In summer 2015, BBC TV fictionalised part of the Bloomsbury Group’s history in a drama series entitled ‘Life in squares’. The title was an echo of an early witticism about the group being a ‘circle composed of [sexual] triangles who lived in squares’.
There were certainly other ‘circles with triangles’ in the early twentieth century, some of them in palaces. There was the womanising and reputedly bisexual Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902–1942), whose friends included Noel Coward; and there was the recklessly womanising Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Even Louis Mountbatten, and his wife Edwina especially, though widely respected for their work, engaged in mutually tolerated adulteries (see, for example, Daughter of Empire, Pamela Hicks).
Then there were the 1920s London socialites — the ‘bright young things’ — with such names as Cecil Beaton, Diana and Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Rex Whistler, and out-and-out lesbian Sylvia Townsend Warner.
But none of these circles had the same impact as Bloomsbury, for there fell into Bloomsbury’s lap access to the most effective way then known of reaching a population, namely, radio air waves.
Bloomsbury grasped this opportunity with both hands in spite of its disdainful attitude to the masses.
Of the latter, Prof. Himmelfarb says of Virginia Woolf that her ‘letters and diaries make especially painful reading. Clever, perceptive, often scintillating, they are also unremittingly snobbish (her contempt for the middle classes was matched only by her disgust with the working classes), anti-Semitic, malicious, and even cruel (toward servants, most notably)’ (for more of Himmelfarb’s analysis, see ET, November 2016). However, the excitement and potential afforded by this medium overcame all reservations.
In his now scarce book, Radio modernism — literature, ethics and the BBC, 1922-1938 (Routledge), Todd Avery describes extensive opportunities given to the Bloomsbury Group for radio broadcasting on the BBC during the 1920s and 1930s.
He describes how Desmond MacCarthy became the BBC’s resident literary critic in the mid-1920s and how his talks on ‘The art of reading’ constituted a Bloomsbury manifesto of ethics and aesthetics. In this he affirmed the only thing that mattered in a book was not the message a book conveyed, but the resultant sense of pleasure it gave.
Other Bloomsbury figures who broadcasted included E. M. Forster, the Woolfs, Clive Bell and John Maynard Keynes. E. M. Forster — writer of such novels as A room with a view and A passage to India — was a secretive (homosexuality was illegal) but determined homosexual, who believed censorship on any grounds, including obscenity, was an immoral abuse of editorial power. Bloomsbury despised the BBC of John Reith.
The Scotsman John Reith (1889-1971), who became the first Director General of the BBC in 1927, was the son of a United Free Church minister and a man of (somewhat unorthodox) Christian conviction.
In 1922, after hearing a sermon that powerfully affected him, he wrote in his diary: ‘I am trying to keep in close touch with Christ in all I do and I pray he may keep close to me. I have a great work to do’.
For Reith, radio was a medium by which Britain could be preserved from secularism and anarchy, and ‘reflect the spirit of common-sense Christian ethics which we believe to be a necessary component of citizenship and culture’. He attempted to instil those values in the BBC’s output, but proved no match for Bloomsbury.
Leonard Woolf derided the ‘intellectual twilight, which is characteristic of BBC talks’ and E. M. Forster caricatured the BBC’s religious stance as: ‘You can’t understand life or live properly without the help of God, you can’t believe in God unless you believe in Christ, you will find what Christ taught and was in the Bible, you can’t read the Bible properly without the help of God, but you can’t believe in God unless you believe in Christ, you will find what — so spins the 24 hour record on the BBC’.
Bloomsbury, by lofty words, seemingly high cultural ideals and well placed friends, not to mention some genuine artistic and literary ability, was able to drip-feed its philosophy into an undiscerning British population. During the 1930s radio broadcasts had built up a massive audience, reaching many millions of homes, and Bloomsbury notables could be listened to in the comforting intimacy of ‘the fireside’ — a concept Bloomsbury loved to exploit.
George Edward Moore
What Bloomsbury stood for sounded wonderful to many. They were against war (Reith also was reluctant about fighting Germany). They were committed to international utopianism, the ethical value of conversation and the ‘capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries’, as Virginia Woolf put it.
She once posed the question, ‘How does one come by one’s morality?’ and answered it herself by saying, ‘Surely by reading the poets’. Her answer reveals all: aesthetics rather than ethics is to be the guide; the sense of pleasure evoked by art, rather than a standard like the Bible, the final arbiter of what is right or wrong.
Bloomsbury’s ‘Bible’, in fact, was a book written by influential philosopher George Edward Moore (1873-1958). It was called Principia Ethica and published in 1903 when Moore was nearly 30 years old.
Moore held the University of Cambridge chair of Mental Philosophy and Logic from 1925 to 1939, and was editor of Mind from 1921 until 1944. He dominated British philosophy for decades. Iain H. Murray, in his book The undercover revolution — how fiction changed Britain (Banner of Truth), recalls that Principia Ethica was a textbook at Durham University where he was a student in the early 1950s.
Moore’s parents were Baptists. Aged 11-12, he professed faith in Christ at a CSSM mission. He wrote later of this commitment, ‘If all that was said in the New Testament was true, and if Jesus was really the Son of God and was still alive (things which, at the time, I did not think of questioning), then we ought far more often to be thinking of Him, and ought to love Him far more intensely than most people who professed to be Christians (including my own parents) seemed to me to do’.
Moore’s ‘Christianity’ only lasted two years before he capitulated to his older brother Tom’s scepticism. Thereafter, he became an agnostic, determined never to hold beliefs he was not absolutely convinced of.
By all accounts, as an academic, Moore was a gripping speaker, whether in discussion or lecturing. Lytton Strachey, describes Moore speaking at the Aristotelian Society in London in 1913: ‘The excitement came with Moore … and the intellectual display [was] terrific … The simplicity of genius! But the way it came out — like some half-stifled geyser, throbbing and convulsed, and then bursting into a towering gush’.
Ethics without God
But what exactly what he was teaching? His philosophy is not easy to grasp, but the main point is that, throughout his academic life, he was committed to developing a system of ethics that was completely independent of a higher revelation like the Bible and yet still delivered an upright, responsible lifestyle. In other words, Moore wanted ethics without God.
In this aim, Moore and Virginia Woolf’s agnostic father, Leslie Stephen, would have agreed with each other. Stephen once said, ‘I believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality etc. etc. [sic.]. I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible’.
To be fair, as individuals both Leslie Stephen and George Moore were decent enough people, though Moore did have an uncertain temper; and Moore never encouraged the amoral lengths to which Bloomsbury took his philosophy, but he did not object too forcefully, either!
Bloomsbury seized on Moore’s argument that the fundamental truth of moral philosophy involved ‘states of consciousness’ (note, not ‘conscience’), and that the highest states of consciousness were ‘the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects’. Bloomsbury was committed to ‘personal affections’ and ‘aesthetic enjoyments, but it is tragic to think what the group did for the phrase ‘human intercourse’.
John Maynard Keynes wrote of Principia Ethica: ‘It was exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of a renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth, we were the forerunners of a new dispensation, we were not afraid of anything’.
‘We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognised no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case’.
This was what was being drip-fed into British culture, generations back, at a time when the population had largely turned its back on evangelical Christianity and was thirsting for other insights. As we have discovered to our cost, such a philosophy would one day result in a horrifying harvest.
Continued in Britain’s decline and fall (3)
Roger Fay is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon