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were lost, including two early memoirs written by Virginia Woolf, but 80 works survived and about 20 of them remain unpublished.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

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.

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About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.

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