Dreaming On The Verge Of Strife: Julian Bell And Rupert Brooke

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Frances Darwin Cornford

Written after her first meeting with the poet, Frances Cornford’s pithy verse, On Rupert Brooke, was to prove eerily prophetic. Within a decade, Brooke would be dead after contracting septicemia on his way to Gallipoli. Cornford’s words could just as easily have been written about Julian Bell, another young Cambridge poet, whose life would also be cut short as a consequence of war. Bell was fascinated by Brooke, whom he greatly admired, and believed that they both shared a similar outlook towards war and duty, one that his Bloomsbury elders could not understand.

From an early age Bell had heard tales of the fabled Brooke from members of his family who had known Brooke at Cambridge. Bell also went up to the same University’s King’s College, where Brooke’s presence haunted the aged stone walls, its corridors and staircases seemingly reverberating with anecdotes about his legendary charm and beauty. Although Brooke would eventually become a Fellow of King’s, this was a feat that eluded Bell despite two attempts. Similarly in his lifetime, Brooke was an acclaimed poet whose reputation was only enhanced by his death, Bell however never came close to achieving comparable fame, and today his work remains largely unknown.

Just as Brooke had spent the last few years of his life abroad, travelling to America, Canada and the South Seas, as described in his Letters from America, published posthumously in 1916, Bell left for China in 1935 after he was offered a Professorship at Wuhan University. Teaching English literature to his Chinese students, Bell held Brooke up as a perfect example of what he believed to be a quintessentially English poet.

Remarking in a letter to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, he declared Brooke to be ‘the most remarkable human being I’ve ever heard of,’ but whilst he could not help but notice the obvious similarities between himself and the war poet, he acknowledged that he had not been blessed with ‘all his gifts’ nor had he enjoyed ‘that sort of brilliant career.’

Bell’s upbringing, coupled with the overwhelmingly pacifist nature of Bloomsbury, led him to adopt his family and Bloomsbury’s attitudes towards war until the early 1930s. By that time, the tumultuous political situation at home and abroad meant that he was starting to question Bloomsbury’s belief in the supremacy of discourse over direct action as the best means of providing a solution to the problems that besieged Britain and Europe. Brooke himself had been deeply dismayed by the pacifism of his former Bloomsbury friends after the outbreak of the First World War, and this sentiment pervaded much of his subsequent poetry. In contrast Brooke openly embraced the declaration of war, from the belief that it would usher in the excitement that he felt was essential to young men, something that had been absent from his life thus far. In an essay that appeared in The New Statesman and Nation entitled An Unusual Young Man, Brooke wrote with characteristic nonchalance, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.’ Continue reading

Characters And Commentaries: Lytton Strachey And The Hampstead Tribunal

Ostentatiously sat on a light blue air cushion, apparently necessary due to his fear that the wooden bench on which he sat might worsen his piles, the slight, bespectacled and bearded figure proceeded to spread a tartan rug over his legs.

‘I understand, Mr Strachey, that you are a conscientious objector to all wars?’‘ In his typically affected manner, he replied, ‘Oh, no…not at all. Only this one.’ The interrogation continued, ‘Then tell me, Mr Strachey, what would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?’ After slowly and deliberately looking at every one of his sisters who sat in the public gallery, he earnestly answered, ‘I should try and interpose my own body.’

The politician Philip Snowden later claimed that those who questioned Lytton Strachey had, ‘enough sense to realise that it would be useless to try to make this man into a soldier, so he was granted exemption as a political conscientious objector. This, I believe, was the only case where exemption was given on political grounds.’

Born Giles Lytton Strachey into a military family in London in 1880, Lytton was one of the 13 children of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Strachey and his second wife Jane, 10 of whom survived to adulthood. At the age of 13, the young Strachey was sent to Abboltsholme School, were manual tasks were part of the curriculum, an environment wholly unsuited to his delicate constitution. Consequently, he was moved to Leamington College where he was severely bullied, an experience that only enhanced his innate awkwardness. Continue reading

Butterfly Lovers: Julian Bell and Ling Shuhua

Having failed to achieve his desired career as a poet and writer, as well as two unsuccessful attempts to gain a King’s Fellowship, Julian Bell sought employment and adventure in the Far East, accepting a professorship at Wuhan University, China, in early 1935. In a letter to her sister, Bell’s mother, Vanessa, Virginia Woolf recalled his discovery of this acceptance, ‘was just sitting down to write to you last night when Julian came in to say that he has got the Chinese professorship…He seemed very excited, though also rather alarmed at the prospect…I suppose it’s a great chance.’ Bell was enthusiastic, but wary about travelling to China. Following a meeting with him shortly before his departure, in July 1935, Woolf recorded in her diary, ‘we talked – intimately, I mean about the past & our lives, for the first time. I’m very sorry he’s to go – that delightful, honest bubbly yet after all so sympathetic & trusty young man…he had always determined not to let his private life shackle him.’ Indeed, Bell’s complicated personal life had certainly shackled him in England, but in China it was to become more problematic that he could have ever imagined.

Shortly after his arrival at Wuhan, Bell met Ling Shuhua, a painter and writer as well as the wife of his dean, T. P. Chen. Their friendship quickly turned into a passionate affair, which has been explored by Patricia Laurence in her book, Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China with much of what Laurence uncovered about their relationship appearing in print in English the for the first time, along with previously unseen photographs of Bell and Shuhua.

Bell was instantly attracted to Shuhua, whom he called Sue, describing her to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, as ‘pure Old Bloomsbury – a Chinese Vanessa – no, that’s wrong, but I can feel as much at ease with her as any of you.’ However, Vanessa was wary about her son’s infatuation as Sue was married with a young daughter, and advised him, ‘Don’t fall in love with her if you can help it.’  Continue reading

A Splendour Of Miscellaneous Spirits: Bloomsbury And Venice

From Shakespeare to Byron and Henry James, Venice has long been a muse for writers and artists alike. By the early twentieth century, Venice had become a highly popular tourist destination, and, as Evangeline Holland has pointed out in her guide to Edwardian England, the British upper and upper-middle classes, particularly those with artistic leanings, flocked there in their droves.

Above: A silent film about Venice (1920s) 

The Bloomsbury group were far from immune to the allure of Venice and drew similarities between the watery city and Cambridge, where St. John’s had its very own Bridge of Sighs and the punts glided over the river Cam as gondolas did through the narrow canals of Venice.

Virginia Woolf was to visit Venice on three occasions. The first one was with her family in 1904, shortly after the death of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her move to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury with her brother Thoby and sister Vanessa. Virginia had been quite overwhelmed by Venice, initially, writing to her friend Violet Dickinson in April 1904 that, ‘There was never such an amusing and beautiful place.’ However, the city was experiencing significant overcrowding; she began to find this oppressive, and, as Jane Dunn has claimed, Virginia started to feel as if she were a caged bird by the end of their trip. Thoby Stephen, however, (who would later contract typhoid and tragically die on another family holiday to Greece in 1906) was captivated by the aesthetic charms of Venice, writing to Clive Bell (whom Vanessa would eventually marry in 1907), ‘Until a man has been there he has no more right to speak of painting than a man who has read neither Sophocles or Shakespeare to criticize literature.’

Vanessa too found Venice to be a source of great artistic inspiration for her paintings, and it was there that she first encountered the work of Tintoretto, whose work she deeply admired, and who would remain one of her favourite painters. Indeed, it is not hard to see why the Bloomsbury artists, including Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, were so drawn to and frequently painted scenes of Venice, as for them, the city itself was a living and breathing work of art. The influence of Venetian culture can also be seen at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and David Garnett, along with Vanessa and Clive Bell’s sons, Julian and Quentin, moved to in 1916, and which remained Vanessa’s home for the rest of her life. The house’s interior is covered in artworks by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and paintings and their rich colours reflect the murals and colourful displays found inside many traditional Venetian homes.  Continue reading