Two years ago – as we came out of lockdown – we launched our St James’s Jaunt. Now we’re thrilled to have a new walking tour of Bloomsbury, featuring literary heavyweights Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, the Bloomsbury Blast. Researching and creating it has been fascinating fun, and we can’t wait to share it with you. Here’s a few highlights…
Rebels and Innovators
Why ‘Bloomsbury Blast’? It beat other ‘title contenders’ because of our appreciation for the Vorticist magazine BLAST! featured at one stop on the tour. With its crazy pink cover and in-yer-face fonts, it postured and provoked, embodying the wild, rebellious spirit of artist and writer Wyndham Lewis, egged on by poet Ezra Pound.
Lewis’s experimental writing in BLAST! had a direct influence on Pound, T S Eliot and James Joyce — and later, Samuel Beckett. When it was published in 1914, it was exciting, extreme and shocking. It’s perhaps not the way we tend to think of ‘Bloomsbury’, because of how much the rather more genteel Bloomsbury Group defines our sense of that place and time. But, of course, every modernist writer worth their salt – Virginia Woolf and E M Forster included – was pushing the boundaries of what literature could do and represent.
Bloomsbury at that time was actually a hotbed of political radicals, literary originals and people wanting to find new ways of living. As we’ve developed our tour, it’s been wonderful to immerse ourselves in that world, reaching back a century or so to discover pioneering writers reaching forward to us, writers who’ve had much influence upon literature and our lives today; I’ve kept thinking about these lines from T S Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.”
And there are things that time doesn’t change; Bloomsbury’s grand garden squares are now, as they were for those writers back then, places to stroll, to meet and to sit on a lunch break. They remain the distinguishing soul of the area and they mean a lot to people. When the sun comes out to light their trees, blossoms and blooms, a Bloomsbury square is a glorious place to be!
In those squares on our tour, we have writers watching from their windows, a chance moonlight encounter, aspiring novelists gushing about meeting their idols, an evening sherry beneath a tree, lunchtime discussions about pornography, and Virginia Woolf struck with inspiration for a new novel.
And, yes, another highlight has to be…
We’ve always loved and admired Woolf’s work. For our St James’s Jaunt we got to know the movements of Mrs Dalloway, centring on her walk to a Bond Street florist, as well as Woolf’s experience of the London Library. This tour has given us the opportunity to trace her journey through Bloomsbury – moving from one square to another – as her life unfolds, from young Miss Stephen, shaking off her Victorian upbringing, to distinguished author enduring the Blitz.
We make a pilgrimage to four of Virginia Woolf’s addresses on the Bloomsbury Blast — including Tavistock Square, which is such an exciting Woolf location. Those years here with her husband Leonard Woolf were the heyday of the Hogarth Press, with so many big literary names of the period – E M Forster and T S Eliot included – their regular visitors. And it was here, in a basement room, where Virginia wrote To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.
Discovering New Writers
One of the joys of our St James’s Jaunt was getting to know less widely appreciated writers like Rose Macaulay and Nancy Cunard and present them to our guests. It’s been a similar experience in Bloomsbury…
Dorothy Richardson is an absolute gem. She came to live in Bloomsbury as a young single woman and worked as a dentist’s secretary. Her experiences during the years she spent here – including an affair with H G Wells – provide rich autobiographical material for her Pilgrimage novels, in which she developed an original style of writing that influenced Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.
Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore is a colossus of world literature, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, and he’s as big as it gets in India and Bangladesh where his plays, novels, stories, poems and songs are a seminal part of the culture. We focus on his time in Bloomsbury and the poetry that made such a splash with writers here, in particular Irish poet W B Yeats, a long-term resident of Bloomsbury who also features on the tour.
And there’s Charlotte Mew, singular, lonely and stoic, whose extraordinary poetry we celebrate. We’ve absolutely come to appreciate why Siegfried Sassoon said she was “the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat”, and we’re sure our guests will too.
And there’s Harold Monro, an incredible unsung hero whose Poetry Bookshop – a shop, a publishing house and so much more – exerted an influence on literature that can’t be overestimated. Monro was assisted by Alida Klementaski, and together they created a place that gave poetry a ‘centre’; it was ‘happening’ here in Bloomsbury.
Harold and Alida cut through the snootiness around poetry. They took it out of rich people’s salons and made it accessible, hosting weekly readings open to everyone. Readers who worked nearby – secretaries, nurses, clerks — went to the bookshop and rubbed shoulders with massive (or soon-to-be massive) figures like W B Yeats, Edith Sitwell, D H Lawrence and T S Eliot. These writers knew its value, and the part Monro had played in their growing reputations; they were never too grand to attend an event at the bookshop in what was a slum area of Bloomsbury. It was, as Osbert Sitwell said, ‘a great meeting place’.
Meetings and Networks
With so many domestic settings, ‘Bloomsbury’ was a lot about writers and artists getting together in people’s homes and eating, drinking and talking until the small hours. There’s the Bloomsbury Group, obviously, Yeats’s Monday ‘at-homes’, impromptu coffee-fuelled gatherings in Hilda Doolittle’s bedsit, Harold Monro’s sherry parties, meals to launch avant-garde publications — writers getting together and encouraging each other, or bitching and arguing, but always spurring each other on.
They enabled each other’s work to get into print – by forming a publishing house, by founding or editing a periodical, or, in Eliot’s case, by being made a director of Faber & Faber. And all the while they’re reviewing each other’s work in those periodicals and in newspapers.
And they’re writing about their own lives, writing each other into their work, sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly in autobiography, sometimes changing each other’s names, sometimes satirising each other as characters in novels, sometimes in full-on attacks.
Love unreciprocated makes for powerful poetic fodder, and it can’t be avoided in Bloomsbury. There’s Yeats’s troubled obsession with Maud Gonne, Charlotte Mew’s sad infatuation with May Sinclair, Hilda Doolittle’s powerful fascination with D H Lawrence, and then there’s T S Eliot’s poignant love letters to Emily Hale.
Hale was Eliot’s fellow student at Harvard. He never declared his love for her there and lived to regret it. And when things went bad with his English wife Vivienne, who had serious mental health issues, he wrote to Emily.
Cindy had a special day while researching for the tour. She was at Bloomsbury’s own British Library, working on T S Eliot, and she thought, wait a minute, where in the Faber building was Eliot’s office? She found out and, when the library closed, she walked to Russell Square and saw that Eliot’s office looked out on Woburn Square. It’s changed, of course, but that’s what Tom was looking out on – those trees and lilacs — when he was alone in his office writing those secret, sacred letters to Emily in America. Very moving.
And finally… Bookshops
Bloomsbury is blessed with some wonderful bookshops – independent, second-hand, specialist – and it’s been a pleasure (though quite an expensive one) to discover them. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon after our literary tour of Bloomsbury, than enjoy lunch in a neighbourhood café or pub, then browse in bookshop heaven?!
We hope to see you very soon for a Bloomsbury Blast!
Posted by Mike