Authored By: Peter Stansky
Edited By: Alice Staveley, Anna Mukamal
Julian Bell (1908-1937) was the elder son of Vanessa and Clive Bell and the nephew of Virginia Woolf. As such he literally grew up at the very heart of Bloomsbury. He was part of the second generation, rather than the original nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry and E.M. Forster. His mother was devoted to him and the closest emotional relationship of his life was with her. His father rather resented the attention Vanessa lavished on him and it launched him into his ill-considered flirtation with Virginia. From then on, he and Vanessa were apart most of the time, he with mistresses and she, after an intense affair with Roger Fry, in a long-term relationship with the homosexual Duncan Grant, who was the father of her third child, Angelica. Julian had a wonderful childhood, the best part being at his mother’s and Duncan’s country home, Charleston, with Virginia and Leonard nearby in Monk’s House in Rodmell, both in the lovely Sussex countryside. He attended the Quaker boarding school, Leighton Park, and then went up to the Bloomsbury College, not his father’s Trinity, but King’s in Cambridge.
Julian had a difficult relationship with Bloomsbury. He loved its members and was happy with the stimulation and advantages knowing them provided. Yet he also wanted to be his own person, which he did by becoming a not particularly modern poet. Some of the members of Bloomsbury had written an occasional poem and T.S. Eliot was a good friend of the group, but it did not have a writer who was primarily a poet. He blossomed quite young, writing primarily but not exclusively about nature, but he was also very fond of the more didactic and witty verse of the 18th century. He was at the center of the intense poetry scene in Cambridge, editing The Venture, and being friends with his fellow poets, primarily John Lehmann but also to a far lesser degree William Empson, closely involved with the more modernist Cambridge periodical, Experiment. His aunt and uncle had founded the Hogarth Press in 1917 and published in 1929 and 1930 two short collections, Cambridge Poetry, that included many Cambridge poets, few of whom are remembered today. But in terms of the history of the Hogarth Press and modern literature a crucial event was that John Lehmann, because of his close friendship with Julian, came to work at the Hogarth Press in 1931. He was very important in making it a major publisher of the iconic writers of the 1930s. Most notable was New Signatures in 1932, edited by Michael Roberts and including poems not only by Julian but also a roll call of eminence: W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and William Empson, constituting an announcement that the 1930s had arrived. It created something of a sensation. Hence, because of Julian and John Lehmann, the Hogarth Press played a central role in the most advanced writing of the decade, despite Virginia’s somewhat ambiguous feelings about their work, as expressed in her Hogarth Press pamphlet A Letter to a Young Poet, published that same year. Virginia herself was a central figure for modernist writings but in quite a different way.
Julian had published his first book of poetry, Winter Movement, while still at Cambridge, but perhaps as a sign of independence or perhaps because the Woolfs were not that enthusiastic about his poems not with the Hogarth Press but with Chatto & Windus. He did publish his second book of poetry, Work for the Winter and other poems, with Hogarth in 1936. At the time of its publication, he was teaching English literature at Wuhan University in China. He would return to Europe to participate in the Spanish Civil War as an ambulance driver; he was tragically killed on July 18, 1937. His last Hogarth book in 1938 was his memorial volume, edited by his brother Quentin, containing some of his letters from China, some of his poems and essays, and memoirs of him. Through his family, his circle, and his literary activities at Cambridge, he had a very close connection with modernist writings although he himself stood in a very interesting and somewhat tangential relationship to the modernist enterprise.
Laurence, Patricia. Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China. University of South Carolina Press, 2013.
Laurence, Patricia. Julian Bell, the Violent Pacifist. Cecil Woolf, London, 2006.
Stansky, Peter and William Abrahams. Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2012