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 Aged barns have been opened up and glassed in, the new loos are gender neutral, and the tea shop has been replaced by a restaurant named the Threshing Barn—which sounds faintly double-entendre-like given the priapic appetites of some of those bohemians.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 orange mohair couch, invariably seen draped with a combination of the six fictional 20- and 30-somethings collectively known as Friends.
Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe: I don’t recall them debating the modernist novel or economic theory on its squishy expanse, but their tight-knit group wasn’t so dissimilar—at least not in terms of the nourishment they gained from their closeness. As the show’s theme tune insisted, they were “there” for each other.
We are fascinated by these replacement families, whose company we seek out in dramas high-brow and low, from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to How I Met Your Mother. Friends is a relic 25 years on—six people in a room and not one of them thumbing their phone?—but, remarkably, it is the most popular show on paid-for streaming services in the UK. Clans bound by something beyond blood simply compel.
As 30-somethings defer parenthood, and “real families” seem more fragile and fluid, friendship can offer a stability and support system, with fewer responsibilities and none of the accompanying resentment. The Journal of Social and Personal -Relationships last year reported that friends become increasingly important to health and happiness as we advance through life.
Until the Friends cast are—somehow, sometime—reunited, its story will always end: leaving their keys on the kitchen counter, they go their separate ways, albeit with promises to stay close. Being real, the Bloomsbury group didn’t have star salaries and ambitions to contend with, but they were up against history. Peak Charleston came in the 1920s. In the 1930s, death and politics depleted its vitality, and yet to the end, its remaining members (Frances Partridge, the last, died in 2004 aged 103) found fulfilment in writing about each other.
For their devotees, affiliations—signalled via a Central Perk coffee mug or a copy of The Bloomsbury Cookbook—can help filter not only best mates, but also future partners. Because if we’re lucky enough, friends and family turn out to be one and the same. Virginia and Vanessa, Ross and Monica—they were biologically linked and both groups were further strengthened by partnering up. Which brings us back to that sofa: a little like Charleston’s interiors, it has become a point of pilgrimage, featuring in the Warner Bros studio tour in California, where, yes, fans have even been known to get engaged on it.