Snapshots of

The Private Lives of
Virginia Woolf and
Vanessa Bell

Maggie Humm
(Rutgers University Press)
God knows why people are so dotty about the Bloomsbury Set. My guess is because they can so easily be put in a box. Mention Virginia Woolf or sister Vanessa or Lytton Strachey or John Maynard Keynes or Roger Fry --- and one can say, ah, yes, Bloomsbury: that slightly daffy, loose bunch of Bohemians, early 20th Century to 1940 or thereabouts.

And even if you don't much care for all this Bloomsbury stuff, you pick up Snapshots and there you are, charmed out of your shirt by the beauty and privilege of their lives, clowning about in their straw hats at Monk's House, or standing before the Acropolis in Greece, or at the sea in Scotland, or at picnic at "High and Over."

We might be jealous --- they looking so carefree, and merry, and fit (except for Leonard Woolf, who always looked ancient, never smiling, a revered keeper of the books, keeper of Virginia, perhaps --- if she could ever be said to be kept). There is E. M. Forster looking like a laid-back penguin; Lytton Stratchey in his forbidding beard and glasses, uncomfortable, geeky even ... a true Eminent Victorian, like he could never get naked, as did George Mallory [see below] or Vanessa and Molly McCarthy, in what my cousin Lillian would call "the nekkid-strip," the two of them playing a "ring of dancers," in 1913, just before it all fell apart.

If you want to go back with lovely Virginia and lovely Vanessa, back to 1894, there they are, pretty as you please, in their black young-girls' Victorian long-underwear garments. And here we get to see them age, along with merry Oliver Strachey, in the window, and then in the buff; young Julian and Quentin Bell, in shots that would land the publisher in the pokey in present-day England, but I guess considered to be OK if you have a historical (not a hysterical) perspective.

And then there is sweet Virginia, always about, with her calm woe, even when she is trying to try to be happy; and Vanessa, not looking at all introspective, certainly not woebegone, even appearing jolly, she was the one, no? who got them all to peel away their clothes, there in straight-laced pre-WWI England, before the fall and the mud and the trenches and the dying, so many of their young friends dying.

Even twenty years later, the fall, the one that did Virginia in, at last, in the stream, at the bottom of the hill, rocks in the pockets, and it fell apart, her despair, and the people, like that dried-out T. S. Eliot, with his tie and jacket and vest, no stones in his pockets, only gluey Brylcream on his hair, hair always parted just so, no wonder his wife went mad: hurry-up, please its time.

Then Roger Fry, the only one who looks like he's having a ball, so modern that his easel appears for all the world like a lap-top. And then too, the gossip written under the later shots --- Bloomsbury was always a hot-house of gossip, for those within, and those without. Under a photo of Sibyl Colfax: "the reason she is so dull that she never feels or thinks for herself." Or a prune-eyed Clive Bell, "I got a fantastic impression that this man Bell was a kind of Sun God --- with straw in his hair." Are we talking about the same Clive Bell, Vanessa? With that hair-do? And Ann and Judith Stephen: "great brown naked legged colts ... they dont wipe their mouths, & eat so much," writes Vanessa, wickedly.

This collection is rare, and fun, and lovely. Except for a couple of things. The first having to do with the editor, who, despite having a keen eye for photos and their placement, and knowing her stuff, can still write something as silly as, "The role of photo albums in their lives more resembles Foucault's account of the role of a mirror in heterotopology, which 'enables me to see myself there where I am absent.'" 'Allo? "Heterotopology?"

It, we find by Googling the word and trying to understand what we found, has to do with places. Foucault was a power freak, so, also, it has something to do with power being distributed everywhere, like the dying of the Big Bang. [Hetero = "other than usual;" topology = "study of a particular place."]

The other woe, for those who love her, is Woolf. She wrote a play in 1935 and it was called Freshwater. We have here a photo of Angelica Bell, now grown up. Comely. Playing the play, laid back in the water, eyes closed, all in white. "Presumed drowned."

--- Lolita Lark
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