Research – ‘Bloomsbury Women’ by Jan Marsh

Notes from ‘Bloomsbury Women: Distinct Figures in Life and Art’ by Jan Marsh. This book was one of the first I read about Woolf and her close-knit Bloomsbury group, as it gave me a great overview into the background of Woolf. It was easy to see how her friends and family influenced her writing, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into their creative, experimental world.

  • The Bloomsbury Group had very modern thinking in many ways, and were way ahead of their time in their thinking
    • “Men and women see the same world but through different eyes”… “We were sexually very free [and] rather adventurous for those days.” (p. 9)
    • ‘… the desire to break the male exclusivity of many artists’ meeting places and clubs. Women painters [were] ‘an especially low breed’.’ (p. 17)
  • Woolf’s novels ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Euphrosyne’ influenced by the conversations of the Bloomsbury group.
  • Like her artist sister Vanessa Bell, artists were experimenting new styles and approaches to art
    • ‘painters in Britain were still arguing over the Impressionists, French art was already breaking new ground’ (p. 18-19)
    • Later, Post-Impressionist season was a time when everything seemed springing to new life, when ‘all was a sizzle of new excitement, new relationships, new ideas, different and intense emotions’
  • Both sisters’ interests and talents influenced each other’s work
    • ‘Vanessa and Virginia had divided the arts of painting and literature between them’ (p. 19)
  • The Bloomsbury group meetings were a safe space for the freedom of thought and sexuality, which was important in a fairly restrictive time period. Makes sexuality and opinions more accepted and respected even more significant.
    • ‘young men were grateful for a social world in which their homosexual feelings were tolerated … less than a decade after Oscar Wilde’s trial and downfall and since 1885 such relationships had been illegal.’ (p. 24)
  • Virginia had a flirtatious personality – she would have long walks and share playful innuendos with Vanessa’s husband
  • Woolf experienced her second breakdown in mental health night at the start of her literary career, which continued to affect her years later when she moved to immerse herself in nature in 1911. Despite her free way of life, she still could not escape the pressure of societal norms of marriage expectations, especially for a woman. She set high standards she set for herself and was not always able to recognise her genuine achievements
    • “I could not write, and all the devils came out – hairy black ones. To be 29 and unmarried – to be a failure – childless – insane too, no writer…” (letter from Virginia to Vanessa, p. 38)
  • She was proposed to a number of times by different men, and eventually ‘settled’ with Leonard in 1912 as he treated her well. She felt love for him, but perhaps not with all passion as she questioned her sexuality and sexual preferences most of her adult life. Nevertheless, Virginia must have appreciated Leonard’s honesty and fearless foreward-ness. Also to note that he commended her intelligence and personality before any mention of her physical appearance, shows a deeper love
    • “You may be vain, an egoist, untruthful as you say, but you are nothing compared to your other qualities – magnificence, intelligence, wit, beauty, directness.” (letter from Leonard to Virginia p. 43)
  • In 1917, towards the end of the First World War
    • ‘Virginia, who had been nursed … during her distressful spell of insanity early in the war, was now well on the way to recovery’ (p. 78)
    • ‘Wartime food was not plentiful: … Virginia recorded that they were now allowed to buy more sugar and therefore make jam’ (p. 80)
    • ‘At Charleston there was no electricity or running water’ (p. 80)
  • Hogarth Press
    • ‘Woolf’s main residence … was Hogarth House … where early in 1917 they produced the first publication of the Hogarth Press, printed by hand on their own machine’
  • Vanessa Bell illustrated early publications of Woolf’s novels, including woodblock designs for Kew Gardens
    • ‘Vanessa produced illustrations for many of Virginia’s stories, and designed jackets for her novels’ (p. 88)
    • ‘the sisters’ shared commitment to their art came together once again, as the featureless faces in Vanessa’s picture were matched by Virginia’s rendering of passers-by in impressionistic prose. The modernist mode of partial points of view, non-narrative tales, shifting perspectives and concentration on overall form and selected detail are dominant in both painting and fiction‘. (p. 88)
  • Virginia was the most explorative and experimental in her writing
    • ‘when … asked if she based her writing on ‘texture’ or ‘structure’, she replied ‘texture’, regarding her use of phrases – not just words – as akin to the painter’s brushstrokes‘. (p. 90)
    • The painter’s brushstrokes were the writer’s phrases; the artist’s areas of colour the writer’s paragraphs laid beside others. And throughout ‘To The Lighthouse’ there runs a male refrain that dogged both Virginia and Vanessa from their youth: “women can’t write, can’t paint”‘. (p. 119)
  • The Bloomsbury group, though close and friendly, was not without disagreements. Carrington criticised Virginia’s main premise of ‘A Room of One’s Own’
    • “I still don’t agree that poverty and a room of one’s own is the explanation why women don’t write poetry … If the Brontës could write in their pectory … why not other clergyman’s daughters?” (p. 123)
  • On Virginia’s sexuality and ‘Orlando’
    • ‘Orlando’, masquerading as a ‘jeu d’espirit’, in which she explored notions of androgyny inspired by her romance with Vita Sackwell-West … Bloomsbury firmly held the view that love and romance ignored gender: anyone might and did fall in love with anyone, regardless of sex’. (p. 134)
    • ”Orlando’, in which the protagonist begins as a dashing young man at the court of Elizabeth I, but changes into a woman at the Restoration … ‘often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness’. (p. 134)
    • ‘Vita liked wearing large hats and knee breeches … she ran away to France with her lover Violet Trefuses, in male disguise as if Violet’s husband’. (p. 134)
  • Virginia’s books evolved in meaning with age
    • “our late flowers are rare and splendid … Think of my books, Nessa’s pictures – it takes us an age to bring our faculties into play”. (Virginia, p. 136)
  • ‘The Waves’
    • ‘In 1931 Virginia published ‘The Waves’, a non-representational novel originally inspired by Vanessa’s account from the South of France … [that] articulates the essence of the Bloomsbury group’, ‘an abstract mystical eyeless book: a playpoem’. (p. 145)

Virginia’s Death

  • Virginia wanted to end her life begore her mntal health declined. It was also influenced by the probable fear of losing her husband in a probable terrivle way, she would rather end her life whilst he was alive and happy. Of course her mental illness took a hand in exaggerating her gears and drawing her to dark throughts, but I have understand for some of her reasons as it must have nbeen a particularly challenging time for all
    • ‘Virginia had drowned herself in the river near Rodmell earlier in the year. She feared a return of insanity, recognising the symptoms which had been held at bay for some twenty years, and also the very real possibility that Britain would be invaded by the forces of Nazi Germany, which had already occupied much of Europe. Leonard, as a socialist and a Jew, would have been an ealy caualty of such occupation’. (p. 155)

The Omega Workshop

  • ‘Roger Fry dreamed up the Omega Workshops in 1912, inspired partly by Post-Impressionist colour and line, partly by the atelier Parisian designer Paul Poinet.’ (p. 49)
  • The designs were influenced by Italian earthenware, Picasso’s drawings, African market textiles and Ballets Russes
  • Omega’s designs had ”significant deformity’ … demoted the representational fidelity of Victorian painting, introducing ideas of abstraction to art … bringing the design arts into closer relation with painting and structure’. (p. 52)

Vanessa Bell’s art

  • ‘She designed dust jackets for Hogarth Press’ Virginia’s books, using a very loose, suggestive style with freehand lettering whose subtleties match the impressionistic nature of Virginia’s writing. It is a distinctive graphic style, deriving from Omega decoration, yet very thoughtful. A whole sketchbook of ideas for ‘A Room of One’s Own’ for instance preceded the final design showing a clock on the mantelpiece – a portion of a room … to Vanessa: the equivalent requirement for female creativity was the time of one’s own’.

To research next!

  1. Popular art and artists at the time that Woolf was writing.
  2. Omega Workshop’s designs, check out patterns and colours.
  3. Virginia’s experience in the war; what role (if any) did she take; did it feed into any of her novels?
  4. The Hogarth Press prints – including ‘Two Stories’ and ‘The Mark on the Wall
  5. Vanessa Bell’s illustrations for Virginia’s novels, including woodblock designs
  6. ‘Blue and Green’ by Woolf – experimental prose

Consider including faceless figures, bold forms, more Impressionist inspired styling.

Marsh, J. (1995) Bloomsbury Women: Distinct Figures in Life and Art. United Kingdom: Pavilion Books.

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