Jun 14, 2010

Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson

Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson

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
Have you read any of them? What did you think?

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.

Interesting bits:
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.

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.’
Reviewed at:
Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Singled Out came up in my Amazon recommendations after I added Singled Out to my wishlist, so it promptly joined it. Reading Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers and the chapter on Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant in Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe, I was fascinated by their bohemian lifestyle.

    Whilst reading V&V I was reminded of The Children's Book and possibly admired (or at least respected) it more realising that Byatt created an authentic bohemian family.

  2. Claire: My heart rejoices to hear you say something somewhat positive about The Children's Book ;) I really want to get my hands on Uncommon Arrangements! You know, it's actually your fault that I found Nicholson - I think that the first time you mentioned that book on your blog I looked it up, and as a result Amazon suggested all these other awesome books to me. Thank you!

  3. Hee, it was only *slightly* positive so don't get carried away! I'm delighted to have been responsible for the Nicholson discovery. At the beginning of the previous comment I meant to write Among the Bohemians is now on wishlist along with Singled Out.

    I must read the remainder of Uncommon Arrangements - especially the Elizabeth Von Arnim chapter!

  4. This is on my TBR list as well as Nicholson's other book, Singled Out. I'm curious to see how the Bohemians in question come off in the book - is it more that they did what they wanted and didn't worry about the rest of the world, or more that they enjoyed being Shocking and Countercultural?

  5. I loved Singled Out which I read a few years ago, it really opened my eyes to the fears and hopes of women after WWI and how life would never be the same again for them. I actually started reading Among the Bohemians a few years ago but got side-tracked even though I was really enjoying it. Must get back to it.

  6. I adore the cover! Dance, be free.

  7. I don't know much about the Bohemians. but this book sounds like it really would respectfully correct all that. It does indeed sound like a great book, and I like the fact that it is written with such class. I think I will be staying away from The Monsters though!!

  8. Um, I saw "The Children's Book" and "I Capture the Castle" in the same sentence, and my brain completely exploded. LOL

  9. Another book I'll have to find a way to get my hands on.

  10. Once again, you prove yourself as educator to the readers! Thanks, Nymeth! This is something I need to read & will most likely enjoy & never would have known had it not been for you. :-)

  11. Claire: I'll take whatever positiveness I can get ;) And you do need to finish Uncommon Arrangements - and then tell us all about it!

    Jenny: I think they were rather a mixed bag. Some didn't care, but others did seem like they enjoyed being scandalous.

    Sakura: Yes you must! I hope she writes a new book asap.

    Care: Isn't it wonderful?

    Zibilee: Yeah, I wouldn't recommend The Monsters :P It's a shame, because the authors have another book about 19th century Paris that sounds so good. But I worry that the tone will be the same.

    Eva: lol :) I think you'd enjoy Nicholson.

    Trisha: I hope you enjoy it!

    Elisabeth: I'm glad to have brought it to your attention!

  12. Lovely review, Ana! This topic is close to my heart and I have to go and get Nicholson's book now!

    I liked your comment 'many of these artists still expected their wives to clean up after them.' It is a sad reflection even among bohemians at that time - that their community was not equal in some ways. I also liked the passage on the time women spent on wearing clothes those days. It must have been really tough - following all those unwritten social rules. I am glad we live in better times, with respect to this aspect.

    I haven't read Byatt's 'The Children's Book' (Byatt looks too severe a personality to me, after I heard friends tell me about her talks - but I have to be fair to her and try her books sometime) and Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle' (some of my friends have raved about it and said that it is their alltime favourite book). I have to read these two books soon.

    I have read Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage'. It is one of my alltime favourite books, and when I read it I used to shut myself in my room and read it during the whole weekend. One of my friends thought that I was mad, but then he tried reading the book himself and the bug bit him too :) If you do get to read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  13. Nymeth you have to add Of Human Bondage to your list. It's so wonderful. I actually even saw the Bette Davis movie version too and it was quite good as well.

    Anyway, this book sounds great. I really admire artists who make sacrifices for their art and aren't willing to sell out.

  14. This sounds like it was an interesting book! I've been wanting to read The Children's Book for awhile now, I really must get around to it. I haven't read any of the titles on your list, but I absolutely loved Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, though I think it's supposed to be pretty different to his other books.

  15. In one of my recent "let me browse the library catalog online" moments, I came across this book and was very intrigued! I think it was when I was looking into the mass observation project and typed in "England Women WWII" or something like that. I don't know if I completely agree with Bohemian ideas, but I think those people had lots of fun :-)

  16. Sounds interesting! I'm definitely intrigued :)

  17. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. I haven't read any of the books you listed but I do want to read On Human Bondage as well as the Evelyn Waugh books.

  18. Aside from things like expecting their wives to clean up after them, it sounds like we could use more bohemians these days! Sounds like a great books too. And this reminded me how much I still need to read The Children's Book!!!!

  19. I've been meaning to read this book since Hannah reviewed it, but haven't had the time yet. If only there was the time to read all the books we wanted to! Maybe we could start our own Bohemian society where we read all day.

  20. This is a great article, and I've added Among Bohemians to my wish list. I love finding out about books. I too have to finish Uncommon Arrangements.

  21. Oh, you have done it again! Added a book to the ever-growing list (this time, the Obsessed with Bloomsbury list)--will have to read this right next to Angelica Garnett's memoir (that would be Nicholson's aunt, great-aunt?) if I ever find that. Nymeth, do I bless you or curse you? Wonderful review.

  22. Waugh and Maugham are wonderful writers. Have added this to my wish list. You're not helping curbing the book buying!!! HaHa

  23. Vishy: I'll tell you upfront that I adore Byatt and am therefore biased, but I hope you do read her! I know what you mean about the austerity but her writing just really speaks to me. And oh, you must read I Capture the Castle! It's one of the most delightful books I have ever read :D And I promise I'll read the Maugham before too long. I had been meaning to try him anyway.

    Iliana: Done! How can I resist after all these endorsements?

    Dominique: I adored The Children's Book, but many people seem to hate it. I look forward to seeing in which camp you'll fall!

    Aarti: Personally I need a more structured life than the ones they led, but I admire them for sticking to what they believed was right. And yes, they did seem to have had fun :)

    Amy: I'm glad to hear it!

    Lola: I've been meaning to read both Maugham and Waugh for so long... it's good to have an idea of where to start.

    Chris: I think they're still around - just under different names.

    Brownpaperbaggirl: Glad you think so too!

    Heidenkind: *daydreams*

    amcatoir: I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

    ds: I bet I want all the books on that Obsessed with Bloomsbury list too :P I feel that I'm only getting started, what with my newfound love of Woolf.

    Violet: Sorry :P I will read Waugh and Maugham. Probably after September, but I will.

  24. I know next to nothing about the Bohemians so I'm sure I would enjoy this one. You are reminding me that I really want to reread Of Human Bondage!

  25. Kathleen: I can't believe I'd never even thought of reading Of Human Bondage before this book. Ah well, never too late, right?

  26. Sounds like a great book. I admire the bohemians and sometimes even wished I lived like them. To be so creative and FREE, we modern day emancipated people owe a lot to them.

    I haven't one single book from that list! Guess that means I etter get cracking!

  27. I've read both Trilby and Goodbye to All That. I enjoyed Trilby immensely, both for George du Maurier's good humored authorial asides and as a period piece. Goodbye To All That is probably on my top ten list. Of any book I've read. Ever.

  28. This book sounds fascinating. Great review. And I love the quote at the beginning. It really reeled me in.


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