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Bloomsbury  
 
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Seeking to explain the phenomenal popularity in the 1970s of biographical studies of those artists and intellectuals associated with Bloomsbury, the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick pinpointed its "gay liberation, its serious high camp." Whether one considers Bloomsbury as a self-infatuated coterie, a forward-thinking commune, a circle of "New Athenians," or a mean-spirited mob, Bloomsbury's open acceptance of erotic license and its hostility toward social convention lend it considerable interest in the history of homosexuality among the English upper classes.

The novelist E. M. Forster called Bloomsbury the "only genuine movement in English civilization." Its name was taken from the London neighborhood encompassing Gordon and Fitzroy Squares, where the sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephen established residence after the death of their father Leslie in 1904.

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Those avowedly homosexual figures associated with Bloomsbury, notably Forster, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the painter Duncan Grant, found exuberant advocates in their fellow-traveling Bloomsbury friends Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Virginia's husband Leonard Woolf, the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, the painter Dora Carrington, and the hostess Ottoline Morell, whose estate Garsington was a Bloomsbury outpost of amorous badinage, infatuation, and gossip, much of it homosexual in character. "Sex permeated our conversation," recalled Virginia Woolf before the London Memoir Club in 1922. "The word was never far from our lips."

Undoubtedly the most flamboyant of the "Bloomsbuggers," as the homosexual members of Bloomsbury were called, was Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), son of a distinguished soldier and Indian administrator. While a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Strachey met Keynes and Leonard Woolf and later went on to head the Apostles, Cambridge's exclusive intellectual society to which also belonged several other figures associated with Bloomsbury, including Forster, Leonard Woolf, and Keynes.

Strachey's classic Eminent Victorians (1918) was in some ways Bloomsbury's definitive text, a withering attack on the Victorian era's earnest promotion of self-improvement, chauvinism, and hypocrisy. Skewering Cardinal Manning as a Machiavellian careerist, Florence Nightingale as a manipulative neurotic, the educator Dr. Arnold as a middle-brow prig, and General Gordon as an imperialist crank, Strachey targeted a whole system of repressive values left over from the previous era.

Eminent Victorians, along with Strachey's Queen Victoria (1921) and Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928), was among the earliest biographical works to employ Freudian analytical techniques. (Strachey's brother James was the first English translator of Freud.) Lytton's fondness for comic biographical detail--Cardinal Wiseman's Irish servant respectfully referring to the heavy-set cardinal as "your immense," Florence Nightingale employing soldiers' wives to clean her laundry during the Crimean War--made Strachey the architect of an altogether new literary genre: camp biography.

Indeed, Strachey was the true heir of Oscar Wilde in the irreverent brio of his wit, captured in Strachey's celebrated retort to an officer who, confronted with the writer's pacifist objections to joining the army, demanded to know what he would do if a Hun attempted to rape his sister. "I would," Strachey responded coolly, "insert my own body between them." Asked by a woman during the war years why he was not fighting for civilization, he answered, "I am, Madam, the civilization for which they are fighting."

Although none of Strachey's published work addressed homosexual issues, his correspondence is a testament to the ardor that Strachey lavished on the young men with whom he was continually, guiltlessly smitten. "His face is outspoken," Strachey wrote of Duncan Grant, "bold and not just rough. It's the full, aquiline type, with frank grey-blue eyes and incomparably lascivious lips."

His brief account of Bloomsbury life, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's free-associative fiction, captured Bloomsbury's quality of pastoral : "Perhaps it was because of the easy goingness of the place and the quantities of food, or was it because . . . and then the vision of that young postman with the fair hair and the lovely country complexion who had said 'Good evening, sir', as he passed on his bicycle, flashed upon me."

Strachey's Ermyntrude and Esmeralda (composed in 1913 but published in 1969), a semipornographic epistolary novel written as an exchange of letters between two naive seventeen-year-old girls, is a send-up of, among other matters, among the middle classes. Strachey, with his rationalist attitude toward homosexual sex and his tone of ironic detachment, was the most characteristic Bloomsbury figure. He could inspire, however, keen contempt among outsiders. The novelist Vita Sackville-West loathed him, while the poet Rupert Brooke described a meeting with Strachey as a "most unbearably sickening disgusting blinding nightmare."

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