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Bloomsbury attitudes to the Great War

The Great War still haunts us. This book draws together examples of the ‘aesthetic pacifism’ practised during the Great War by such celebrated individuals as Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon and Bertrand Russell. It also tells the stories of those less well known who shared the attitudes of the Bloomsbury Group when it came to facing the first ‘total war’. The five-year research for this study gathered evidence from all the major archives in Great Britain and abroad in order to paint a complete picture of this unique form of anti-war expression. The narrative begins with the Great War's effect on philosopher-pacifist Bertrand Russell and Cambridge University.

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2 Bloomsbury What were the anti-war feelings chiefly expressed outside ‘organised’ protest and not under political or religious banners – those attitudes which form the raison d’être for this study? As the Great War becomes more distant in time, certain actions and individuals become greyer and more obscure whilst others seem to become clearer and imbued with a dash of colour amid the sepia. One thinks particularly of the so-called Bloomsbury Group.1 Any overview of ‘alternative’ attitudes to the war must consider the responses of Bloomsbury to the shadows of

in A war of individuals
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. As well as the extraordinariness of his character, it was this apparent paradox which lay within Sassoon and, I began to realise, many others, which I wanted to explore when I began the research that forms the basis for this book. My earlier undergraduate research on the attitude of the Bloomsbury Group to the Great War had told me that, far from all opposing the conflict as one, as generally believed, the individuals who constituted this most famous circle of friends reacted in many different ways to the coming of war. Some of the younger ‘members’, such as the

in A war of individuals
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Bertrand Russell was just one man largely thinking and acting alone – and therein rests his reputation. But to what extent – whether in private or public – did similar anti-war concerns to those of Russell and the Bloomsbury Group express themselves among the intelligentsia? In common with Russell, E. M. Forster believed the Great War to be partly due to misdirected destructive energies; forces that could be channelled during times of peace into creative efforts. In his letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he explained that his other hope for the future, though ‘very faint’, was for a League of Nations. This was a hope that Forster shared with both his frequent correspondent Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and with other intellectuals such as the writer and ruralist Edward Carpenter. The emotional response of Carpenter and Dickinson to the war was matched by that of Henry James. In contrast with James, the dry, precise tone of George Bernard Shaw provided perhaps the most prominent intellectual commentary of his time on the war's ebb and flow.

in A war of individuals
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In her Society at War (1931), the social analyst Caroline Playne concluded that the experience of thinkers and artists who had languished under the Great War was just as real as that of the shattered soldiers. The Bloomsbury Group, perhaps typically, reacted to the Great War on an individual basis. Other people also based their objection to the conflict on aesthetic or humanistic grounds, and did so from a wider cross-section of the cultural landscape. Although most of these people were from the educated middle classes, similarly linked anti-war feelings occurred throughout the war and beyond, and emanated from differing contexts; from the equally well known to the obscure, from male to female and from those who fought to those who did not. With the advent of the Great War, conflicts of morality ensued. Those who volunteered for military service in the early months of the war voluntarily laid down individualistic claims for a variety of reasons, not least due to the pull of pre-war collectivist patriotism and a resulting sense of moral duty.

in A war of individuals
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-century works by Epstein, Bomberg and painters associated with the Bloomsbury group. It was entitled something like ‘Early British Modernism’. Again, as with A History of British Art, it was not uninteresting, it was merely misnamed. It is something of an irony that both Charles Rennie Mackintosh and J. D. Fergusson were both working within walking distance of the Tate Gallery during the period to which this display referred. The point is not to insist on quotas, but to suggest that understanding what words mean is appropriate in this sort of context. Every misuse of the word

in Across the margins
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the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact Gertler was born in London, in 1891, but the family returned to Galicia before he was one year old, returning to London, this time for good, in 1896. Probably the idea of a family connection is a myth. In any case, I recall reluctance even to discuss it, because of Mark Gertler’s perceived bohemianism and his association with those immoral members of the Bloomsbury Group. By all accounts, my grandmother, who was quite beautiful, was rather spoiled, first by her parents, then by her two younger sisters, Mary and Rosie, and later

in Austerity baby
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Bloomsbury Group together, both male and female. This freedom from convention served to fuel their responses to the war, as we have seen not only in the cases of the men such as J.M. Keynes and Duncan Grant – it was equally true of the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen; Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But what of other women? It is clear that women experienced a diversion of their political aspirations and energies regarding suffrage into anti-war thoughts and activities. What of women who simply desired to be involved in the war to a greater extent and whose subsequent

in A war of individuals