In the summer of 1998, the moment I put down Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I went to my bookshelf and picked out Mrs. Dalloway to follow the connection. It was the first time in decades that I had read any Virginia Woolf, but in my college years, I went through my lesbian phase with a serious Bloomsbury Group jag, reading everything by and about this remarkable group of friends and lovers.
The Bloomsbury Group is now noted for the many contributions its members made to their era’s literature and art. The group’s intellectual core was Virginia Stephen, who became Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) when she got married to Leonard Woolf in 1912. She is now considered one of the great modernist novelists.
The group is fascinating because they gave themselves a sort of sexual freedom that was way ahead of their time. Beginning in 1925, Virginia Woolf had a passionate affair with the dashing Vita Sackville-West. In the first flush of romance, Woolf wrote what has become a classic of Gay Fiction, the experimental fantasy Orlando (1927), which argued that love and passion can ignore gender, and that gender itself is fluid.
Others in the Bloomsbury group gravitated to new ways of looking at relationships. Although Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell, the true great love of her life was Duncan Grant, who was gay and had been sexually involved with her brother Adrian Stephen. During WW I, they all lived together at a country estate with David “Bunny” Garnett, who was the lover of both.
Three-way sexual cocktails with a twist of gay were common within the Bloomsbury Circle. Lytton Strachey was gay, but in the early days of Bloomsbury, had proposed marriage to Virginia Woolf. In the 1920s, he lived platonically with painter Dora Carrington. When they both fell in love with the same man, Carrington married the object of their mutual desire, and the trio set up housekeeping together. The cross-dressing Carrington had affairs with many women, confiding to a friend that she had “more ecstasy” with female lovers than with men, “And with no shame”. Are you able to keep track of all this?
Virginia Woolf was the center, the gravity and the soul of the Bloomsbury Group, which totally unraveled after she filled her coat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home, drowning herself in the spring of 1941.
“I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out well in it.”