Why the Bloomsbury Group weren’t all about bedhopping and pretension

As Life in Squares comes to BBC1, Virginia Woolf’s great-niece insists there’s more to this cerebral set of friends than love triangles...

This story comes with a health warning. Not from us, but from Virginia Nicholson who, when approached by a writer and a producer wanting to make a TV drama about the Bloomsbury Group, invited them for tea and issued a proclamation. The world, she reminded them, is divided into those who love and those who hate that legendary coterie of writers and artists; any treatment of the subject will be certain to tread on the toes of one lot or the other, and quite possibly both.

Nicholson knows what she is talking about, and the clue to her expertise is in her first name, which she shares with her late great-aunt, Virginia Woolf. Although she never met her, she recalls her as a “lurking, ghostly” presence in her childhood, maintained in a vivid if virtual life by the recollections of her parents. 

Nicholson’s father was the art historian Quentin Bell, who was not only Woolf ’s nephew but also her biographer; his wife Anne Olivier, meanwhile, was the editor of five volumes of the author’s diaries. “I can remember them talking about her so much that I did once ask them to shut up,” says Nicholson. “We agreed from then on that she would not be referred to as Virginia, which could be confusing, but as Mrs Woolf.”

After the tea and the warning, she also gave the project her blessing, satisfied that it would avoid the path of salaciousness. Not that the three 60-minute episodes of Life in Squares can be accused of prissiness. Centred on the fraught and often agonised relationship between the sisters Virginia Woolf (Lydia Leonard) and Vanessa Bell (Phoebe Fox), it explores the group’s desire to live free from social conventions, which they found both personally stifling and creatively stunting.

 

While later generations may have lampooned them as precious, privileged and tediously self-obsessed, the picture that emerges from Bafta-winning writer Amanda Coe’s script is one of stark emotional realism, albeit peopled by questing spirits whose talent and, yes, background, did disbar them from normality. As the series’ executive producer Lucy Bedford says, the drama is about “the families we try to escape, the ones we end up creating and the different kinds of damage that love can do”.

Nicholson (whose husband William is the highly acclaimed writer of Shadowlands, about the critic and theologian CS Lewis) never met her namesake, and she was just six when her grandmother Vanessa Bell died in 1961. She remembers going to see Bell in Charleston, the Sussex country house that was central to the Bloomsbury set and which has since become something of a shrine to their work, style and thought. It was also one of the main locations for the making of Life in Squares. She describes Bell as a “wonderful and imaginative” woman who loved telling stories, and who painted her. She had lost a son in the Spanish Civil War and her grandchildren meant a great deal to her. 

Nicholson also recollects a sense of unfulfilment about her grandmother, and wonders about the effect on her of her great love Duncan Grant’s homosexuality. This is a question that hangs in the air of Life in Squares, as it anatomises the various romantic triangles through which its protagonists love, lose and labour. 

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