When the weather is good in London, it is spectacular. And there is no better time to slather on some sunscreen, arm yourself with a bottle of water, slip into a pair of comfy trainers (or summer sandals) and tackle London’s wonderful literary history. And this is exactly what I did a when I went on a pilgrimage to the places once graced by the Bloomsbury Group.
Like most fangirls I became quite obsessed with the Bloomsbury Set after reading Virginia Woolf. Everyone I know gets sucked not only into her words but also, into her deep and complex life – one that ended tragically with her walking into the River Ouse with pockets full of stones. Her life, though, was so rich and her friendships and frictions so compelling that it’s hard to be living in the city where so much of that took place and not feel drawn to the places where they happened.
The Bloomsbury Group were a set of writers, artists, and intellectuals, who from 1905 met weekly at the home of Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell in Gordon Square, to share ideas. They were an unconventional group, rebellious against social conventions and the authority of the generation before and notoriously known for the numerous affairs they had with one another. Dorothy Parker famously wrote, ‘they lived in squares…and loved in triangles’.
The members were made up of Woolf’s brother’s Cambridge university friends, mostly all members of the exclusive university club called ‘the apostles’, and friends of Woolf and Bell. Some of them included essayist, Lytton Strachey (lover of Maynard Keynes), the author Leonard Woolf (Virginia’s husband), the art critic Clive bell (Vanessa’s husband but also in love with Virginia for a time), the economist Maynard Keynes, the artist Duncan Grant (lover of Maynard Keynes and Vanessa Bell) and the artist, critic and curator Roger Fry (lover of Vanessa Bell). The Tate website has an excellent short introduction to the main members of the set, so check that out if you’re keen.
I signed up for a walking tour, which I highly recommend if you can spare the dosh because it was wonderfully fun and informative. But I ‘ve also just noted that they aren’t doing the Bloomsbury walk at the moment so if you want to get going while the sun is still out, it might be best to print out this entry and use it as a guide. The guide covers not only the Bloomsbury Set but some other famous writers who lived and worked in the area.
I also highly recommend you dress the part! Needless to say, I attempted to vibe Virginia’s style…and equally, needless to say, did not quite succeed, though I did provide entertainment for the group…
Starting point: Holborn Station.
Get your map out and mark these spots beforehand or just pull out your mobile phone and let Google maps lead the way!
1st stop: Coffee. Free State Coffee, 23 Southampton Row
Consistently great coffee. Every time I’ve popped in, I’ve had lovely, deep, nutty, smoky coffee. My one complaint is that the cup could be bigger. If you’re feeling peckish, they have some exciting brownies as well and there is no faulting the music selection – they had Japanese jazz trumpeter Takuya Kuroda on while I was there this time.
2nd Stop: Red Lion Square.
It’s a small square in Holborn. Here you’ll find the bust of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, credited as one of the fathers of Analytic philosophy. The statue itself is the stuff of nightmares. In a nutshell, the bust of Russell looks like an armless zombie. If that’s not worth seeing, I don’t know what is! Russell won a Nobel prize for literature and was a prominent anti-war activist. He also had a wonderfully scandalous life – four wives and a slew of affairs, most notably with TS Elliot’s wife, the writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Russell’s connection to the Bloomsbury Group was through ‘the apostles’.
3rd stop: Great St James Street – house numbers 3, 14 and 16.
The poet AC Swinburne lived at No 3. The publisher and author David ‘Bunny’ Garnett (another Bloomsbury member) lived in No 14. He had an affair with Duncan Grant and married the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Angelica. It’s rumoured that he was present at the birth of Angelica and said, “I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?”. They then did marry when Angelica was in her 20s. The writer Gerald Brennan lived at No.16. His connection to the Bloomsbury Group? Apparently, it was to Brennan that Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, confessed that their marriage was never consummated!
4th Stop: No 18 Rugby Street.
This is where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes spent the first night of their marriage. Plath and Hughes have had one of the most tumultuous and painful marriages of all literary history. The day after she met him (and bit him on the cheek till he bled), Plath wrote a poem dedicated to him, ‘Pursuit’ that suggests Hughes would lead her to her death (“There is a panther stalks me down:/One day I’ll have my death of him.”), and yet they fell madly in love and married. Hughes was unfaithful, and Plath’s depression worsened. She committed suicide in 1963, some say it was a cry for help gone wrong.
Hughes references 18 Rugby Street in a poem of the same name in ‘Birthday Letters’. “So there in Number Eighteen Rugby Street’s/Victorian torpor and squalor I waited for you.” He also references it in a poem called ‘That Night’ which refers to his lover Susan Alliston, whom he was with the night Plath died and whom he slept with at Rugby Street. “We went to Rugby St/ Where you and I began/Why did we go there? Of all places…”
En route to the next stop, you’ll see Persephone Bookshop, which is a wonderful place and worth popping into. They publish forgotten female authors of the mid-century. The books have beautiful covers and gorgeous end papers. They also have some excellent Bloomsbury Group related material on sale.
5th Stop: Gordon Square – Nos 46, 50, 51 and 52
These were the houses of the Bloomsbury Group. No 46 is where Virginia lived before marriage and it was where the Bloomsbury Group were founded. It was also where Maynard Keynes later moved into and Virginia and Maynard often spent time together here. Virginia moved to No 52 later and wrote Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s own and The Waves after moving into this house. No 51 was where Lytton Strachey lived.
6th Stop: The Faber & Faber Building, Bloomsbury House
This is where TS Eliot worked and often met with, advised and published the likes of Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, WH Auden and Ted Hughes. Rumour has it that Eliot’s wife used to pay surprise visits to Eliot at work and to escape her, he’d run up to the roof. Once she marched up and down outside the building wearing a sandwich board proclaiming, ‘I am the wife TS Eliot abandoned’. Virginia Woolf apparently referred to her as ‘a bag of ferrets’!
7th Stop: Senate House, Univeristy of London
Absolutely stunning art deco building between the School of African Studies and the British Museum. During World War II it was used as the ministry of information and Graham Greene, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Dylan Thomas are all connected with it. The building was the inspiration for Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ (from his novel 1984) and featured in John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’.
Then, of course, you have the British Museum just next door so if you haven’t had enough culture for the day, more awaits. If like me, by the end of the walk you’ve only become more obsessed, plan a visit to Charleston House (The Bloomsbury Summer House) in the South Downs National Park.
x Anu & Suba