Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I'm continuing to be enchanted with the correspondence between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. What's caught my eye today is a passage from a letter from Lyttelton of December 18, 1956:
I have just finished the Strachey-Woolf letters. Not fearfully good are they? Good things here and there of course, but Strachey is often trivial and V. W. often shows off, and on the whole one sees why many people spit at the name of Bloomsbury. And I suspect they would spit even more if all the names were given. Neither had any humility, and I am more and more blowed if that isn't the sine qua non of all goodness and greatness. The trouble is that if you are very clever and don't believe in God, there is nobody and nothing in the presence of whom or which you can be humble. For instance, Milton and Carlyle, for all their arrogance, were fundamentally humble, don't you think? Here endeth the epistle of George the Apostle.
As the self-deprecating final sentence suggests, Lyttelton's closing position (Which, in the case of Milton, at least, surely we can question? "Justify the ways of God to man" smacketh not of humility, no?) seems to be more rhetorical or even intellectual than religious: Lyttelton elsewhere confesses himself to be not particularly religious, an admirer of The Book of Common Prayer but a waverer when it comes to actual belief:
And "believe' is too big a word to use about life after death. I vageuly feel, I occasionally hope, but that is all. That great man Judge Holmes surely hit the nail when he said 'I see sufficient reasons for doing my damndest without demanding to know the strategy or even the tactics of the campaign.'
But I'm getting distracted (surely blogging's most forgivable sin?) from the main point: Strachey-Woolf and Bloomsbury.

Any time Bloomsbury comes up in the essays, letters, memoirs, and whatnot of writers whose lives overlapped with it, I find myself feeling grateful to be from a later era and a different country: oh, the baggage Bloomsbury brings! All evidence suggests that they were just as cliquish and self-absorbed as their opponents say they were, but at this remove that matters less than their wholehearted devotion to the arts. I know plenty of people who can't stomach Virginia Woolf's novels--which I find still wholly alive, fresh, and moving today--but even they tend to acknowledge the fierce perceptiveness of her essays and reviews. Leonard Woolf, meanwhile, ought by all rights to be essentially a tragic figure but instead ends up an impressive one: picturing him working the binder on the earliest Hogarth Press books brings shivers of admiration. And Strachey . . . oh, how Eminent Victorians still bites and burns.

That said, Lyttelton isn't wholly incorrect in his verdict about the Strachey-Woolf volume. When I wrote about it a couple of years back, I acknowledged that the letters are "a bit mannered." That said, I think they're more interesting than Lyttelton gives them credit for being. As I wrote back then, they give
less the sense of guardedness or caution than they do of performance, of two people who, even as they dashed off notes, tried to bring all their intellect and wit to bear. What we lose in intimacy we gain in fun and insight; these are closer to, say, the composed, circumspect letters of E. B. White than they are to the endearing gushings of a Mitford sister.
Anyone who's gotten to watch two born skeptics--of formidable intellect--attempt to impress each other knows there's real pleasure to be had there. A meeting of the minds (let alone souls) it's not, but when the minds are such as these, feints, parries, and pas de deux are perfectly fine.

Lyttelton touches on Bloomsbury again in his next letter:
I have followed up the Strachey-Woolf letters by reading Clive Bell on his friends. He questions the existence of 'Bloomsbury' as a one-time centre of culture, but, however hard to define, it was surely recognisable all right. . . . Does anyone doubt that V. W. and L. S. and Co were exclusive, and fastidious, and highbrow, and contemptuous of past greatness, and mutual admirers, and if that isn't Bloomsbury, what is?
Perfectly true. Each of those characteristics has its dark side, no doubt, but given what we got from Bloomsbury, I'll gladly plump for the better part--of such confidence and ego are movements made.

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