Virtuosos of Idleness

Charlie Tyson in THR:

I begin to doubt beautiful words. How one longs sometimes to have done something in the world.

—Virginia Woolf to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, October 17, 19311

Bloomsbury_group_2Most artistic collectives flicker out after delivering, at best, a crackling manifesto. For a group of aspiring artists and intellectuals to vow to transfigure art, then the world, is no rare thing. Yet by any measure, the Bloomsbury Group—whose members included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and, more peripherally, Bertrand Russell—made good on its ambitions. Of the countless novels, philosophical treatises, and economic theories that appeared in England in the early decades of the twentieth century, Bloomsbury claims credit for some of the most durable and dazzling.

The Bloomsbury Group, named for the London area where its members congregated, is known to us today for the work it left behind. Yet to their contemporary rivals, the “Bloomsberries” seemed contemptibly lazy. Caricatures pegged them as a band of snobbish rentiers who whiled away afternoons sprawled on couches murmuring about art and beauty. Even in their own work, they portrayed moneyed leisure with uneasy self-awareness. Standing on the soft carpet outside Clarissa Dalloway’s dressing room, the drab tutor Miss Kilman of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway seethes, “Instead of lying on a sofa—‘My mother is resting,’ Elizabeth had said—she should have been in a factory; behind a counter; Mrs. Dalloway and all the other fine ladies!”2 Miss Kilman’s rage blazes more furiously with each semicolon as she condemns not just Mrs. Dalloway but all her privileged class to the servile humiliations of wage labor. Clarissa Dalloway can lie on the couch for an hour after lunch. Her daughter’s tutor cannot. Miss Kilman correctly sees Clarissa’s leisure as the result of an economic position that excuses her from paid work.

To say that the Bloomsbury Group was lazy, that its members celebrated their own idleness, and that their leisure was enabled by unjust economic arrangements would seem to be damning pronouncements, if true. But in the writings of key Bloomsbury figures, these very ideas were disputed less defensively than we might imagine and judged more frankly than we might expect.

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