Wednesday 19 August 2015

'Life in Squares' - how I learned to love the Bloomsbury Group - by Christina Koning

I must confess that I started watching ‘Life in Squares’, the new three-part drama about the Bloomsbury Group, which was recently shown on BBC2, with considerable reservations. What on earth was there left to say about these - to be frank - rather self-indulgent and privileged people, that hadn’t already been said in a host of books by and about them, and latterly, in films and television programmes in which the whole gang - the Woolfs, the Bells, Duncan Grant, Keynes, Strachey, Roger Fry - were made much of? Wasn’t it time to call for a moratorium on the Bloomsburies and all their acolytes, past and present? From which it may be obvious that, with certain honourable exceptions (yes, I mean you, E.M. Forster), I’m not a fan of this particular ‘set’, whose achievements, though undeniably impressive, seem to me to have been over-valued, to the detriment of other, no less impressive, talents in twentieth century Art and Literature.

‘Life in Squares’, I thought, would be just another breathless hagiography, celebrating the already over-celebrated lives of the Blessed Virginia and her crowd. I promised myself I’d give it ten minutes, and then switch over to something more enjoyable. An hour later, I was still watching - and unashamedly riveted by - the successive dramas unfolding in Amanda Coe’s treatment of the lives of what was then a disparate group of Cambridge friends (and their sisters), meeting for tea and chat about art and books, in the Gordon Square house belonging to the orphaned Stephen siblings. With so many characters to incorporate - the list above is only partial, leaving out quite a few of the era’s major figures (no mention of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, or Wyndham Lewis) - Coe wisely chose to focus on the central relationship, between Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), and her sister Vanessa. Interestingly enough, and despite Virginia Woolf’s far greater posthumous fame, it is Vanessa who emerges as the more dominant character. From her impetuous - and soon to be regretted - marriage to the philandering Clive Bell, to her no less extravagant love for the painter Duncan Grant, she comes across as passionate, headstrong and likeable.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to Phoebe Fox’s sympathetic portrayal - helped by her strong physical likeness to the beautiful Vanessa. Nor is she the only piece of great casting in this superior mini-drama: James Norton gave a wonderfully dissolute performance as Duncan Grant, convincing this viewer, at least, to reconsider him, not only as an artist, but as a key figure in what was to become a kind of blueprint for the Bohemian lifestyle, as the Bloomsburies metamorphosed into the ‘Charleston set’. Having visited Charleston - home to the Bells and Duncan Grant - and Monk’s House, at Rodmell, where the Woolfs established themselves during the same period, I was delighted to see both places featuring strongly in this television drama. That gave me another reason for continuing to watch, as well as the fact that I was now hooked on the tangled love affairs and intermittent crises which were unfolding. The period covered - from the 1900s to the 1940s - is one in which I have been interested for a long time. I was glad to see it reconstructed so accurately and (dare one say it?) aesthetically. From the Art Nouveau silks and velvets sported by Vanessa as a young woman, to the more austere wartime garb worn by her older self (of which more later), this was a feast of period detail: beautifully lit and shot. 

Of course, there were a few things I’d like to have seen done differently. The decision to cast a second group of older actors - with the wonderful Eve Best playing Vanessa - in order to convey the passage of time, was not wholly successful, and might have caused confusion to anyone not familiar with the story. The need to compress the events of forty years into three hours led, inevitably, to certain things been glossed over - or left out altogether. The 1920s and 1930s - arguably the most important period, as regards the literary and artistic output of the group - was shown only in passing. Individual episodes - such as Duncan Grant’s decision to become a conscientious objector, at the outbreak of the First World War - were barely touched on. The relentless focusing on the Grant/Bell menage meant that even Virginia Woolf’s suicide got short shrift. But overall, this was a well-written and engaging dramatisation of a fascinating period. It certainly converted this Bloomsbury sceptic to a more appreciative frame of mind. Now - where’s my copy of To the Lighthouse?    

1 comment:

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting, Christina! I am recording this, and you have encouraged me to start watching it.