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Britain’s decline and fall (3)

February 2017 | by Roger Fay

Continued from Britain’s decline and fall (2)

Paul Johnson, a perceptive though rather waspish Catholic author and journalist, has pointed out there was something supine and indolent about the Bloomsbury set.

He draws attention to their relatively low work rate and their tendency to be critics rather than creators.Certainly, unlike the Clapham Sect, Bloomsbury was not noted for unselfish civic involvement.

Its ‘guru’, the eminent Cambridge philosophy professor G. E. Moore (1873-1958) (see also ET, January 2017), once wrote: ‘It is only for the sake of [the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects] … that anyone can be justified in performing any public or private duty’.


During Bloomsbury’s First World War, only Desmond MacCarthy and David Garnett came anywhere near the front line and that only because they were in medical work. The rest were either conscientious objectors or excused military service for medical reasons.

Before the Second World War Virginia Woolf had maintained that, since it was only men who were responsible for war, the ‘first duty’ of people like her ‘would be not to fight with arms . . . Next they would refuse . . . to make munitions or nurse the wounded’, because the prospect of being nursed when wounded gives men a perverse incentive to fight!

She commended as wise and courageous the Mayoress of Woolwich for a speech in December 1937, in which she said she ‘would not even so much as darn a sock to help in a war’. However, after the Woolf’s house was destroyed by Nazi bombing, Virginia did adjust her views somewhat!

In 1938 E. M. Forster (1879-1970) had written an essay entitled ‘What I believe’ — later incorporated into Two cheers for democracy (1951) — in which he declared that his one article of faith was in personal relationships.

‘I do not’, he said, ‘believe in Belief’. And then came this astounding statement, ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country’.

Cambridge Apostles

For most of its years there was a powerful catalyst propelling Bloomsbury along its path of alternative philosophy and lifestyle: many of the group’s core men were Cambridge University educated and, while there, had been approached to join a secret university society called the Apostles (still in existence today).

Of all the various factors that made Bloomsbury what it was, the Apostles was perhaps the most important; Virginia Woolf was able to speak of it as an ‘invisible presence’ in her life.

It had originally been founded in 1820 as a conversazione group named ‘Apostles’, because its founders were twelve in number. Though starting on a broadly Christian basis, by the end of the nineteenth century it had lost much of its Christianity and was, paradoxically, interested in psychical research.

Signed-up Apostles were mostly from Kings or Trinity Colleges. At any one time, they might be as few as half a dozen in number, but the society also networked with its prospective (‘embryos’) and former (‘angels’) members, which meant that numbers attending meetings or its annual dinner might be considerably larger than the actual membership.

Many of the Bloomsbury Group became Apostles: Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey (and his brother, James, the populariser of Sigmund Freud’s psychiatric theories), John Maynard Keynes (who was drawn in, in 1902, by Strachey and Leonard Woolf), G. E. Moore, Saxon Sydney-Turner, E. M. Forster, Desmond MacCarthy and Roger Fry; as well as friends of Bloomsbury G. M. Trevelyan, Bob Trevelyan and Bertrand Russell.

In their in-house debates the Apostles developed their philosophical theories. Such discussions would become central to Moore’s thinking, and his thinking would become central to Cambridge’s philosophy and Bloomsbury’s ethos.

Their debates were, reportedly, those of highly intelligent, but self-satisfied, undergraduates far removed from family influence. They aimed at candour laced with ironic humour. They always ended by voting on a question not directly related to the preceding discussion; and, in this vote, even allowed themselves to vote both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ if they wanted to.

It was rational and frivolous, very intellectual and often very silly. It was a ‘secret, exclusive, intimate, self-conscious, candid, humorous and rigorous discussion society’ (Rosenbaum). And what later became the big Bloomsbury question was forged here: ‘What exactly do you mean?’

Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was elected an Apostle in 1902. He had a penetrating, high-pitched voice and was both corrupt and corrupting in his homosexuality. When he joined the Apostles, its ethos changed from one of over-affectionate male friendship (most Cambridge colleges were still male only, as were the public schools of most of its undergraduates) to one of overt homosexuality. It also became militantly non-religious.

As a Bloomsbury member, Strachey’s most significant literary work was a collection of four mini-biographies entitled Eminent Victorians. In this he subtly undermined the reputations of such highly respected Victorians as Thomas Arnold, Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning and General Gordon. Like E. M. Forster, Strachey was a debunker of patriotism, imperialism and piety.     

Homosexuality was progressively legalised in Britain from 1967, but before then to engage in a homosexual act was a criminal offence, even if done privately. So, within the Apostles’ own already secret world, there was added a further layer of secrecy — the world of homosexuality with its own furtive signals and recognition codes.

Indeed, what better hunting ground could there be for a foreign agent looking for recruits willing to inhabit the secret, inner world of spies and willing to betray their own country?

Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) was already a homosexual when he joined the Apostles in 1927. And, at that time, the society’s main attraction for him, as an artist, lay in its links to Bloomsbury. While at school at Marlborough College, Blunt had already adopted Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s ideas on modern art, and through the Apostles would fully embrace Bloomsbury values.

He would later become eminent as professor of the history of art at London University, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, and surveyor of the Queen’s pictures. He was also an MI5 officer, but all the time, in fact, working secretly for the Soviet Union.

Cambridge Five

In 1979 Blunt was outed as one of the ‘Cambridge Five’, a group of spies, mainly double agents, who had been working for the Communists and who did immense damage to Britain’s security interests during the mid-twentieth century.

From 1933, Blunt had begun to take an interest in Marxism through the influence of his homosexual friend, Guy Burgess. Burgess had become an Apostle in 1932, and Blunt was asked to become a ‘talent spotter’ for the Soviet secret service, looking out for students willing to work clandestinely for Communism.

Blunt recruited two other Apostles for the KGB, Leo Long and Michael Straight. He also scouted out another Cambridge man (not an Apostle), John Cairncross. Cairncross would later spy for the Russians while a civil servant. It is believed he did immense damage to the West and was maybe the central figure in betraying secrets from the Manhattan Project, on the atomic bomb, to Stalin.

Britains’s decline and fall into what may yet prove to be irrecoverable decadence had found its ultimate expression in the betrayal to a hostile power of the whole British nation.

E. M. Forster’s words, already cited, had found striking fulfilment in Blunt, a man who had drunk deep from the same wellspring as Bloomsbury: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country’.

In March’s ET, we will draw some lessons for today’s evangelicals from this dark period of British social history.

Concluded in Britain’s decline and fall (4)

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

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