Citing the recent trend in modernist studies toward the examination of “modernity (a social phenomenon) as the context for modernism (aesthetic responses to this phenomenon)” (1), Bloomsbury, Modernism and the Reinvention of Intimacy is an intriguing scholarly work that argues for a reconsideration of the famed Bloomsbury group and the centrality of intimacy’s radical reinvention in their literary projects. Although composed as six chapters, this book is divided thematically into three parts, with the first part focusing on the philosophical background of Bloomsbury group, the second part focusing on the battle between the sexes depicted in Bloomsburian novels, and the third part focusing on what Wolfe identifies as the problematic role of marriage in the modern period.
Each of these three parts takes the form of a thoughtful, comparative approach to questions regarding the nature and transformation of intimate relationships in the modern period and to how the treatment of such questions in works by G. E. Moore, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, and Vita Sackville-West serve as theoretical, and perhaps practical, illustrations of the modern ambivalence toward Victorian precedents regarding sex, [End Page 860] marriage, desire, and friendship. Although Wolfe’s text is ambitious in scope, with gestures toward philosophical, psychological, sociological, and historical issues as themes both enriching and reflected in the work of six very different contemporaries, he effectively ties together these various threads into a clear and articulate discussion of intimate relationships within the context of modernist aesthetics.
Beginning in part 1 with a detailed discussion of G. E. Moore and his influential treatise, Principia Ethica, Wolfe highlights Moore’s frequent philosophical shifts between the “essentialist attitudes” of his platonic assumptions and what some critics have suggested is the implicit “endorsement of homoeroticism” (34) in its final chapter. Identifying Moore’s coded ambivalence toward this issue of intimacy as a source of “anti-essentialist” inspiration for later Bloomsburians, Wolfe opens up his discussion of Principia’s “mitigated rebellion” (50) with a consideration of Freud’s morally ambiguous case study of Dora, where together, the two texts form a dynamic philosophical background from which the reader is invited to address the tensions concerning the question of intimacy as it is expressed in four works of fiction.
In parts 2 and 3 of his study, Wolfe awards his selected authors the role of “cultural diagnosticians,” and by focusing on novels such as Howards End (1910), Women in Love (1920), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and All Passions Spent (1931), he demonstrates through examples drawn by close textual analysis and statistical research how their fiction poses ways to think about “historically informed questions” such as “What are men and women like?” and “How should we conduct our intimate lives?” (19). Although, as Wolfe notes in his introduction, the four authors he chooses to focus on can, and have been, debated by critics as to the degree of their involvement with the Bloomsbury group proper, each of these chapters clearly outlines his reasoning with meticulous detail and, more importantly, introduces another facet to the formulation of aesthetic experimentation in the modern period by emphasizing the value of their work as it exists in tension within members of his selected group. For example, while Wolfe argues that texts such as Howards End and All Passion Spent approach the question of gender and sexuality from a somewhat Victorian essentialism, he suggests that these texts, when considered alongside the predominantly “anti-essentialist” techniques of Freud and Woolf, become “illustrative of the group’s ambivalence about the reinvention of intimacy” (192)—an ambivalence Wolfe eloquently identifies as one of Bloomsbury’s “defining aesthetic strengths” (2). Within the discussion of each particular text, as with Mrs. Dalloway in chapter 5, for example, Wolfe supplements his comparative approach with the careful outlining of a number of interconnected components found in intimate social life during the modern period (from redefinitions [End Page 861] of sexuality to the volatility of marriage and divorce rates to the anxieties informing the proper marital and social roles of men and women) and uses...