How Did Julian Bell’s Death Affect the Bloomsbury Group?

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The Bloomsbury group was a close-knit group of friends who met during their college years at Cambridge. Yet after Julian Bell, the son of founding members Vanessa Stephen and Clive Bell, died in the Spanish Civil War in July of 1937, the group began to splinter.

According to author S.P. Rosenbaum, who wrote numerous books about the Bloomsbury group, Julian’s sudden death was more than the group could handle:

“The death of Julian Bell….effectively shattered Bloomsbury…Julian’s death belonged to the public events that overwhelmed Bloomsbury and the world.”

Yet Julian’s brother, Quentin Bell, stated that it was the events leading up to Julian’s death, particularly the rise of fascism in Europe, that ruined the dynamic of the group.

Since the Bloomsbury group members had been ardent pacifists their whole lives, their neutrality suddenly became irrelevant in the face of fascism and many members of the group, including young Julian, were forced to take a stand on the matter.

As the editor of the book “We Did Not Fight: 1914-1918,” published in 1935, Julian wrote in the introduction: “I believe that the war-resistance movements of my generation will in the end succeed in putting down war – by force if necessary” thus distancing himself from the Bloomsbury group’s pacifist ideals.

Julian Bell and Virginia Woolf in 1910

Julian Bell and Virginia Woolf in 1910

Wanting to do something about this rise in fascism, 29-year-old Julian signed up to be an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War, instead of a soldier, in order to placate his pacifist mother.

Little did he realize how dangerous the job was and died from a massive lung wound after his ambulance was hit by a bomb as he drove along a road just outside Villanueva de la Cañada.

As a part of the Bloomsbury group’s second generation, Julian’s death was especially hard on the group.

Julian was the first Bloomsbury child and had been named after his uncle Julian Thoby Stephen who had originally brought the Bloomsbury group members together before his own premature death in 1906, according to the book “Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War”:

“He was at the heart of Bloomsbury as one of Vanessa’s children. Julian was named in memory of his uncle, Julian Thoby Stephen, always known as Thoby, who had died young, at the age of twenty-six. Julian frequently reminded Virginia of Thoby, and now their was this terrible coincidence of their early deaths. Thoby had been the linchpin for Bloomsbury, principally through his close friends at Trinity, Cambridge – Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf. It was virtually in reaction to Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906 that Clive almost immediately married Vanessa and that some years later Leonard married Virginia. It was through Thoby that the young Cambridge men came to the new home of the Stephen children in Bloomsbury…The years between the wars were the golden years of Bloomsbury when the most prominent members of that group of friends came into that eminence. It might be said that the ending of the richest period was marked by the death of Julian, deeply shadowing the lives of Vanessa and Virginia.”

Vanessa was completely devastated by the loss of her son and Virginia personally nursed her for weeks after. In a reply to a condolence letter from Vita Sackville-West, Vanessa wrote:

“These past few weeks have been really terrible, as you can imagine. But I don’t think I could have survived them if it wasn’t for Virginia’s constant presence and help. But I can’t tell Virginia that. Will you tell her?”

Haunted by this sudden death of her nephew, Virginia wrote about Julian often in her diary that summer and fall:

“Wednesday 11 August: Endless unwritten letters – sympathy about Julian who stalks beside me, in many different shapes…Tuesday 17 August: I often argue with him [Julian] on my walks; abuse his selfishness in going [to war], but mostly feel floored by the complete muddle & waste. Cant share the heroic rapture of the Medical Aid, who are holding a meeting next week to commemorate the six who were killed. ‘Gave their lives’ as they call it…Tuesday 12 October: Nessa went to Paris. Last night she came here, for the first time. We have the materials for happiness, but no happiness. All this summer, I find myself saying that verse, Lowell’s, about those whose coming steps we listen for: the verse about the nephew killed in the war. When Thoby died I used to walk about London saying to myself Stevenson’s verses: You alone have crossed the melancholy stream. Both doggerel I suppose: yet they say themselves spontaneously. With Thoby though I felt we were the same age. With Julian it is the old woman, saying that she wont see the young again. It is an unnatural death, his. I cant make it fit in anywhere. Perhaps because he was killed, violently. I can do nothing with the experience yet. It seems still emptiness: the sight of Nessa bleeding: how we watch: nothing to be done. But whats odd is I cant notice, or describe. Of course I have forced myself to drive ahead with the book. But the future without Julian is cut off. lopped: deformed.”

Julian Bell in 1929

Julian Bell in 1929

Although the Bloomsbury group carried on after Julian’s death, his loss, as well as the subsequent deaths of many of its prominent members, including Lytton Strachey in 1932, Roger Fry in 1934, Virginia in 1941, John Maynard Keynes in 1946 and Adrian Stephen in 1948, ensured that the group was never quite the same.

A Sketch of the Past: Bloomsbury’s Lost Poet: Julian Bell in Madrid:
“We Did Not Fight: 1914-1918: Experiences of War Resisters”; Julian Bell; 1935
“Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War”; Peter Stansky, William Abrahams; 2012
“The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary”; S.P. Rosenbaum; 1995

How Did Julian Bell's Death Affect the Bloomsbury Group?

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.