Bloomsbury Masculinity and Its Victorian Antecedents

Barbara Caine. Journal of Men’s Studies. Volume 15, Issue 3. Fall 2007.

As the almost ceaseless flow of biographies, essays and critical analyses of the Bloomsbury group show, there is a continuing and even expanding interest in the art, ideas, ethics and ways of life associated with them. Debate and disagreement amongst those interested in analyzing various aspects of Bloomsbury and its importance continues, but it has changed its form in the last decade or so. Thus where once this debate centered on the precise membership of the Bloomsbury group and on their long-term significance, there is now rather more interest in the question of their modernity. Bloomsbury has long been seen as playing a significant part in the emergence of many aspects of English modernity in the early twentieth century, and many members of the Bloomsbury group saw themselves as distinctly modern, not only in their enthusiasm for modern art and literature, but also in terms of their ideas about the nature and importance of intimacy in domestic life and social relationships and their distinctly modern ideas about and attitudes toward both sexuality and gender. Recently, however, a number of historians and literary critics have questioned the depth and the meaning of Bloomsbury modernity, pointing rather to the strong continuities with Victorian values and codes of behavior that underlay some of the new forms of domestic life and the apparently new approach to intimate relationships (see, for example, Joyce, 2004; Taddeo, 2002).

I want to take up this question of continuity and change in this article, focusing on questions about gender and sexuality and more particularly on the distinctive form of masculinity that was associated with Bloomsbury. I am seeking here to explore whether there was a distinctive form of Bloomsbury masculinity, and if so what it meant and how it was made manifest. I want also to consider the extent to which the codes of behavior and the assumptions of the men connected to Bloomsbury differed from-or resembled-the Victorian masculinity against which so many members of Bloomsbury seemed to be reacting.

In doing this, I hope both to contribute to an ongoing debate about the nature of Bloomsbury and its assumptions and to point to the complexity involved in understanding masculinity and to the need to see it from various different vantage points. Against the supposition that the history of masculinity is best understood as a series of “revolutions” or crises that propelled men toward late twentieth century modernity-a claim countered in the American context by James Gilbert (2005) – it is important to remember what men preserved and defended. So, while it is important to recognize what was new in the general approach to desire and sexuality and especially in the overt homosexuality of some of those closely connected to Bloomsbury, this rejection of Victorian heterosexual norms did not by any means entail a rejection of all forms of masculine privilege. On the contrary, female service from mothers, sisters and women friends was deemed quite as much a masculine prerogative by both the homosexual and the heterosexual men of Bloomsbury as it had been by their forebears. Moreover, both the relationship between new approaches to sexuality and styles of masculinity and that between those who became the centre of Edwardian Bloomsbury and their Victorian fathers are very complex ones. As many recent scholars have pointed out, there were a number of different forms of masculinity evident in Victorian Britain-and there was quite as strong a sense of not quite meeting the dominant masculine norms amongst even very successful men in the mid nineteenth century as there was at its end-and this was clearly the case in a number of what one might refer to as the central Bloomsbury families (see, for example, Adams, 1995; Hall, 1994).

For both contemporaries and for many of those involved in Bloomsbury, one of its most distinctive features was its particular, and in many ways highly idiosyncratic, form of masculinity. Lytton Strachey often serves to typify this, with his long, slender and slightly awkward body, his always precarious health and his high pitched voice. But Virginia Woolf (1978) certainly saw it as extending beyond Strachey, as she made clear when she depicted the young men who had been the core of Bloomsbury in the talk she gave on ‘Old Bloomsbury” to the group of her old friends who constituted themselves as a memoir club in 1920. In this article, Woolf named the men whom she regarded as forming the core of Bloomsbury: Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Desmond McCarthy, and Sydney Saxon Turner. She had met them through her brother, Thoby, who had been at Cambridge with them. When they all left Cambridge, these young men moved to London, meeting frequently at the “at homes” hosted by Thoby Stephen and his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia. All of these men were notable for their high level of intelligence and erudition-and Virginia Woolf recalled the stories of their intellectual and conversational brilliance that Thoby had told her. But what was most striking about them to her from the very moment that they entered a room was their complete lack of the familiar masculine characteristics associated with other young men of their class. When invited to Fitzroy Square, Woolf recalled, “[T]hey came in hesitatingly, self-effacingly, and folded themselves up quietly in the corners of sofas.” For a long time they said nothing-and rebuffed all conversational overtures. But then discussion of a complex abstract concept, like “what is beauty” or “what is good” would slowly begin and all would become intensely involved. Their lack of any conventional form of masculinity was evident also in their lack of interest in the beauty or personal charm of either Virginia Woolf or her sister Vanessa. They were interested, or so it appeared, only in their minds and in the quality of their ideas. Even had they shown some interest, for Woolf at this point, the idea of marriage with any of these young men seemed impossible. If one practiced marriage in the upper middle-class circles to which she belonged, one did so, she insisted, “with young men who had been in the Eton eleven and dressed for dinner.” By contrast, when she looked at the men who crowded into her drawing room in Fitzroy Square, she thought that she had “never seen young men so dingy, so lacking in physical splendour as Thoby’s friends” (Woolf, p. 202).

The second point that Woolf made about these young men and that served to differentiate them from others centered on their homosexuality. At first, she explains, she took the lack of interest that Thoby’s friends evinced in her and her sister Vanessa as a sign that they were too heavily immersed in the world of the mind to think about bodily or sexual matters. But of course, this was not the case-as she got to know them better, it became clear that many of them were, in her terms and their own, “buggers,” and that their lack of interest in the Stephen sisters was more than made up for in their intensive, even obsessive interest in each other and in a range of other young men whom they knew. The introduction of their sexuality into the conversation at the various Bloomsbury homes they visited was for Woolf both fascinating and something that added to a sense of the daring novelty and the new kind of freedom that her association with these men allowed. The introduction of sexuality into their discussions occurred very suddenly one evening when, shortly after the marriage of Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa, to Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey came to visit them at home-and asked Vanessa if a stain on her dress was semen. In a moment, Woolf insisted, “all barriers of reticence and reserve” were broken.

A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good. (Woolf, 1978, p. 213)

Their discussions of sexuality included heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships and brought a new way of thinking about marriage and extra-marital relationships. It led, as Woolf suggested, to the thought that, “perhaps the fidelity of our parents was not the only or inevitably the highest form of married life.” It brought into view the possibility that “many variations can be played on the theme of sex,” and it certainly undermined the idea firmly upheld by her father, Leslie Stephen, that buggers and adulterers were all “blackguards” (Woolf, 1978, p. 202). Although, as we will see, Woolf herself felt some ambivalence about these men, there is no doubting her sense that they were a new species engaging in a new kind of life. Once their sexuality was acknowledged, moreover, it meant that there was:

[N]ow nothing that one could not say, nothing that one could not do at 46 Gordon Square. It was, I think a great advance in Civilization. It may be true that the loves of buggers are not … of enthralling interest or paramount importance. But the fact that they can be mentioned openly leads to the fact that no one minds if they are practiced privately. (Woolf, 1978, p. 204)

Engaging as Woolf s portrait is, it raises a number of questions that warrant more investigation and analysis about these young men and their approach to masculinity. At the start, it is clear that their physical appearance and especially the lack of physical splendour or of sporting aptitude among this group were extremely significant to them and that it had a major impact on their lives. Several of the Bloomsbury men had been aware from an early age of their inability to conform to the standard masculine norms of their class -and had clearly been affected by it. Maynard Keynes, for example, was frequently removed from school as an adolescent, suffering from feverish attacks of various kinds, seen by his parents and teachers as the result of his having “a mind that was too active for his enfeebled body.” His lack of physical coordination made him bad at sport—and was almost assumed to be the counterpart to his immense intelligence (Skidelsky, 1983, pp. 67-68). But it all combined to give him an almost morbid sense of himself as extremely unattractive. Leonard Woolf combined the extreme thinness that was characteristic of many of his friends with a dark intense look-and a constant nervous tremor evident most particularly in the way his hands shook. He had sought treatment for this condition-but to no avail (Lee, 1996, p. 304).

Their lack of both physical strength and physical coordination had contributed to the sense of exclusion and isolation that all of these men had experienced at school-and it made for a strong sense of their differences from other men both in adolescence and in their adult life. But it took on a very different sense and meaning at Cambridge. Many of them made very clear in their autobiographical writings how exhilarating it was for them to meet each other and to become close friends at Cambridge, after many years of misery, isolation and exclusion at their various public schools where their intellectual interests, on the one hand, and their lack of either engagement with or capacity for sport, on the other, had made them very much into outsiders (Holroyd, 1995, pp. 73-75; Woolf, 1960, p. 156). Cambridge offered not only the companionship of others who shared their outlook and values and welcomed their friendship, but also connection with other elite groups and societies that welcomed them as members. Shortly after beginning their Cambridge life, many of the core group of Bloomsbury, including Lytton and James Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry and Desmond McCarthy had been invited to join the most elite group, the Cambridge Conversazione Society, better known as the Society of Apostles. Ostensibly a secret society, this group was well known amongst Victorian literary, intellectual and professional groups – which is scarcely surprising given that it included amongst its members many distinguished poets, writers and philosophers, including Tennyson, the jurist Fitzjames Stephen, and the philosophers Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore. The Apostles met weekly to discuss the ideas presented in a paper written by one of their members. Their central requirement was that any matter could be discussed-and that what mattered most was the capacity to discuss things with complete openness and honesty. The frankness of the Apostles, their refusal to accept conventional ideas or beliefs and their insistence on a need to interrogate all values was both personally and intellectually extremely liberating to Woolf, Strachey and their friends, as it had been for their predecessors throughout the nineteenth century. From its earliest days, this society had combined intense intellectual engagement with very close personal friendship. From its beginnings in 1820, William Lubenow (1998) has recently argued, “liberalism, imagination and friendship” were the framing concepts of the nineteenth century world that the Apostles inhabited. In their new Cambridge friendships and at the regular weekly meetings of the Apostles, Strachey, Keynes, Woolf and their friends discovered not only the intense pleasures of very high level discussion associated with close friendships with like-minded young men, but also a new and equally pleasurable sense of superiority to those who lacked the intellectual caliber that was now so highly valued and praised. Indeed, there was almost a sense of revenge amongst the young men who, while still rejected by athletic groups, were courted and chosen as close associates and friends by distinguished writers and academics (Taddeo, 2002, p. 28; see also Woolf, 1960, pp. 77-78).

The intense male friendships that were developed within this society and more generally at Cambridge were the subject of extensive discussion amongst those involved in them. As one might expect from a group that had all shared a classical education, this discussion combined an ideal of intense brotherly love with a sense of the close connection to classical Greek ideas about male intellectual companionship and about the importance of close emotional relationships between older and younger men. For much of the nineteenth century, these relationships were emotionally intense, but physically chaste. In the later part of the nineteenth century, they were sometimes referred to as the “Higher Sodomy” (see particularly Dowling, 1994). When Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes and some of their friends came to be the dominant figures in the Society of Apostles in the late 1890s, they often pressed rather more clearly for recognition of the erotic and sexual basis of these close male friendships. Strachey himself was obsessed with Oscar Wilde. In the privacy of his rooms at Cambridge, he affected the clothes and posture of a Wildean dandy, donning pale yellow gloves, or silk pajamas while he entertained friends to decadent evenings. His Cambridge performances, his biographer Michael Holroyd (1995) argues, consciously brought Wilde to mind as Strachey too sought to use elegance and wit to challenge conventional morals (p. 102).

And yet, for all this theatrical display of gender ambiguity and decadent sexuality, there is now widespread agreement amongst recent historians and biographers that while Strachey and Keynes brought to the Society of Apostles and to Cambridge a new and far more overt demand for the acceptance of homosexuality and the use of a highly sexualized language to discuss friendships and social interactions, their actual behavior differed little from that of their predecessors. Robert Skidelsky and Julie Taddeo have both argued that, perhaps as a consequence of their own sense of physical unattractiveness, both Strachey and Keynes were very hesitant about entering into physical relationships at Cambridge-and that despite their constant discussion of seduction and rape amongst them and their younger male friends, they sought rather to impose on these younger men to whom they were attracted the chaste ideals of the Higher Sodomy (Skidelsky, 1983, pp. 106-132; Taddeo, 2002, pp. 15-51).

But regardless of whether or not there were changes in the ways in which the men at Cambridge thought about or related to each other, it is important to note that there was very little change across the generations in how they thought about women. Like their predecessors, as Taddeo and others argue, they took absolutely for granted their superiority to women and their entitlement to both social and sexual privilege. Like earlier generations of Cambridge students, they lived in a particularly privileged masculine world in which women were rarely known or thought about-and when they were, it was inevitably as inferiors. All of these men had been educated in male schools and treated with deference at home. Their Cambridge life was an extension of this pattern. By the time Strachey, Keynes, Woolf and company arrived at Cambridge in the 1890s, there were of course a couple of women’s colleges operating. But women were still excluded from all the major university institutions-including degrees. Intellectual life, like political citizenship, were male prerogatives that were not only taken for granted, but strongly endorsed by these young men.

In the earlier phase of the Apostles and for those who embraced the ideal of the Higher Sodomy, there was an explicit assumption that the close emotional and spiritual relationships that was enjoyed amongst men, unsullied by any form of sexual involvement, was an exclusively masculine prerogative. While men inhabited the world of the mind, women were confined to the physical world dominated by sexuality and bodily desire. Nineteenth century Apostles assumed that they would enter into this lower world after leaving Cambridge-through marriage. Some of the friends of Strachey and Keynes, like Leonard Woolf or Clive Bell, did so too. But as Taddeo (2002) points out, the early Bloomsbury meetings, so memorably described by Woolf, offered these young Cambridge men their first serious social engagement and interaction with women—and while none of them acted out the conventional gendered roles required at dinner parties or evening dances, this did not in any way mean that traditional gendered assumptions had been rejected or discarded. Their sense of physical awkwardness served to differentiate them very clearly from other men-but it did nothing to reduce their sense of difference from or superiority to women.

It is interesting to note here the ambivalence that Virginia Woolf expressed at different times about the Bloomsbury men. The passages from “Old Bloomsbury” cited at the start of this essay came from a talk that Woolf was giving to members of the Bloomsbury group in the early 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War and at a time when she, like many of her friends, felt increasingly distant from the new society in which they lived and nostalgic about the Edwardian years of their youth. And Woolf stressed in this talk the ways in which Old Bloomsbury had broken with Victorian conventions, subjecting them to a stringent critique and at the same time allowing for a much greater degree of personal freedom. But even here, she pointed out that, for a woman, their society was often a little boring. Looking back in the course of the 1920s on the diaries that she had actually written in these pre-war years, she noted how they contained “one violent shriek of rage at Saxon and Lytton sitting there saying nothing, and with no emotional experience” (Lee, 1996, p. 213). In her biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee (1966) explores in some detail the ways in which Virginia Woolf expressed her hostility to the pretensions of these young men and her sense of the dullness of this form of male company, contrasting it with the laughter and the pleasure that she felt in visiting her few women friends, in her diaries, essays and in her first novel, The Voyage Out (pp. 213-215). Contrary to Woolf s claim in “Old Bloomsbury” that it was in the company of these men that she found a new sense of freedom, it was rather the case that she found this freedom in the publication of her own early novels and essays that gained her independent recognition-and made her able to feel less hostile to them-although some of her criticism of their airs and pretensions remained.

There was a similar anger and resentment expressed by the women in a number of other families. Much as they adored him, and accepted his dependence on them and their responsibility to care for him, Lytton Strachey’s sisters often voiced their irritation at his behavior and at his attitude toward them. Even when she was in her forties, Lytton Strachey’s favorite sister, Philippa, could be provoked into a violent rage by his assumption of superiority. On one occasion in 1918, she threw her boots at him in fury when they had a discussion about prostitution at the way in which “[h]e first invented my ideas on the subject and then abused me in the most violent terms for holding them. I was so angry,” she wrote to a friend,

… that I was unable to do anything but screech abuse and hurl my shoes across the passage-unluckily not at his head. The attack was entirely founded upon my beginning a remark to the effect that they-the prostitutes in the streets-didn’t seem to me very tempting. The remark was leading on to something else but the use of the shocking word tempt implies of course moral blame & anybody in such a state of ignorant out of date mischievous prejudice is to [sic] permitted even to finish a sentence. Goodness me my fury has made me quite incoherent again! I daresay you’ll catch my meaning though. I really can’t put in nots. Anyhow so we parted & so as you see I remain-that is convinced that I am not the most narrow minded and unable to see beyond the end of my nose, of the two of us. (Pippa Strachey to Roger Fry, n.d., early 1918)

One of his other sisters, Dorothy Bussy, was hurt rather than angry when he refused in any way to help her either by finding her a publisher, or by reading her translations of the writings of the French author Andre Gide-although he expected her always to read his work, to support him in doing it-and to correct the work of his French translators (Caine, 2005, pp. 215-216).

Moving beyond the family, one has an additional insight into the approach to gender amongst these men if one looks at their ideas about women’s suffrage, which was a very significant one in Britain in the first decade and half of the twentieth century. Some of their families were very much involved in the suffrage struggle. Lytton Strachey in particular came from a family in which all the women were engaged in suffrage campaigns. His mother, Jane Strachey, had been actively involved in both the campaigns for women’s suffrage and that to extend the role of women in local government almost since the time of his birth in the 1880s. His sisters and one sister-in-law were also heavily engaged in organizing the big suffrage demonstrations that became a feature of the British political landscape between 1907 and 1914 (Caine, 2005, pp. 294-326). But despite Lytton Strachey’s respect and admiration for his mother and some of his sisters, he was not inspired to offer much support. A certain amount of public support was unavoidable-and Lytton joined the men’s league for the promotion of female suffrage in 1904. But he had great fears about the moral campaigns that might accompany the suffrage-and neither he nor Leonard Woolf could really see the point of giving women the vote (Leonard Woolf to Lytton Strachey, 1989, p. 124). Nor could he see how it might seriously be possible to challenge the existing sexual double standard. When it came to divorce, for example, both Lytton and James Strachey felt strongly that the adultery of a woman was infinitely more serious than that of a man-as the woman might foist another man’s child on her unsuspecting husband. Strachey and Woolf did not occupy the only positions evident in Bloomsbury on this question. Thus James Strachey was considerably more sympathetic to this campaign than his brother Lytton, as indeed was Maynard Keynes-who frequently assisted the Strachey women in their suffrage activities (Caine, p. 308). One can find a similar division of opinion on the question women’s education and women’s rights amongst the earlier generations of these families: Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, for example, had no sympathy with the idea of women’s rights -while Richard Strachey, the father of Lytton and James, not only supported women’s rights in abstract terms, but sent his daughters to universities and sought to enable women to participate in learned societies. What is significant here is how very little difference there was either in the positions taken or in the understanding of what women’s emancipation and women’s rights meant across these generations.

Once one begins to look back at earlier generations within these same families, other similarities also come to the fore, not least in regard to issues about physical strength and prowess. It is important to note here that the emphasis on physical strength and vigor that was so much a part of late nineteenth century imperial masculinity was not something evident throughout the century or indeed, universally endorsed. As Mrinalinhi Sinha (1995) has argued, the ideal of English manliness was based at least as much on moral and intellectual qualities as on physical ones, and involved self-discipline and restraint rather than the physical strength that came to be prized by some in the later nineteenth century. It was intelligence, self-discipline and restraint that was important in India-and served as a contrast to what the British saw as the lack of intellectual strength and moral restraint evident amongst Indian men. Richard Strachey and his brother John, both of whom were very important figures in the British Raj in the mid nineteenth century, constantly contrasted the decent and straightforward English manliness they shared with their colleagues and admired, with the self-indulgence, sensuality, and weakness of the Bengalis, whom they despised (Caine, 2005). But neither of the Stracheys were notable for their physical health or vigor. Like many British women, Richard Strachey’s health was not sufficiently robust to manage the fierce Indian heat and he suffered bouts of severe fever in the summers that required a retreat to the hills to recover. While there, far from resting he continued to work-making major botanical and geological discoveries when he was sent to the Himalayas in the 1850s, for example. Indeed, as his obituary in The Times commented, he was one of the men whose illhealth made an important contribution to the work he did in India (“Death of General,” 1908). But what is of particular significance here is the way in which his health was a matter of extreme concern within his family from the time of his marriage onwards and looking after him and providing for his physical comfort was always a major task of both his wife and daughters. Lytton Strachey did not, of course, share his father’s military or imperial interests-but he followed a well-known masculine path way in his constant need for physical nurturance and care. Virginia Woolf too recalled her father, Leslie Stephen’s nervous exhaustion in his adolescent years, which made the doctors talk about the dangers of “effeminacy” and “brain fever,” to avoid which his family moved to the healthy sea air of Brighton (Lee, 1996, p. 69). In his later years, and in her own childhood, as she made so clear in her novel To the Lighthouse, it was not so much physical as emotional weakness and despondency that was an issue requiring constant (and exhausting) female nurturance and support.

None of this is intended to suggest that there was no change in the forms of masculine behavior or in ideas and assumptions that underlay masculinity across the later nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. On the contrary, as much recent scholarship has suggested, there were very significant changes in middle-class masculinity, in the relationship between imperialism and masculinity, on the one hand, and in connection with the growing interest in the issue of sexuality, on the other. All of this makes it likely, moreover, that, growing up as they did in the 1880s and 1890s, the young men of Bloomsbury would have suffered far more for their lack of physical strength and of sporting prowess than their parents had a generation earlier when organized games and sports played a smaller part in school life. But this does not tell the whole story, and it is worth recognizing that an incapacity to meet particularly highly valued masculine norms in terms of physical strength and vigor was an experience shared by many prominent and successful Victorian men. At the same time, it is worth taking note of the extent to which masculine privilege and a demand for feminine service and support could be based as firmly on physical weakness as it was on physical strength-and that the homosexuality of Bloomsbury, while ensuring that it did not objectify women, gave little basis for regarding them with any esteem. The men of Bloomsbury may not have been at the forefront of muscular or strenuous masculinity, and they may have been calling into question the ways in which men related to each other, but they were still enjoying-in a very real and practical sense-what R. W. Connell (1995) termed “the patriarchal dividend” (p. 79).

“The society of buggers,” as Virginia Woolf (1978) noted,

has many advantages-if you are a woman. It is simple, it is honest, it makes one feel … in some respects at one’s ease. But it has this drawback-with buggers, one cannot, as nurses say, show off. Something is always suppressed, held down. Yet this showing off, … is one of the great delights, one of the chief necessities of life. (p. 198)

In some ways it is clear here that Woolf is referring to the pleasures of flirtation which were, of course, impossible for women in this world. But the boredom that she sometimes felt was also the result of the requirement that she wait until a discussion took place amongst the young men, with herself often required to assist and facilitate it, much as she did in any other society.