Book Review: “The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club” by S.P. Rosenbaum

The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club” by S.P. Rosenbaum, published in January, explores a little known aspect of the Bloomsbury Group.

Although not much is known about the club and hardly any documents about it have survived, Rosenbaum, a noted Bloomsbury Group biographer who has written countless books on the famous literary group, such as “Victorian Bloomsbury” and “The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary,” managed to gather whatever scraps of information remain on the club in the various member’s diaries and letters to present in this book.

The Memoir Club was a sort of writing group set up in 1920 to encourage its members, which included Molly and Desmond MacCarthy, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Mary Hutchinson, E.M. Forster and Maynard Keynes, to write and finish their memoirs, according to the book:

“According to some accounts, including one by E.M. Forster, Molly MacCarthy started the Memoir Club in an attempt to get her wonderfully conversational, endlessly procrastinating husband to write his memoirs. It was to be a resurrection of the Novel Club that, as was mentioned, she futilely started before the war to get Desmond to finish the novel he had begun. The Novel Club, which included neither Forster nor the Woolfs, seems to have failed because other members could not finish theirs either, or in some cases even start them. Memoirs might be easier, it seems; Desmond of course never wrote his either, though he did manage to read some pieces to the club.”

Unfortunately, many of the 125 memoirs written by the club were lost, including two early memoirs written by Virginia Woolf, but 80 works survived and about 20 of them remain unpublished. One of the most infamous memoirs to come out of the club was Virginia Woolf’s account of her half-brother, George Duckworth, and his incestuous behavior towards her after her mother died.
Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club review
The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club is noteworthy because it comes at a time when almost every aspect of the Bloomsbury Group has been thoroughly documented and dissected. Just when it seems as though there wasn’t anything left to say about the group, this book provides a look at a new and relatively unknown side of the group.

Not only does the book document the club’s memoirs and written work, it also gives readers some insight into the Bloomsbury Group’s literary influences. In the chapter “Ancestral voices, Cambridge Conversations,” Rosenbaum discusses the influence Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had on some members of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly with his Mausoleum Book, an unofficial autobiography of sorts that Stephen wrote about his wife, Julia Jackson Stephen, after she died in 1895:

“Stephen’s grieving lamentations, literary and literal, left his children cold, but the emphasis on affections friendships remained a fundamental value of theirs and their friends in Memoir Club. Maitland in his 1906 biography of Stephen quoted a passage from The Mausoleum Book about how regretting love because it brought sorrow was what Stephen called a sin against the Holy Ghost of one’s best affections. Lytton Strachey quoted the passage to Maynard Keynes as a rather ‘magnificent thing.’”

Friendship was indeed a fundamental part of the Bloomsbury Group and the Memoir Club. The book does a great job of highlighting these close friendships and the overall dynamics of the club, such as in the following passage about Maynard Keynes:

“Though he only read a few memoirs, the club remained important to him. Clive Bell remembered Keynes saying years later after one of the dinners preceding a meeting ‘if everyone at this table, except myself, were to die tonight, I do not think I should care to go on living.’”

Unfortunately, Rosenbaum died while writing The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club and one has to wonder how differently it would have turned out if he had completed it. The unfinished sixth chapter, titled “Old Bloomsbury,” is merely a page and a half long but probably would have provided an interesting history of the group. Rosenbaum had planned four additional chapters, titled “Beyond Bloomsbury, “The War” “Later Bloomsbury” and “Posthumous Bloomsbury” and even left behind some notes and preliminary sketches of these planned chapters, which would have included discussions on Virginia Woolf and the Women’s Cooperative Guild, Leonard Woolf’s Ceylon memoirs as well as Forster’s Indian Letters.

Despite being unfinished, The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club is still a worthy read for anyone interested in the inner workings of the Bloomsbury Group and its memoir club. Virginia Woolf fans might be a bit disappointed with the lack of information on her memoirs but fans of the Bloomsbury Group as a whole will still enjoy this intimate, if incomplete, glimpse into the club and the group.

The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club is available at amazon.com:

How Virginia Woolf Inspired the Bechdel Test

It was recently revealed that the Bechdel Test, the feminist benchmark for movies that first originated in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985, was indirectly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s book “A Room of One’s Own,” according to an article in The Week magazine:

“In the original strip, a couple discusses whether they want to go to a movie and get some popcorn. One isn’t sure, because she has a rule: ‘I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements,’ she explains. ‘One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.’ When her girlfriend says those criteria are good, but pretty strict, she responds, ‘No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien. The two women in it talk to each other about the monster.’ Having walked past three uber-masculine posters for movies about mercenaries, barbarians, and vigilantes, the two women give up on the idea of a film altogether, and go home to make popcorn. The sentiment wasn’t new; as Bechdel later explained, it came from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In the novel, Woolf’s narrator responds to a surprising book she is reading. ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.’ When it comes to female literary characters, ‘so much has been left out, unattempted,’ Woolf’s narrator thinks. She struggles to think of texts that show women as friends, and marvels at texts that show women having ‘interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity.’ Sixty years after A Room of One’s Own, those observations remained accurate, and almost 30 years after Bechdel’s strip, they still are.”

The article’s source is a blog post written by Alison Bechdel herself, in November of 2013, during which she discusses the little-known origin of the Bechdel Test:

“I speak a lot at colleges, and students always ask me about the Test. (Many young people only know my name because of the Test—they don’t know about my comic strip or books.) (I’m not complaining! I’m happy they know my name at all!) But at one school I visited recently, someone pointed out that the Test is really just a boiled down version of Chapter 5 of A Room of One’s Own, the ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ chapter. I was so relieved to have someone make that connection. I am pretty certain that my friend Liz Wallace, from whom I stole the idea in 1985, stole it herself from Virginia Woolf. Who wrote about it in 1926.”

Since the comic strip was published more than 29 years ago, the Bechdel Test has become an important part of the discussion on modern cinema. Yet, as the article in The Week magazine points out, it has also become widely misunderstood and is sometimes criticized as merely a flawed and simplistic metric that ranks films based on a technicality when all it was ever intended to be was a tool to promote discussion and awareness of gender equality in film and media. The test is not the be-all and end-all of movie reviews, it is merely a way to get audiences talking about the way women are represented in movies.

Aside from being a feminist benchmark for movies, it is evident from these articles that the Bechdel Test is also a testament to the influence Virginia Woolf still has on not just literature, but all modern art forms, and is living proof that her ideas live on even decades after her passing.

Sources:

The Week Magazine; Girls on Film: Why the Bechdel Test Is Still So Valuable; Monika Bartyzel; March 14 2014: http://theweek.com/article/index/257970/girls-on-film-why-the-bechdel-test-is-still-so-valuable

Dykes to Watch Out For: Testy; Alison Bechdel; November 8 2013: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/testy

Flickr: Alison Bechdel: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/zizyphus/