in sex.

If one wanted to produce a satire on the Bloomsberries, I suppose that that’s how one would show them – as self-centred rich Bohemians, interested only in their own mucky affairs. Even as satire, that would not be entirely fair, and this programme was not (I assume) trying to be satire.

I’m not a big fan of most of the Bloomsbury Group, but Life in Squares is not doing them justice. They were more intelligent than is shown here, and they took art and writing seriously. Politics, too. Their pacifism was considered and principled, and deserved more than the treatment it got in last night’s programme.

Lytton Strachey is there mostly for decoration. Did the series really have no room for his appearance before the tribunal when he refused conscription? Asked what he would do if a German soldier were raping his sister, he replied ‘I should attempt to come between them.’ No attempt was made to give Eminent Victorians more than a name-check; the writer of the series seemed uninterested in why it was a notable work.

Poor Virginia Woolf got more screen-time, because she went mad now and then, which makes for good television. Her marriage to Leonard was caricatured as a disaster, and we were never actually told who he was, and why he might be interesting in his own right. I don’t think the Hogarth press was even mentioned. The scriptwriter never gave Virginia the chance to explain what she was trying to do in her fiction. She just came across as miserable.

Doubtless she was miserable from time to time, but she was also a lot wittier and brighter than the character on TV. One episode that the series chose to exclude was the dreadnought hoax of 1910, when a group of Bloomsbury chums blacked up as African potentates, pretended to be the Prince of Abyssinia and his retinue, and demanded succesfully to be formally shown round the Dreadnought.
In the picture, Virginia, I think, is the chap on the left.

dreadnought hoax


The Dreadnought incident would have been enjoyably televisual, but of course it could not be included. This series celebrates the sexual taboo-breaking of the Bloomsberries, and includes gay and lesbian scenes that would probably not have reached the screens even ten years ago. But to show posh people blacking up for a lark, with even a hint of enjoyment or approval – that’s a taboo that today’s BBC couldn’t possibly challenge.

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