Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bloomsbury sexualities

A wonderful drawing, for which I can't take credit, from
The historian Niall Ferguson recently made some remarks about the sexuality of the early 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes at a Q&A session—remarks that caused a good deal of outrage, indignation, and defensiveness among the chattering classes. Tom Kostigen of Financial Advisor (who, as far as I can tell, first reported Ferguson's comments) wrote on May 3rd:
Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes' famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of "poetry" rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive. 
Ferguson apologized later on his website and in the Harvard Crimson. Without saying a word for or against him, or about whether his apology was actually "enough" of an apology—all of which is pretty much chasing after the topical wind—I think it's worth pointing out something about Keynes's sexuality and that of the Bloomsbury group at large.

The Bloomsbury group was a circle of early-20th-century British artists and intellectuals that involved (to varying degrees) the novelists E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf; her husband, the sometimes-civil-servant Leonard Woolf; Virginia's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell; Vanessa's husband, the art critic Clive Bell; the art critic Roger Fry; the painter Duncan Grant; the biographer Lytton Strachey; the poet Rupert Brooke; and Keynes—among others. Most of them came from the upper-middle class, and the original members of the group (all men) met while they were students at Cambridge—largely under the shared beacon of the rationalist philosopher G.E. Moore.

Many of them were also something other than strictly heterosexual. But to call the ones who weren't "gay" flattens out a lot of subtleties. Forster and Strachey were what we might now call gay, in the sense that they seem to have been attracted solely to other men. But they didn't even have the word to apply to themselves—it didn't pick up its current sense until the interwar period, at the earliest.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
Moreover, it was, as Forster memorably depicts in his novel Maurice (left unpublished but complete at his death), in the Edwardian environment of boarding schools and men's colleges, sexual exploration between young men wasn't at all uncommon. Some were homosexual, some were what we might call bisexual, and it's possible that some were actually just straight and desperate. Evelyn Waugh wrote the first third of Brideshead Revisited about as much.

But even that tripartite schema—gay, straight, bisexual—effaces the complexity of Bloomsbury sexuality. Virginia Woolf was probably "gay" inasmuch as she seems to have expressed distaste at and displeasure from heterosexual sex. (We know more about these people's intimate lives than we really should. But they did all keep, and often publish, diaries.) But she was a lively flirt, and she married Leonard.

In part, this was because it was simply what one did as a member of a certain social class in England. Women of a certain age were just supposed to get married. Marriage still conferred a distinctive entrée to life as a mature adult, and it was still hard—though getting somewhat easier—for a woman to support herself on an income of her own. (Woolf wrote not just about the need for "a room of one's own," but a corollary "£500 a year.")

But it was also because if one wanted children, the only real way to go about it was within marriage. Adoption in these classes was seen as a strange kind of exception. At least in the case of Virginia and Leonard, it was entirely within the realm of the understandable to get "married" for the purposes of social standing and child-bearing, but seek lovers outside of that marriage. It's plausible that they started off their marriage with some understanding of this kind. (The Woolfs never had children, however.)

The status of male homosexuality was unclear; even Bloomsburyites had only a dim understanding that female homosexuality existed. Apparently, Duncan Grant spluttered to Virginia Woolf (then still Virginia Stephen) at one party, "But—how does it work?" (We have no record of Virginia's answer.) At the time, the only label available was "Sapphism," after the Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos, which became, at some point, "lesbian." Woolf, of course, went on to have a notably intense affair with the aristocrat Vita Sackville-West, which was immortalized in her novel Orlando.

Even among the nominally straight, the arrangements were unconventional and continue to have a whiff of scandal about them today. Vanessa Bell carried on a very open and long-term affair with Duncan Grant, which Clive Bell accepted with varying degrees of indifference; she had two children by the latter and one by the former, raising them all principally with Duncan. The painter Dora Carrington loved Lytton Strachey, who was, unfortunately for her, decidedly committed to men—and namely a young man named Ralph Partridge, who, in turn, felt something for Dora. Dora and Ralph married each other, and the three went on to keep a turbulent ménage for most of the twenties, until Ralph divorced Dora in order to marry a woman named Frances Marshall.
Duncan Grant: Portrait of Keynes.

And then there was Keynes, who, in the middle of all this, actually seems rather boring and conventional. (Grant painted him a large mural of dancing nudes for his rooms when he was Bursar of King's College, Cambridge; embarrassed, he covered them up with Japanese screens.) Yes, he was attracted to and had relationships with men throughout his life; but there was also the marriage to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, with at least one miscarriage.

All of this still has the power to horrify people as willfully perverse and wanton (the Bell/Grant and Dora-Lytton-Ralph triads in particular); I reserve judgment for another occasion. (It is fascinating that what now repels many of us is not the gay affairs of Keynes or Woolf, but the idea that they might have subjected themselves to straight marriage—and sex—just to have children.) But the point is that it's too facile to slap a label like "gay" or even "bisexual" on a figure like Keynes or Woolf. The intellectual and cultural universe they lived in was entirely different—and it's possible that, in its own way, it was even a little less restrictive than our own, for want of labels for things. As Clarissa Dalloway thinks in Woolf's greatest novel: "She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that... she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that." 

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