Bloomsbury 1904: ‘a dreary patch of second-rate boarding-houses’

'The Bohemian in Bloomsbury'. Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art. Sep 17, 1904.

‘The Bohemian in Bloomsbury’. Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art. Sep 17, 1904.

When Virginia Stephen (better known by her married name, Woolf) moved into Bloomsbury, in 1904, at the very beginning of her writing career, the area had a long and rich history in cultural representation, though one characterised  by denigration more than celebration. As the passage from a contemporaneously published piece bucking that trend suggests, despite (or rather, because of) its ‘banality’, ‘vulgarity’ and ‘sordidness’, generations of writers had trodden ‘upon the shoulders’ of the ‘unfortunate region’, gaining inspiration from its peculiar qualities – even to the extent that the ‘more sensitive of its inhabitants’ had taken to disavowing the tainted name in their address entirely. Nowadays, the name of Bloomsbury is more likely to invoke different connotations within the popular imagination – of wealthy intellectuals living in each others pockets; of the Bells, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, and the Woolfs themselves, the very antitheses of banality and vulgarity, we might think (if not, for the prudish, sordidness!) But the Bloomsbury that attracted this famous coterie at the beginning of the twentieth century was precisely that described in the passage above, and the ‘dreary patch of second-rate boarding houses’ described by the Saturday Review is, more or less, the same one Woolf herself constructed in Mrs Dalloway (1925), when she housed Septimus Warren Smith in cheap temporary accommodation there. Far from a site of transcendence from the tedious mess of material reality, Bloomsbury was in 1904 (as it was for much of the nineteenth century) a space associated with the real, at its most ‘dreary’ or, indeed, embarrassing.  

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