Alan Bennett on the Bloomsbury set

I expect there are book clubs in Godmanchester, where we now live. Every town has book clubs. And their members struggle to read what they should read before the group meets. And by the time the canapés have been munched, and the local gossip digested, there is often little time left to discuss the book.  

Along with four friends, we’re doing something different. We’ve started a Read Out Loud group. Every month or so we meet and regale each other with two or three short excerpts each from our favourite writings. We’ve only done it once so far, and it was magical. And since some of the writing is far too good not to be shared with a wider world, who may not have come across it, from time to time this blog will consist of one of our chosen excerpts. To get the ball rolling, here is Alan Bennett on the Bloomsbury set, from his first play, Forty Years On.

“In the twenties and subsequent thirties the pinnacle of every young man’s literary ambition was to be invited to one of Virginia Woolf’s Sunday morning soirées. These were invariably held at her home, No. 52 Tavistock Square, where I was a frequent visitor for I was distantly related to the Woolf family through some Alsatian cousins.

“The door of No. 52 was invariably opened by the maid, George, a friend of Lytton Strachey’s who would show one upstairs. I can see that room now, full of talk and smoke and people. And what extraordinary people they were. Eliot was there, Auden, Spender and Isherwood, the old faithfuls and young hopefuls, but always there was someone one never quite expected to see. I saw A E Housman there once, lured down from Cambridge by Dadie Rylands and the prospect of All-In Wrestling at Finsbury Park.

“There by the window talking to Leonard and Virginia were the Berlins, Irving and Isaiah. And then there was Virginia herself elegant and quizzical, those great nostrils quivering and the sunlight playing over her long pale face. She never used cosmetics, except to powder her nose. But then she had her father’s nose.

“She was talking of her contemporaries, how she had spoken last week with Hemingway and how Ernest had said, When I reach for my gun, I hear the word culture. How easy it seemed for them, she thought and how hard it was for her. For she must always be asking, What is Life like. Life is like … Life is just … a bowl of cherries … was that it? No, for someone else had said that, and besides it was false to the whole nature of reality. Some of her books disappointed, vitiated by her intense feminism. Virginia was never a suffragette, for she subscribed to the view that the pen was mightier than the sword: and I once saw Evelyn Waugh reel under a savage blow from her Parker 51.

“Of all the honours that fell upon Virginia’s head, none, I think, pleased her more than the Evening Standard Award for the Tallest Woman Writer of 1927, an award she took by a neck from Elizabeth Bowen. And rightly, I think, for she was in a very real sense the tallest writer I have ever known. Which is not to say that her stories were tall. They were not. They were short. But she did stand head and shoulders above her contemporaries, and sometimes of course, much more so. Dylan Thomas for instance, a man of great literary stature, only came up to her waist. And sometimes not even to there.

“If I think of Virginia now it is as she was when I last saw her in the spring of 1938 outside the changing rooms in the London Library. There she stood, all flushed and hot after a hard day’s reading. Impulsively perhaps I went up to her and seized her hand. ‘It’s Mrs Woolf, isn’t it?’ ‘Is it?’ she said and looked at me out of those large lympid eyes. ‘Is it? I often wonder,’ and she wandered away.”

A very happy Christmas to you all.