Young Bloomsbury

Young Bloomsbury coverYoung Bloomsbury: The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England
Nino Strachey
Atria Books (December 6, 2022), 303 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $29.00

As a Star Trek fan I am tempted to call this book Bloomsbury: The Next Generation. I believe author Nino Strachey was wise not to choose that title.

Plenty has been written about the original Bloomsbury group that centered around Virginia and Leonard Woolf, but Young Bloomsbury covers material less well documented. In addition to the Woolfs, the original group included the author Lytton Strachey and his longtime companion the artist Dora Carrington. Also part of that group was Ralph Partridge. The three of them formed a consensual household. Lytton preferred young men, but valued Carrington’s companionship. (Dora went by her more gender-neutral last name.) Ralph preferred women, and the two eventually married for convenience. The three presided at Lytton’s country estate that was frequented by younger visitors.

One of the regular visitors to Strachey’s estate was the sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Although he and Lytton were regular lovers, Tomlin (“Tommy”) fell for Julia Strachey, Lytton’s niece. They eventually married, but the relationship was a stormy one. Ultimately, they lived separate lives, although they never divorced, something that was rare in the Bloomsbury group. John Strachey, Lytton’s younger cousin, was one of the few to do so. He was also one of the few members of that circle to engage in politics, although Leonard Woolf wrote pieces for the Labour party.

Another of Lytton’s lovers and a regular visitor to the compound was the novelist and music critic Eddy Sackville-West. In fact, most of the men in the Young Bloomsbury group were gay. It was a dangerous time for these young men as homosexuality in England was illegal, and one could be arrested for cosmetics or attire that might simply suggest such an orientation. But for these men Lytton’s estate and home in London provided refuge.

Those of us who were around in the late sixties and early seventies thought we were being progressive regarding sexual and moral matters, but the Bloomsbury crowd was ahead of us by half a century. No one blinked an eye at the Strachey/Carrington/Partridge arrangement, and no one had any judgments about the same-sex relationships of the younger generation. The author says Virginia Woolf “provided a sympathetic adult ear in a period when same-sex love was open to hostile challenge.” Wolf did, however, observe the activities of men like Tommy and Sackville-West with a certain bemusement, as quotes from her letters and diary show. Such opinions, though, were without negativity or judgment.

As a member of the Strachey family, Nino Strachey was granted open access to archives and records. And as she states in the beginning of the book, she has another reason for her interest in the subject. She tells us she has an offspring who identifies as gender fluid.

Young Bloomsbury is fascinating reading and adds a new dimension to the history of a rich period in twentieth century British arts and letters.

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