- Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton
by Rosemary Ashton; pp. 380. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2012. $40.00 cloth.
Rosemary ashton is a consummate biographer, a fact demonstrated most notably in George Eliot: A Life (1996) and G.H. Lewes: An Unconventional Victorian (1991). She has already complemented these life studies with place studies, or bio-geographies, in Little Germany (1986) and 142 The Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London (2006). With Victorian Bloomsbury, Ashton moves slightly northwest of this last neighborhood; she maps a detailed, historical journey through nineteenth-century Bloomsbury in order to show that the early twentieth-century Bloomsbury Circle, avant-garde writers and artists who lived in squares and loved in triangles, were successors to earlier radicals, who introduced significant reforms, primarily in education, in this neighbourhood.
The physical development of Bloomsbury—from the boundaries on the north (Euston Road), west (Tottenham Court Road), south (New Oxford and Holborn Roads), and east (Gray’s Inn Road)—and the establishment of innovative institutions there coincided during the nineteenth century. Ashton claims that “its ‘character’ today as the centre of British intellectual and cultural life was attained in the nineteenth century, at the same time that the area was being developed physically” (309). While the British Museum and other earlier landmarks figure in this biography of place, the spine of this profile is Gower Street, the location of University College London (ucl), where Ashton is a distinguished member of the English faculty. This book grew out of her work as director of ucl’s Bloomsbury Project.
Gower Street populates many of the stories about the people and buildings that flourished in Bloomsbury from the early decades of the nineteenth century. The first chapter, “Godless on Gower Street,” unpacks the origins of what later became ucl, starting with the radical proposal, in 1825, for the founding of a metropolitan university shorn of the religious tests and teachings required by the Oxbridge system. Upon its opening in 1828, the University of London offered to students “of all faiths or none” (27) an expanded curriculum with “a range of subjects not taught before, including several branches of science and medicine, geography, architecture, modern history, English language and literature, and other modern languages and literatures including French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Hebrew” (27). [End Page 225] Also in Gower Street emerged another educational innovation, the Society of the Diffusion of Knowledge (sduk), which published sixpenny treatises from 1827. More broadly, Bloomsbury was the site of many initiatives to democratize education. Through his work at the national library, then a part of the British Museum, Italian exile Antonio Panizzi, who had taught Italian at the University of London in Gower Street prior to becoming a librarian, campaigned for equal access to books: “I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities … as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go” (143). Ashton’s biography of this London vicinity makes manifest how Panizzi’s principles at the British Museum echoed the radical experiments a few blocks to the west in Gower Street.
Other locales around Bloomsbury were landmarks for educational innovations. If Gower Street was a magnet for male educators and university students, nearby Bedford Square was the same for women; it was the site of Bedford College, a “Ladies’ College,” established in 1849 by Elisabeth Jesser Reid, that offered women a rigorous curriculum similar to that which was available to men. Reid practiced her progressive beliefs in other ways; a committed abolitionist, she hosted Harriet Beecher Stowe during her travels in England in 1853, following the British publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she provided “accommodation in her house in 1860 to Sarah Redmond, the first black woman to tour Britain to lecture on slavery and, it seems, also the first black woman to study at the Ladies’ College” (218). Ashton’s work on Reid’s pioneering life is one of many pocket biographies annexed to specific Bloomsbury streets and squares in her book.
While there were many reforms for women’s...