The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club.
Before his untimely death in 2012, S. P. Rosenbaum had completed polished drafts of five chapters of his history of the Memoir Club, begun writing a sixth, and had outlined the entire book. James M. Haule has performed a meaningful tribute to Rosenbaum, the preeminent historian of the Bloomsbury Group, in bringing as much of this work as possible to publication. A talk given by Rosenbaum at Cornell in 2009 during a symposium in conjunction with the exhibition A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections provides Haule in his introduction with an overview of Rosenbaum's intentions, among which is to restore their original Memoir Club context to some well-known autobiographical and biographical essays. Rosenbaum also wanted to provide a thorough history of the Club, from its origins in Molly MacCarthy's 1920 invitation to a number of friends to its "definitive end" with the death of Clive Bell in 1964. As is well known, the Club was one of several schemes MacCarthy invented in the hope of getting her husband, Desmond, to write the novels she and their friends believed he had it in him to write (he never did). Rosenbaum identifies about ninety papers from the Club's history of which roughly twenty-five remained unpublished at the time he was writing this book. In an Afterword, Haule says that Rosenbaum planned a companion volume of selected Memoir Club papers--such a collection would certainly be welcome, were someone to realize Rosenbaum's intentions.
The history of the early years of the Club is told with wit and grace in a narrative that reflects Rosenbaum's intimate familiarity with numerous archives as well with the details of the lives and cultural contexts of all of his subjects. His first chapter, "Outlines," explains that the Club from its beginnings was intended to share "recollections for the amusement of intimate friends" (17), a characteristic that distinguishes the tenor of its productions from the rather anxious, confessional vogue of contemporary "life-writing" (a term that Rosenbaum somewhat disparages, as he believes his subjects would have as well). The "Memoir Club habit" (18) did not have to be learned: it was rooted in the familiarity and bonds among the friends and lovers, husbands and wives, who constituted the Club. Rather than the perennial questioning of who was or was not a "member" of the Bloomsbury Group, the Memoir Club provides a useful alternative means of discerning the shared ethos that has come to be described by the shorthand term "Bloomsbury."
In his second chapter, "Ancestral Voices," Rosenbaum names Montaigne as "in several ways ... one of the most significant precursors of the Memoir Club" (27). The essayist's "mixture of frankness and reticence" and "the short, tentative, reflective and reflexive prose genre that he originated" (27) seem to be the model for the Memoir Club papers. As Alex Zwerdling has also pointed out in "Mastering the Memoir: Woolf and the Family Legacy" (Modernism/modernity 10.1 : 165-88), the men and women of the Memoir Club were extremely well versed in an autobiographical tradition that stretched back through their families into the early eighteenth century. "Ancestral voices, public and private, echo around the founding of the Club," writes Rosenbaum, pointing out that the variety of forms of family life-writing "are reflected in the intimate domestic character of the Club's memoirs" (28). In these forms were expressed "evangelical, utilitarian, liberal, and aesthetic values which the memoirists inherited and transmuted" (28). Rosenbaum singles out Leslie Stephen as a particular influence on the Memoirists. "Until you 'can take delight in the queer results which grow out of them,'" Woolf's father wrote in Hours in a Library, "'you are hardly qualified to be a student of autobiography'" (32).
Having deftly summarized Stephen's extensive biographical and autobiographical writings, Rosenbaum connects Stephen's biographies of his own relatives with the Memoir Club's productions "through the practice of domestic life-writing and the great value they all placed on human affections" (36). Other "ancestral voices" discussed in this chapter include E. M. Forster's writings about his Thornton heritage, and the autobiography of Roger Fry's father, a private manuscript used by Fry's sister Agnes to prepare her own Memoir of the Right Honourable Sir Edward Fry (38). Among the better-known productions of their forebears was Lady Strachey's edition of the journals of her aunt, Memoirs of a Highland Lady, which is "regarded as an invaluable social document of late eighteenth and early nineteenth highland life recalled by a woman" (42). The Club's members were aware not only of the Puritanism of their Victorian heritage, but also self-consciously used their own frankness and uninhibited love for one another as a rebellion against it. In just a few pages Rosenbaum lays out a wonderful panorama of the network of various kinds of life-writing that was the Memoir Club's inheritance, stretching back to The Receipt Book of Elizabeth Raper and a Portion of her Cypher Journal, an eighteenth century diary (1756-1770) by Duncan Grant's great-great-grandmother published in 1924 in a handsome edition by the Nonesuch Press (43).
According to Rosenbaum, the most important modern precursor of the Memoir Club was the Apostles, the Cambridge Conversazione Society to which several of its first members had belonged. The influence, however, has more to do with candor and tone than with content, and the account of the Apostles is less rich and less satisfying than the preceding section about ancestors, perhaps inevitably as so much about the Apostles' practices are obscure. The narrative seems less sure here of how to make the connection to the Memoir Club.
Having established the context and origins of the Club, Rosenbaum presents in Chapter Three a detailed account of its first year. There is very little on record about the reception of the Memoir Club papers, apart from the accounts in Virginia Woolf's diary, the source upon which Rosenbaum inevitably relies. Woolf's diary provides tantalizing glimpses of what was read at the first meeting: a paper by Vanessa Bell, now lost, during which, Woolf writes, her sister was "overcome by the emotional depths to be traversed and unable to read what she had written" (57). Rosenbaum notes Woolf's emphasis in her diary on performance in the Club's proceedings, and in his Cornell talk cautioned later interpreters against overlooking the amused response the Memoirists would have expected and, indeed, relied upon from their audience. The first year seems to have been a particularly rich one. Roger Fry's still unpublished memoir is the first complete paper from the Club which survives. Molly MacCarthy's memoirs were the first of the papers to be published (serialized in The Nation by Leonard Woolf and subsequently in the book A Nineteenth Century Childhood in 1924).
Forster appears to have read the most memoirs over the years, including that which Rosenbaum describes as the most candidly sexual, an account of his affair with a barber, "Kanaya." He was "the only one of the original continuing members (six of whom were married couples) who had not had a sexual relationship with another member" (62), and periodically agonized over his membership, saying he would resign, only to change his mind soon thereafter. It was Forster who remarked in relation to Fry that "the Bloomsbury undertone" could be summed up by saying that "It's not the Subject that matters, it's the Treatment" (69). This Rosenbaum believes "is the most interesting thing Forster has to say about Bloomsbury" (69), an insight that explains an important criterion by which the Memoir Club papers were judged by their listeners.
Also in the first year, Virginia Woolf delivered "22 Hyde Park Gate" to the Club, described, rightly, by Rosenbaum as "the most controversial of her autobiographical writings" because it includes the much-interpreted description of George Duckworth as the Stephen girls' "lover." Rosenbaum asks his reader to put aside all commentary and try to imagine the paper as a performance for intimate friends, reclaiming its comedy. In his Cornell talk, as quoted by Haule in the introduction, Rosenbaum said, "More than one of Virginia Woolf's interpreters ... have cut themselves handling the irony in her memoirs" (14). It does not seem to me impossible that Woolf could have relied upon an amused response to her shocking revelations about her half-brother as a way of displacing the discomfort such information would undoubtedly evoke among her friends and relatives: there are many uses of humor, after all. Still, Rosenbaum's account of the memoir's description of George is judicious and fair, providing as context details from other places where Woolf wrote about her half-brothers. That Woolf presented George "comically" seems undeniable, even if it does not have to be exclusive of other shades of meaning attendant upon her narrative.
In Chapter Four, "Private and Public Affairs," Rosenbaum begins with Clive Bell ("who has often been underrated") telling the story of his youthful sexual initiation by his parents' neighbor Annie Raven Hill, wife of the eminent Punch cartoonist Leonard Raven Hill. Desmond MacCarthy remarked on Clive's affectation to the absent Molly (whose increasing deafness made her unable to participate in the Club she had founded). Public recognition of the Memoir Club was initiated by the 1949 publication of J. M. Keynes's Two Memoirs. In 1957, Vanessa Bell read excerpts to the Memoir Club of letters Keynes had written to her and Duncan Grant about his secret negotiations during the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Rosenbaum argues that Keynes's "Dr Melchior: A Defeated Enemy" changed the nature of the Memoir Club (95) by showing that their productions "could be about serious issues without forsaking humour or intimacy" (95). The summaries Rosenbaum provides of the various papers, although written with economy and clarity, do tend to sag somewhat in the accumulation and it is of course difficult to go on hearing how brilliant or witty the original being summarized is. Some of the papers that were unpublished when Rosenbaum was writing are now, though, available, and so it is possible to augment his accounts by consulting the originals.
During what Chapter Five names its "Hiatus: 1922-1928," the Club received no mentions in writings by its members, but they continued to produce works that Rosenbaum argues were influenced by its ethos, including the three novels by Woolf in this period to which, he notes, death is central. The chapter becomes something of a hiatus itself as Rosenbaum reviews Woolf's extensive writing about life-writing, gives an account of Fry's "L'histoire de Josette" (used by Woolf in her biography of Fry) that was never read to the Memoir Club, and then considers several other autobiographical works by Forster. He notes that Forster did not deliver any memoirs to the Club about his experiences in Egypt, although he wrote quite a bit about them elsewhere (e.g. in the memoir of and for Mohammed el Adl; in Pharos and Pharillon; and in Alexandria: A History and a Guide). This section on Forster is interesting and insightful but contributes little to our understanding of or knowledge about the Memoir Club.
In 1928, Molly MacCarthy announced that the Club would gather once more to hear a paper by Virginia Woolf on the beginnings of Bloomsbury. The truncated sixth chapter takes its title from Woolf's "Old Bloomsbury," a paper long held to date to 1922 but which in fact, as Rosenbaum makes clear, was read to the Club on July 4, 1928. The memoir initiated a concern with origins that was taken up by other members, including Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf, and Duncan Grant. Rosenbaum's engaging history breaks off with the intriguing question of how and when Keynes's wife, Lydia Lopokova, was admitted, for she read no papers to the Memoir Club (153).
The book concludes with two appendices: a paper Rosenbaum was to have delivered at a 2013 conference in Paris on "Woolf Among the Philosophers" concerning the influence of Cambridge philosophy on Virginia Woolf, and as thorough a list as possible of the Memoir Club papers and their archival locations or places of publication. If another scholar were to follow Rosenbaum's map and continue this absorbing story into the 1960s it could only enhance this fascinating chapter in Bloomsbury's history and afterlife.
Mark Hussey, Pace University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
|Previous Article:||Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman.|
|Next Article:||Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision.|