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Reviewed by:
  • Victorian Bloomsbury: The Early Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group, and: The Victorian Heritage of Virginia Woolf: The External World in her Novels
  • Daniel R. Schwarz
S. P. Rosenbaum. Victorian Bloomsbury: The Early Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group. Vol. 1. New York: St. Martin's, 1987. 332 pp. $24.95.
Janis M. Paul. The Victorian Heritage of Virginia Woolf: The External World in her Novels. Norman: Pilgrim, 1987. 227 pp. No price given.

If there is a trend that humanistic formalism should welcome, it is the returning emphasis in literary studies on the anterior reality that gives rise to imagined worlds and how the processes of mimesis render those worlds. The dialogue between anterior reality and texts—what Alex Gelley has recently called "narrative crossings"—is crucial because it enables us to see not merely what texts are about but how they are created. Because so much of modern British literature is about the artist's creation of the text—Ulysses, Sons and Lovers, A Portrait of the Artist, [End Page 718] To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway—and the exploration of the process of negotiating between real and fictional worlds, it is particularly appropriate that modern British literature not lose its historical or biographical moorings.

The common thread of both books under review is that Bloomsbury is a natural outgrowth of late Victorianism. As S. P. Rosenbaum puts it:

Bloomsbury's writing combines two broadly different clusters of value, one of which is usually sacrificed to the other in much modern literature. The terms for these kinds of value are necessarily vague, but one of them could be identified as rational. It can be recognised by a profound belief in truth, analysis, pluralism, toleration, criticism, individualism, egalitarianism and secularism. The other cluster of values is harder to label, but it has to do with the visionary. It is to be discovered in an equally profound faith in intuition, imagination, synthesis, ideality, love, art, beauty, mysticism and reverence.

Although Bloomsbury was both a fragment of the English upper-middle class, a philosophical position, and a self-proclaimed avant-garde movement, these books proceed in terms of traditional notions of historical evolution. How one integrates historical argument into literary discussion is a complex matter. Can we create from the texts of longer works a grammar of historical cause and effect? Do we say that at the very heart of the transitory imagined world is a realistic hard spot? To be sure, what is called the new historicism both raises legitimate questions about positivistic cause and effect that often assumes that because "A" precedes "B," "A" causes "B" and stresses the history of power, particularly as it impacts on women, minorities, and the poor. And it has reminded us that history not only gives shape to literature, but vice versa.

Rosenbaum, the distinguished editor of The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary and Criticism, is writing a two-volume "Early History of the Bloomsbury Group" of which the erudite and readable volume under review is the first volume. He has put together a prodigious history that is invaluable for understanding contexts and backgrounds. Rosenbaum is a traditional literary historian—that is, someone who believes that literary events reflect the culture in which texts are written and that telling a narrative of that culture is sufficient in itself. He believes in what he calls the causal relations of historical conditions and creative processes: "[a]ny history of Bloomsbury must realise the centrality of writing in their achievements, just as any literary history must refer, implicitly at least, to the temporal order of its texts." Rosenbaum's strength is his deep immersion in diverse strands of cultural history and his ability to articulate them:

The importance of Cambridge philosophy for Bloomsbury's writing is to be found not so much in their topics as in their assumptions—assumptions about the nature of consciousness and its relation to external nature, about the irreducible otherness of people that makes isolation unavoidable and love possible, about the human and non-human realities of time and death, and about the supreme goods of truth, love and beauty. The philosophy also underlies Bloomsbury's criticisms of...


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