Edwardians on the edge

Stephen Toulmin is Henry R. Luce professor in the multiethnic and transnational studies department at USC. He is the author, most recently, of "Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity" and a former fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

This is a fascinating and purely English book. It tells us in detail, with drawings and photographs, about a quintessentially English society that could never, in Henry James' wildest dreams, have originated in the United States. Virginia Nicholson is the daughter of Quentin Bell and the granddaughter of a key Bloomsbury artist, Vanessa Bell, and so comes from the heart of her subject: "Bohemia" in general, and Bloomsbury in particular.

The focus of her story is Vanessa Bell and Charleston, the house in East Sussex where she lived with her husband, Clive Bell, and her lover, Duncan Grant. Their London base was the heart of "Bloomsbury" -- Gordon Square, together with the British Museum and adjoining streets. There the group included Dylan and Caitlin Thomas and the idiosyncratic Ludwig Wittgenstein, who eventually rejected the milieu as "frivolous."

Why "Bohemia"? The immediate source was Henri Murger's "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme" in the 1840s, from which Giacomo Puccini derived the plot for "La Boheme." Yet how did Bohemia (what we now know as the Czech Republic) come to be seen as the model of unorthodox behavior? Nicholson does not discuss this issue, but let me hazard a hypothesis. The 17th century Habsburg monarchs required all Austrians to be, or pretend to be, loyal Roman Catholics, which was the religion of the court. Only one community declined to conform. From their base in Prague, 11 Czech noble families held firm to their Lutheran commitments and did so into the 20th century. (Wittgenstein's intellectual patron, Moritz Schlick, came from one of these families.)

The philosophy of English Bohemia was set out by Arthur Ransome, who was far more than the author of such children's books as "Swallows and Amazons." He characterized it as "the best available life there is, the most joyously, honestly youthful." These words are worth bearing in mind as we read Nicholson's book, with its cast of extraordinary characters. Her account weaves three strands: the Bohemians' acceptance of poverty, their generational rebellion and their belief in permissiveness.

As to poverty (Ransome again): "The unhealthy, irregular meals I ate, my steady buying of books instead of food, brought about the internal troubles that have been a nuisance through most of my life. At the same time I doubt if any young man ... can ever know the happiness that was mine at nineteen, dependent solely on what I was able to earn and living in a room of my own with the books I had myself collected."

Even for their middle-class contemporaries, life was a struggle in the early years of the last century. As the author puts it: "With careful pennypinching, nobody went hungry, but no housewife worth her salt omitted to keep scrupulous accounts, or to pay the butcher's bill on the nail." Having grown up in London in the period, I find this to be true: We have some of my own mother's account books, which she kept day by day, to the nearest farthing.

As to generational rebellion: The term "bourgeois" was, of course, an insult. In their clothing, housing, furniture and much else, the Bohemians rejected Edwardian conventions. Rather, they emulated the gypsies. Augustus John tried to live in a caravan "for Freedom and the Open Road." It is no surprise that these attempts failed and the experimenters settled back indoors, in their often-squalid lodgings.

Nicholson's chapter on "Glorious Apparel" is especially informative and amusing: In pursuit of novel costumes, almost no culture -- Indian or Chinese, African or Latin American -- was overlooked by female Bohemians. The men preferred simplicity. Wittgenstein wore one parka in summer and two in winter and never chose to wear a tie; his reaction to the culture of the hirsute Emperor Franz Josef was to remain cleanshaven.

As to permissiveness: "In retrospect," the novelist Arthur Calder-Marshall wrote, "I feel sorry for all parents whose children grew up during the twenties ... [c]aught into this war between the artists and the Philistines, swallowing modernism at a gulp and rejecting out of hand the moral and social values our parents hoped to imbue us with." Libertarian education -- Dora and Bertrand Russell's school at Beacon Hill in West Sussex, for instance -- as well as Freud's case studies treated children as guinea pigs, to be observed as much as cherished, while the anarchist Ethel Mannin saw total freedom in the upbringing of children as promising "a new heaven and a new earth for children."

Permissiveness was as divisive a topic in the 1920s as it is today. Nicholson remarks that the Bohemians "resolved to bring their children up as happy, carefree, creative individuals," thus sparing the next generation "the boring, punishing childhoods that so many of them had been forced to endure. It was Rousseau versus repression." Still, nobody could settle on a universally valid method of child rearing. The artist Gwen Raverat complained: "When the little pests grow up, they will certainly tell you what you did wrong in their case. But, never mind: they will be just as wrong in their turn. So take things easily; and above all, eschew good intentions."

The lives of the Bohemians were plagued by such dilemmas. Their pursuit of beauty was all very fine, but "they needed rich fashionable people" to buy their elegant wares. To quote Ford Madox Ford: "It is appalling to think that there are millions and millions of human beings today who never have and who never will taste pure food, sit in a well-made chair, hear good music played except mechanically or use all their muscles or so much as cook well or so much as polish the woodwork of their homes."

Meanwhile, given the esteem attached to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Covent Garden and two well-attended Postimpressionist exhibitions, the Postimpressionist Roger Fry (and many others, including my parents) felt that the world was ready for the shift in taste the Bohemians had introduced.

As artists, they dreamed of giving all their time to Art, but they still had to eat. "I am tired," said Katherine Mansfield, "of eating hardboiled eggs out of my hands and drinking milk out of a bottle." Bohemians and bourgeois alike sat down to dinner, and Nicholson points out that "an inescapable round of shopping and cooking and clearing up afterwards ... fell on women" in both sorts of households. One had to fight for one's artistic priorities, "otherwise daily life threatened to become measured out with potato peelings." The writer Naomi Mitchison had "a foot in each camp, straddling the centuries. Part of her wanted to be a Victorian hostess with guests dressing for dinner, but another part wanted to forsake civilization and go to ground in cosy, squalid dirty Bohemia, where she could kick off her shoes and write novels in peace."

These rival demands could not easily be escaped, and advocates of pure principle found it impossible to avoid compromises. Alongside the penurious artists, however, the Bohemian community included a few people rich enough to tackle both horns of the dilemma without any qualms. Harold Acton was a grandee who happily entertained the Queen Mother and other less distinguished visitors at I Tatti, the beautiful villa above Fiesole that formerly belonged to Bernard Berenson and is now the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. (In the 1950s, I visited Acton there and was amused to note that his footman still wore suede gloves.)

In England, Nicholson tells us, Acton "became an obsessive diner-out, addicted to the social spectator sport of restaurant hopping." By contrast, Cyril Connolly, the editor of that noted monthly, Horizon, found it hard to reconcile these two aspects of life. In youth, he was "torn between Bohemianism and respectability. Connolly the Bohemian found conventionality ugly and soul-destroying, and hankered after a life dedicated to the quest for beauty. Connolly the snob and socialite longed for a well-regulated home, and dreamed of sitting at breakfast with a wife 'with two newspapers and the marmalade between us.' ... Attempting to 'live for beauty,' he also succumbed to piggery."

Thus "caught between art and drudgery, Bohemia doubtfully, at times resentfully, and often incompetently confronted the ever-encroaching chaos." None of these dilemmas is foreign to us today. In an epilogue, Nicholson brings us up to date: "Life's tragedies caught up with some of these idealists. Vanessa Bell's vitality and sense of fun were to take a blow from which they never recovered. She was fifty-eight when her son Julian was killed in the Spanish Civil War, aged twenty-nine. After that she became unsociable, reclusive even, escaping abroad when she could, finding respite only there or at Charleston with Duncan and her family. She painted the garden, and her grandchildren, and flowers."

Of Nicolette Devas, the sister of Caitlin Thomas, Nicholson recalls that "it took the Second World War to beat [her] into submission." Capturing the tension between art and the vicissitudes of life that lay at the core of the Bohemian story, Devas wrote: "This war is going to kill the fun in me. Never again shall I feel that lovely careless rapture. I feel my youth dying. My frivolous grumbles proved to be true. From twenty-eight I leapt to forty." *

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