Amy Schwartz

By Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright. Oxford Univ. Press. 430 pp. $35

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2m 3sec

Generations of artists have escaped the pressure of conformity and the conventional pieties of their time by going abroad, even if only across the English Channel. The resulting encounters have often brought unexpected growth, cross-pollination, and a bountiful alchemy in the exile’s later work. E. M. Forster found freedom in Italy and India, Paul Bowles his true voice in Tangier. From Ernest Hemingway to James Baldwin, the sharpest observers of American life went to Paris (always Paris) to find the distance they needed.

Caws, a professor at the City University of New York, and Wright, an independent scholar, contend that such alchemy goes a long way toward explaining the high-modernist carryings-on of the English clique known as Bloomsbury. The members of the Bloomsbury group frequently visited France to relax, to paint, to visit friends. The Bloomsbury artists, particularly Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell, spent years in a succession of rented Provençal villas, painting fishing boats and still lifes and writing enthusiastic letters home about the quality of the light. A few of the writers—notably Dorothy Strachey Bussy, Lytton Strachey’s sister, who translated André Gide’s work into English—contributed significantly to the flow of French literary ideas to England.

But all this is very far from demonstrating that France exerted a formative influence on any of Bloomsbury’s truly major figures— Virginia Woolf, say—or that, as the book jacket claims, "without France there would have been no Bloomsbury." The text falls far short of such arguments, instead providing a compendium of Bloomsbury travel trivia, an album for aficionados who want to hear not what the artists and writers discussed at Pontigny but rather that Lytton Strachey when there "suffered terribly from the absence of his usual egg at breakfast." The authors report every detail of the Woolfs’ cross-Channel trips, including the fact that, while driving south on March 26, 1928, Virginia "had to replace her woolen jersey with a silk one because of the increasing heat."

This is not the stuff of which significant cross-cultural influence is made. Whatever the role of the French connection in the English avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s—and hints dropped here and there suggest that it was, indeed, more than trivial—it is not to be unearthed from this catalogue of Bloomsbury’s ultimately run-of-the-mill Francophilia.

—Amy Schwartz


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