How deep-rooted is decadence in Britain today? What would it take for there to be a widespread turning to Christ? Some answers to these questions lie beneath two centuries of social history.
We start with the years 1790-1840. These were the decades of the ‘Forgotten Revival’, the high watermark of British evangelicalism that followed on from the eighteenth century Evangelical Awakening.
During this period 1.5 million people were gathered into the nonconformist churches of England and Wales (total population by 1840, 18 million). This ingathering also affected the established church and resulted in a significant minority of evangelicals in the Anglican clergy and a highly active evangelical Anglican laity.
Prominent among the Anglican laity was the Clapham Sect (1790-1830), a group remembered for its role in the abolition of the slave trade, and for many other evangelical and philanthropic works as well.
The Sect’s core members were William Wilberforce, Henry Venn, John Venn, Henry Thornton, Charles Grant, Edward Eliot, James Stephen, Zachary Macaulay, Hannah More, John Shore (Lord Teignmouth), Thomas Babington and Thomas Gisborne. These influential people networked with the governing classes to achieve their aims.
There was, however, another enduring legacy from this group, which can be illustrated by an event that took place a century later. In June 1955, in Christ’s College, Cambridge, a celebratory dinner took place. The occasion was to honour the celebrated Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, George Macaulay Trevelyan.
Trevelyan was presented with a collection of eight essays as a festschrift (called Studies in social history — a tribute to G. M. Trevelyan). The most important essay, by far, would turn out to be the last one. It was written by Professor Noel Annan of King’s College, Cambridge, and entitled ‘The intellectual aristocracy’.
Annan explained how, for 150 years, a stable intellectual circle inter-related by complicated ties of kinship and intellectual prominence, had dominated Britain’s literary and cultural life. Trevelyan was a distinguished product of this aristocracy.
Annan traced the web of marriage, descent and influence among Britain’s leading families. He started with Clapham and some of its immediate ancestors. As he unfolded the web in detail, he showed that Trevelyan was a great nephew of Thomas Babington Macaulay (later Lord Macaulay), and his father, in turn, Zachary Macaulay.
Clapham’s circle — William Wilberforce, the Thorntons, Babingtons, Gisbornes, Venns and James Stephen — became interlinked in marriage and kinship. This network later incorporated the Tennysons, Huxleys (Julian and Aldous), Vaughans, Butlers, Galtons, Thackerays and Arnolds (Dr Thomas, headmaster of Rugby, and poet Matthew). A Trevelyan and a Huxley married into the Darwins, Wedgwoods and Allens, and the distinguished economist, John Maynard Keynes was included.
We must reckon with the influence of an ‘intellectual aristocracy’, if we are to understand British decadence. For, by the early twentieth century, Clapham had given way to an intellectual aristocracy of a very different character, although with lines of direct genealogical descent from Clapham. Now, included is an inner circle known as the Bloomsbury Group.
Bloomsbury was partly descended from Clapham, but was morally the complete opposite. For example, Bloomsbury’s homosexual novelist, E. M. Forster, was a great-grandson of Clapham’s Henry Thornton; and his great aunt a goddaughter of Hannah More. Bloomsbury, like Clapham, was a self-motivated society, working for cultural change, but determined to undo the moral values Clapham stood for.
How could such a profound change come about? The second half of the nineteenth century brought a profound downgrade in evangelicalism. Contributory factors were the rise of ‘higher’ biblical criticism, Darwin’s On the origin of species (1859), the theologically liberal Essays and Reviews (1860), and the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. By the early twentieth century, theological heterodoxy was the new orthodoxy for Britain’s elite (see ‘Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith’, by David M. Young, ET, May 2016).
One example of what this was to mean is found in the novelist Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, who was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a mammoth work. Leslie’s grandfather had been Clapham’s James Stephen. But, although ordained in 1855, by 1862 Leslie had lost his faith. Kinship and scholarship still glued the intellectual aristocracy together, but the glue no longer included the Evangelical faith.
Who made up Bloomsbury’s coterie? Between 1912 and 1942, its central figures were Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) — a key Bloomsbury figure — with literary critic and editor Leonard Woolf, her husband. Then there was Thoby Stephen, her brother (who died young) and another brother, Adrian. Other family members included Virginia’s sister, Vanessa, who married art critic Clive Bell, and Clive himself.
Non-family core members included economists Gerald Shove and John Maynard Keynes, civil servant Saxon Sydney-Turner, literary critic Lytton Strachey and his brother James, art critic Roger Fry, E. M. Forster, artist Duncan Grant, novelist David Garnett and literary journalist Desmond MacCarthy. MacCarthy would become editor of the New Statesman and literary critic for the Sunday Times.
Most of the Bloomsbury men went to Cambridge University and then resided in various squares in Bloomsbury. Today, not far from Dr Williams Library in Gordon Square, there are blue plaques marking where the Woolfs and Lytton Strachey lived.
What values did Bloomsbury stand for? They were ‘cultural modernists’ given to artistic innovation and experiment. They were also pacifists, feminists and practitioners of ‘free love’.
In summer 2015, BBC TV fictionalised Bloomsbury’s story in an (unsurprisingly) explicit series entitled Life in squares. This title deliberately echoed an earlier witticism about the ‘Bloomsberries’ — as they were often called — being a ‘circle composed of [sexual] triangles who lived in squares’!
Duncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey were all homosexuals. Both Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (at least, according to Virginia) had been sexually abused by half-brother George Duckworth. Virginia had a brief romantic affair with Vita Sackville-West. Some of the homosexuals were also heterosexual.
Modern adulation of Bloomsbury, by and large, fails to confront its sordid decadence. But in 1985 New York professor Gertrude Himmelfarb went on record with a pungent analysis of its morals in the magazine Commentary. Her lengthy essay is entitled ‘From Clapham to Bloomsbury: a genealogy of morals’ (© to Commentary; available online. The writer of this article gladly acknowledges his debt to this seminal essay).
Here Prof. Himmelfarb describes the tangle that was Bloomsbury. ‘In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell … Four years later, with the tacit acquiescence of her husband, who had been having a series of affairs, including one with Molly MacCarthy, Desmond’s wife, Vanessa started an affair with Roger Fry.
‘The ménage a trois had lasted two years when Roger complained to Clive that Vanessa was transferring her affections to Duncan Grant, who had suddenly (and, unhappily for Vanessa, only temporarily) acquired a taste for heterosexuality. (Duncan had earlier been brother Adrian’s lover, as well as Strachey’s and Keynes’s).
‘The following year Vanessa gave birth to Angelica. Although everyone in the circle knew that Duncan was the father, the child was registered under the name of Bell and was brought up to think of Clive Bell as her father. (This was partly for the benefit of Clive’s parents, who helped support them).’
‘By the time Angelica herself was married to David (“Bunny”) Garnett, she knew the identity of her real father. What she did not then know was that her husband had been her father’s (Duncan’s) lover and had tried, for once unsuccessfully, to have an affair with her mother as well — this about the time when she was conceived.
‘Out of pique and jealousy, Garnett had boasted, on the day of her birth, that he would marry her twenty years hence. And so he did, his timetable off by two years because he had to wait for the death of his wife. He had started his affair with Angelica, however, some two years earlier, and he even managed to make his first sexual overtures to her in a car, with Duncan in the back seat and in sight of his invalid wife who sat watching for their arrival from her window.’
Himmelfarb continues: ‘The “higher sodomy” [Bloomsbury’s name for homosexuality], seemed to them to be not only a higher form of sexuality but a higher form of morality. In sex as in art they prided themselves on being autonomous and self-contained, free to experiment and express themselves without inhibition or guilt.
‘The exalted sense of autonomy and liberty, the cultivation of consciousness and feeling, the elevation of the self and the denigration of society, the emphasis upon immediate gratification, all contributed to the narcissism and egoism, the perversity and promiscuity…’
Bloomsbury was enormously influential in the literary and artistic worlds and a key driver in modernism, but it was also snobbish, elitist and supercilious. So how did it manage to corrupt the morals of a whole nation? This will be described in January 2017’s ET.
To be continued
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