IN HIS 1974 BIOGRAPHY of his aunt, Quentin Bell retells an anecdote that his mother Vanessa (née Stephen) Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, liked to tell to strangers: “The 20th century began at our Hyde Park home sitting room on a Spring day in 1904 when Lytton Strachey walked in and spotted a stain on my skirt. Semen? he asked.” Allegedly everyone present was sent into gales of laughter.
As this wisecrack reminds us, men were central to the Bloomsbury group, as Vanessa and Virginia and Lytton’s circle came to be known, a fact that Gillian Gill mentions often enough, even though the group is now better known for Virginia and Vanessa’s membership. The truth is, the men came together only because of the sisters’ older brother, Thoby Stephen, who wowed Cambridge with his beauty, strength, size (6’5”), athletic ability, and poise. These included the controversial bestselling author Lytton Strachey, economist of the century John Maynard Keyes, acclaimed novelist E. M. Forster, and the very model of a British modernist painter, Duncan Grant—all of them gay.
These are just a few takeaways from Gill’s marvelous, rich “family biography” of the Stephen girls and those around them. One surprise is a footnote about how William Thackeray’s lovers at Cambridge, two of whom lived fairly open gay lives in mid-Victorian England, agreed to burn his love letters from their university days once he became famous for Vanity Fair. Another is that Thackeray’s two daughters, one of whom became Leslie Stephen’s first wife, sold their father’s works to a publisher for £10,000 after his death—equivalent to $1.5 million today—and that all of the parties involved were satisfied they got a good deal. One daughter lived into her eighties and still left substantial sums to her nieces and nephews, including to Virginia, who used her inheritance to fund Hogarth Press, which she and her husband Leonard founded. These side facts may give a hint to how thorough and fact-filled Gill’s book is.
But if men play such a prominent role in this book, why has Gillian Gill given it the title that she has?
Felice Picano’s latest fiction is Justify My Sins: A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts (Beautiful Dreamer Press).