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October 2015: Victorian Bloomsbury

Ashton, Rosemary. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012. xiii, 380 pp. £25.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by: Susie Steinbach, Hamline University

In Eminent Victorians, his scathing 1918 attack on the generations that preceded him and his contemporaries, Lytton Strachey confidently announced that ‘ignorance is the first requisite of the historian’ and that therefore ‘the history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it’. Today we could say that by that standard the history of Strachey’s own circle, the infamous ‘Bloomsbury group’ of sexual radicals who were also experimental modernist writers, critics, and artists, need never again be written. We have heard far too much about it, mostly from members of the group itself, who are known for making Bloomsbury the intellectual centre of progressive London it is today.

Except – as Rosemary Ashton’s Victorian Bloomsbury makes it a pleasure to learn – that they didn’t. In this deeply-researched, well-written, and expansive book, Ashton demonstrates that Bloomsbury actually became ‘Bloomsbury’ not in 1904, when sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephen – later Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell – moved in to the neighbourhood, but during the nineteenth century. Ashton shows us that between the 1820s and the 1890s, Bloomsbury ‘drew in…a conspicuously large number of reforming educational and cultural institutions [along with] enlightened, energetic, and in some cases eccentric people’ (13). ‘Bloomsbury’, it turns out, is an invention of the Victorians against whom the Bloomsbury group rebelled. Victorian Bloomsbury makes the case that however radical the work that Woolf and her circle produced, the neighbourhood in which they chose to settle was already congenial to their goals. In so doing, it contributes to a larger conversation in which scholars are reassessing just how radical early twentieth-century the modernists were.

In ten chapters (plus introduction and epilogue), Ashton presents a complex, multi-faceted history of the Bloomsbury area. We meet a wide variety of individuals: reformer Henry Brougham, eccentric Dionysius Lardner, theologian F.D. Maurice, education advocates Elizabeth Reid and Maria Grey, novelist, philanthropist, and Arnold family scion Mary Ward. Fascinating on their own terms, in Victorian Bloomsbury these people are part of larger histories of institutions and movements – some familiar, some less so, since to its credit the book covers not only those innovations that became permanent fixtures, but also those efforts that failed. We learn much about the British Museum, of course, and the University of London. But we also learn about the millenarian Catholic Apostolic Church and the Ladies’ College School for Girls. There are chapters on educational institutions from University College, London to the Working Men’s and Working Women’s Colleges to the Passmore Edwards Settlement (later the Mary Ward House) to the new ‘kindergartens’ for young children. There are also stories about science and medicine: Edinburgh-trained Scots who came to teach medicine at the University of London, specialist hospitals such as the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease, experiments in mesmerism and anaesthesia and homoeopathy. Perhaps more surprising to the modern reader, there are also stories of faith: the juxtaposition of two Anglican churches, fashionable St George’s and its neighbour St Giles-in-the-Fields, set in the centre of one of London’s most infamous slums; the rise of the mystical Swedenborg Society; the lure of charismatic preacher Edward Irving.

As Ashton skilfully knits these diverse stories of people and places into a single compelling history, several aspects of her work stand out. The research on which the book is based is impressively broad and deep; Ashton uses the work of other scholars, as is necessary for a project that covers so much ground, but has also done an impressive amount of archival work that enables her to cite a wide variety of primary sources. She does an especially nice job of integrating sources about space such as maps and building plans with egodocuments such as diaries and letters. This makes the book a contribution to the growing shelf of historical works that focus on place and space, rather than taking them as unproblematic scenery in front of which history happened. Long quotations, often from rarely-cited sources, give the reader a real feel for the period and the people. The book’s length and depth may make it seem daunting, but it lends itself to being read either in whole or in part. Most chapters work well on their own, as the story of an institution or set of reforming impulses. It can be approached in a wide variety of ways; as a history of how the railways remade the metropole, of the British Museum, of medical training, or of education, among others. And the overall narrative also creates connections across chapters and subtopics, via persistent themes and professional and friendship networks that linked sometimes disparate initiatives. Ashton’s thick description supports her argument that ‘inasmuch as an area can be meaningfully characterised as “radical” or “progressive”, these adjectives applied to Bloomsbury’ (13).

Overall, this is fascinating work. It contributes to the rethinking of the Bloomsbury radicals as more Victorian than they would have cared to admit. It enacts the new ‘spatial turn’ in history by demonstrating how a neighbourhood can be the main character who brings all the other characters in the story together. It is sure to both please and enlighten a wide variety of readers.

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