YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Edwardians on the edge

Among the Bohemians Experiments in Living, 1900-1939 Virginia Nicholson William Morrow: 384 pp., $25.95

February 15, 2004|Stephen Toulmin | Stephen Toulmin is Henry R. Luce professor in the multiethnic and transnational studies department at USC. He is the author, most recently, of "Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity" and a former fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

This is a fascinating and purely English book. It tells us in detail, with drawings and photographs, about a quintessentially English society that could never, in Henry James' wildest dreams, have originated in the United States. Virginia Nicholson is the daughter of Quentin Bell and the granddaughter of a key Bloomsbury artist, Vanessa Bell, and so comes from the heart of her subject: "Bohemia" in general, and Bloomsbury in particular.

The focus of her story is Vanessa Bell and Charleston, the house in East Sussex where she lived with her husband, Clive Bell, and her lover, Duncan Grant. Their London base was the heart of "Bloomsbury" -- Gordon Square, together with the British Museum and adjoining streets. There the group included Dylan and Caitlin Thomas and the idiosyncratic Ludwig Wittgenstein, who eventually rejected the milieu as "frivolous."

Why "Bohemia"? The immediate source was Henri Murger's "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme" in the 1840s, from which Giacomo Puccini derived the plot for "La Boheme." Yet how did Bohemia (what we now know as the Czech Republic) come to be seen as the model of unorthodox behavior? Nicholson does not discuss this issue, but let me hazard a hypothesis. The 17th century Habsburg monarchs required all Austrians to be, or pretend to be, loyal Roman Catholics, which was the religion of the court. Only one community declined to conform. From their base in Prague, 11 Czech noble families held firm to their Lutheran commitments and did so into the 20th century. (Wittgenstein's intellectual patron, Moritz Schlick, came from one of these families.)

The philosophy of English Bohemia was set out by Arthur Ransome, who was far more than the author of such children's books as "Swallows and Amazons." He characterized it as "the best available life there is, the most joyously, honestly youthful." These words are worth bearing in mind as we read Nicholson's book, with its cast of extraordinary characters. Her account weaves three strands: the Bohemians' acceptance of poverty, their generational rebellion and their belief in permissiveness.

As to poverty (Ransome again): "The unhealthy, irregular meals I ate, my steady buying of books instead of food, brought about the internal troubles that have been a nuisance through most of my life. At the same time I doubt if any young man ... can ever know the happiness that was mine at nineteen, dependent solely on what I was able to earn and living in a room of my own with the books I had myself collected."

Even for their middle-class contemporaries, life was a struggle in the early years of the last century. As the author puts it: "With careful pennypinching, nobody went hungry, but no housewife worth her salt omitted to keep scrupulous accounts, or to pay the butcher's bill on the nail." Having grown up in London in the period, I find this to be true: We have some of my own mother's account books, which she kept day by day, to the nearest farthing.

As to generational rebellion: The term "bourgeois" was, of course, an insult. In their clothing, housing, furniture and much else, the Bohemians rejected Edwardian conventions. Rather, they emulated the gypsies. Augustus John tried to live in a caravan "for Freedom and the Open Road." It is no surprise that these attempts failed and the experimenters settled back indoors, in their often-squalid lodgings.

Nicholson's chapter on "Glorious Apparel" is especially informative and amusing: In pursuit of novel costumes, almost no culture -- Indian or Chinese, African or Latin American -- was overlooked by female Bohemians. The men preferred simplicity. Wittgenstein wore one parka in summer and two in winter and never chose to wear a tie; his reaction to the culture of the hirsute Emperor Franz Josef was to remain cleanshaven.

As to permissiveness: "In retrospect," the novelist Arthur Calder-Marshall wrote, "I feel sorry for all parents whose children grew up during the twenties ... [c]aught into this war between the artists and the Philistines, swallowing modernism at a gulp and rejecting out of hand the moral and social values our parents hoped to imbue us with." Libertarian education -- Dora and Bertrand Russell's school at Beacon Hill in West Sussex, for instance -- as well as Freud's case studies treated children as guinea pigs, to be observed as much as cherished, while the anarchist Ethel Mannin saw total freedom in the upbringing of children as promising "a new heaven and a new earth for children."

Los Angeles Times Articles