Too much reverence can estrange us from the object of our worship. I, for one, love to be brought up close – to touch, to taste, if possible to smell the lives of people from the past. I want to know how they coped. I want to compare my life with theirs. I want to feel I could have known them. This appetite for identification with history is important. A sense of contact brings with it a sympathy which helps us to understand our own links with the past.(Isn’t that a wonderful quote? I love books that allow me to feel that kind of connection with the past. And this is certainly one of them.) Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 is a vivid and engaging portrayal of Bohemian life in the early twentieth-century. If you’re wondering what exactly this consists of, I can tell you that the social and cultural atmosphere this book captures is somewhat similar to that of the eccentric artistic families at the heart of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, or of Cassandra Mortmain’s family in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
The Bohemian artists Virginia Nicholson writes about include Vanessa Bell (who happens to be grandmother, as she’s the daughter of Quentin Bell), Rupert Brooke, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford or Dylan Thomas. But she also includes several names you might not be familiar with – what defines whether or not someone is classified as a “Bohemian artist” for the purposes of this book isn’t necessarily the work they went on to produce, but rather the fact that they identified as artists. These were people who valued idealism, freedom and creativity above anything else, and who shunned the shackles of bourgeois convention in the name of artistic authenticity – sometimes with rewarding results, and other times not so much.
The bohemians were more often than not people who lived in extreme poverty, and Nicholson’s portrayal of their struggles is far from romanticised. But as much as they struggled, they also conquered social liberties by simply disregarding norms nobody had dared to disregard before. The individual freedoms they claimed for themselves include the freedom to wear whatever they pleased; to associate with people of whichever social background, class, or ethnicity; to cook their meals and organise their houses according to their own preferences rather than to tradition; to choose freely who to marry (or who not to marry); to decide how to educate their children; in sum, to conduct their lives however they wanted. The thesis at the centre of Among the Bohemians is that if we live in a more tolerant society today, it’s partially thanks to them – they eroded the limitations that governed Victorian and Edwardian “respectable” behaviour by simply not caring who they shocked.
One of the things that makes Among the Bohemians so enjoyable is the fact that Virginia Nicholson’s tone is humorous, sympathetic, and deeply respectful. She’s not after gratuitous salacious details, and she’s certainly not out to shock her readers with how very scandalous these people were. I kept mentally comparing this book to the atrocious The Monsters by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. This is a group biography of Mary Shelley’s Romantic circle, another group of literary people who challenged the conventions of their time, and as the title itself indicates, it’s written in a gossipy, judgemental and morally righteous tone that completely sucks the life out of the book and puts one in mind of Respectable People sitting at their porch in a small town and tut-tutting everyone who walks past. As you can surely tell, my horrible experience with The Monsters made me appreciate Nicholson’s neutrality even more.
But saying that Virginia Nicholson refrains from judging these artists’ lifestyle choices is not the same as saying that she refrains from denouncing injustices of any kind. This is especially true when it comes to gender dynamics: she doesn’t hesitate to point out that for all their progressive thinking, many of these artists still expected their wives to clean up after them. There’s a particularly moving section on all the promising women artists that never were, quite simply because they didn’t have “rooms of their own”. They were drowned in domestic drudgery and never went on to produce the works they thought their unconventional lifestyles would allow them to produce. Nicholson also presents a fair assessment of the effects, positive and negative, that growing up in a bohemian household had on children – for which her own father’s experiences were no doubt invaluable.
Like in the equally wonderful Singled Out, Nicholson often makes use of pre-WW2 literature (with special emphasis in the interwar years) to illustrate her point. The inevitable result of this were many additions to my wishlist. Here are some of the titles I’m now curious to read:
- Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
- Trilby by George du Maurier
- Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
- Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells
- The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
- All Experience by Ethel Mannin
- Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
- A Little Learning by Evelyn Waugh
- Love in Bloomsbury: Memories by Frances Partridge
- Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington
- The Tamarisk Tree by Dora Russell
Virginia Nicholson is an intelligent, passionate and insightful writer, and I can only hope she’ll produce many more works of social history. If you’re at all interested in artists’ lives, in the early twentieth-century, in the Bloomsbury Group, or in interwar England, then this book is for you.
For the acquisition of clothes could be a daunting ordeal, particularly for women. Ready-to-wear clothes were the exception (…). Putting all these clothes on and taking them off again dominated one’s day. Hours were consumed by tying tapes, looping buttons, pinning pins, brushing mud off yards of hemline, adding false bits to one’s hair, one’s bosom and one’s bottom, tying ties, shaving and coiffing, gloving and hatting, ribboning and lacing, starching, frilling and goffering… There were better ways to lead one’s life, surely, and, as in so many aspects of everyday life, it was artists who broke through the stranglehold of middle- and upper-class conventions.Reviewed at:
As sex definitions began to break down, Bohemia gave the all-clear to cross dressing. There were women with short hair, men with long; women wearing trousers, men in robes or tunics, and pierced ears for both sexes. Earrings for men were to become as symbolic of the libertine as of the creative spirit. A man wearing earrings was a gypsy, a pirate, a predator. Here again Augustus John was the embodiment of the Great Bohemian. You could pick on any aspect of his appearance and it would reinforce his pre-eminence in the field.
During the First World War, when so many men faced the prospect of being blown up or gassed or having their limbs amputated, caution and social ambition seemed more pointless than ever. Indeed it seemed like a good idea to dance while one could dance. As Zeppelins appeared over London, spectacular in the dazzling searchlights, Bohemia became wilder and gayer with a kind of man abandon. For Betty May, ‘…it sometimes seemed as if everyone one had ever known would be killed – one went on dancing and rioting in an effort to forget how dreadful it all was.’
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