The phrase may be a cliche, but it's popular for a reason. You can’t choose your family, but you can create a substitute based on deep friendshipsby Hephzibah Anderson / October 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Charleston Farmhouse, the Bloomsbury group’s bucolic frolicking ground, has lately endured a transformation. Gone is the feeling of stopping by for a snoop while its inhabitants are out yomping on the Sussex Downs. The cottage and gardens are now ringed by gleaming exhibition spaces and a ginormous car park. Aged barns have been opened up and glassed in, the new loos are gender neutral, and the tea shop has been replaced by a restaurant named the Threshing Barn—which sounds faintly double-entendre-like given the priapic appetites of some of those bohemians.
Their allure continues to defy the varying extent of their talents. Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes made lasting contributions in their fields. Lytton Strachey showed how barbed a biography can be and EM Forster still has his fans. But what of David Garnett’s forgotten, forgettable novels, Vanessa Bell’s drab daubs, and those turgid painted screens churned out by Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop?
Altogether more fascinating is the tangled, distinctly tabloidy web of connections that bound them. Their bible was philosopher GE Moore’s Principia Ethica, which argued that “the pleasures of human intercourse” are “by far the most valuable things, which we can know or imagine.” Whether you regard them as thrilling geniuses or cliquey dilettantes, theirs is the kind of intimate circle that it’s easy to idealise—imagine the combination of gossip and smart chat, extreme truthfulness and unstinting dependability.
You can’t choose your family, but you can create a substitute based on deep friendships. “Families of choice,” sociologists call them. The Woolf pack forged their own, a dynasty based not (or not in most cases) on shared biological connections but on jointly nurtured outlooks and interests.
And yet for all their chilly privilege and wearisome wife-swapping, its appeal has an innocence to it that leads right back to family, evoking the cosiness and safety of that institution as we first experience it, in youngest childhood, before parental divorce, before the door-slamming teenage phase, before we’re obliged to earn our own keep.
Meanwhile, sat in the Threshing Barn, surrounded by the set’s latter-day acolytes—all statement specs, chunky jewellery and zany linen prints—I can’t help thinking of a piece of furniture that those snoots would never have allowed through their door. Namely, television’s…