The British Sex Society, 1918
(And can cats use the loo?)
Yes, OK, sorry, I’ve used the ‘S’ word in a headline. But you can blame Virginia Woolf.
This week I give you a small, but rather representative, entry from the diaries of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), the modernist novelist and key figure in the Bloomsbury set of writers, artists and philosophers in early 20th century London. Adeline Virginia Stephen was born into the wealthy South Kensington family of writer and historian Sir Leslie Stephen and Pre-Raphaelite model Julia Jackson. She was home schooled in this late Victorian intellectual hothouse before studying further at King’s College and then taking up her pen.
When her family moved to Bohemian Bloomsbury, Virginia met political theorist Leonard Woolf and his circle of friends from Cambridge. One of them was the essayist and biographer of Queen Victoria, Lytton Strachey, who proposed to Virginia in 1909 – she accepted, but he then changed his mind (for which she could have sued him). Strachey then suggested Woolf proposed instead, which he did, but Virginia didn’t respond; he tried again in January 1912, but she played for time, and relented later that year. Together in 1917 they formed the important publishing house Hogarth Press, which partly specialised in books relating to psychoanalysis – a theme important to this week’s diary extract.
Virginia first began keeping a diary in 1897, aged 15, and maintained the habit until 1909, then started again in 1915 and wrote regularly until her forlorn drowning by suicide in 1941. Her diariesoffer a window into her struggles with mental illness, but also show her wit, lyricism and many of the preoccupations of the Bloomsbury bunch, including relationships, psychology and sexuality. All of these things crop up in the single diary entry for 21st January 1918 that I give you below.
Bear in mind that World War One was still ongoing at this point – Russia had yet to withdraw, Passchendaele was a fresh memory, and Germany was soon to begin its new spring offensive. All of this is only a distant backdrop to the world of the Bloomsbury set that Virginia describes below, although of course nobody was untouched by the war. More present to them, perhaps, was the revolution in thinking started by Sigmund Freud in the 1890s. Anne Olivier Bell, editor of Virginia’s posthumously published diaries (and a later member of the Bloomsbury set herself), notes that Leonard had read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1914; plus, in a letter in 1917, Virginia had mentioned Leonard interpreting her dreams, applying “the Freud system to my mind”. If you can’t cope with words for human anatomy and behaviour (and Freud will give you a stern look if so), look away now!
[Virginia begins with the ongoing saga of the love life of her friend the artist Barbara Hiles, who was being courted by both Bloomsbury intellectual Saxon Sydney-Turner and the rather more prosaic Nicholas Beauchamp Bagenal, a soldier. Hiles and Bagenal married only 11 days after this diary entry; Virginia had earlier written “to my thinking a marriage with Nick offers more solid value than a cold blooded & only semi-real attachment with Saxon”, although Barbara and Nick eventually divorced in 1951. The riots Virginia refers to related to women besieging the local Food Offices due to a shortage of margarine, which was soon to be rationed in July along with other staples such as sugar and meat.]
We had Nick to ‘look at’ on Saturday night; Barbara came too. He’s nothing very much to look at, certainly; yet so unpretending that what he has to show is satisfactory. Besides he has a pleasant Irish voice, & a quiet very simple manner which make him very tolerable in the house. I rather think that Barbara watched to see what we made of him. He talked his own shop for the most part. Lewis guns, & their mechanism. There are food riots & strikes at Woolwich, & the guards have notice to march there at any moment, & fire on the people, which their own Woolwich regiments would refuse to do. He takes things a little seriously. Next morning we had a long discourse about Irish character. He admires Synge [the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, author of The Playboy of the Western World]: says that he’s heard his own men talk exactly as Synge makes them talk. They lie on the ground talking, & wont play games. They are deeply religious (the root of all evil in Ireland, he says) & die looking happy if the priest is with them, not otherwise. Their mothers constantly write to know if a son has had a grand funeral, if he has a cross over him; this is their great source of comfort. I suppose the soft, serious, rather plaintive disposition at which one guesses in Nick is Irish; & on top, but not at all offensive, there are signs of his deep admiration for the great Bloomsbury group, & culture, & problems. For instance, he deplores the gulf between what he calls the Quaker view, & the artists view; & he says the Quaker view will prevail with the young after the war. He quotes books seriously. However he went off to Hampstead; & L. went, Heaven knows what made him unless it was chess, to Gipsy Hill to lunch with the Waterlows.
[Sydney Waterlow, a diplomat, had also proposed to Virginia, back in 1911, when he was still technically married to his first wife. He then married Helen Margery Eckhard in 1913. Waterlow Park in north London is named after his grandfather. Virginia and Sydney had quarrelled not long before this diary entry.]
Lytton came to tea; stayed to dinner, & about 10 o’clock we both had that feeling of parched lips & used up vivacity which comes from hours of talk. But Lytton was most easy & agreeable. Among other things he gave us an amazing account of the British Sex Society which meets at Hampstead. The sound would suggest a third variety of human being, & it seems that the audience had that appearance. Notwithstanding, they were surprisingly frank; & 50 people of both sexes & various ages discussed without shame such questions as the deformity of Dean Swift’s penis: whether cats use the w.c.; self abuse; incest—Incest between parent & child when they are both unconscious of it, was their main theme, derived from Freud. I think of becoming a member. It’s unfortunate that civilisation always lights up the dwarfs, cripples, & sexless people first. And Hampstead alone provides them. Lytton at different points exclaimed Penis: his contribution to the openness of the debate. We also discussed the future of the world; how we should like professions to exist no longer; Keats, old age, politics, Bloomsbury hypnotism—a great many subjects. L. beat Sydney by his craft. They are leaving Gipsy Hill.
[Dean Swift refers to Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. The ‘British Sex Society’ was in fact the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, founded in July 1914 (but apparently closed down early in WW2). Its members (pardon the pun) included demonology expert Montague Summers, playwright and artist Laurence Housman, suffragette and magazine editor Harriet Shaw Weaver and lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall, both women in Virginia’s social circle, and she of course was bisexual. The “third variety of human being” refers to homosexuality, which the society was particularly interested in.
In the section below, Philip was the youngest of Leonard’s brothers, who had been wounded at Cambrai in November 1917. Another brother was killed alongside him.]
Today, Monday, I went to Harrison’s to have a broken tooth mended; L. to Staines—Philip is back with his wound once more broken out, owing to lack of care at Fowey.
Here I was interrupted on the verge of a description of London at the meeting of sun set & moon rise. I drove on top of Bus from Oxford St. to Victoria station, & observed how the passengers were watching the spectacle: the same sense of interest & mute attention shown as in the dress circle before some pageant. A Spring night; blue sky with a smoke mist over the houses. The shops were still lit; but not the lamps, so that there were bars of light all down the streets; & in Bond Street I was at a loss to account for a great chandelier of light at the end of the street; but it proved to be several shop windows jutting out into the road, with lights on different tiers. Then at Hyde Park Corner the search light rays out, across the blue; part of a pageant on a stage where all has been wonderfully muted down. The gentleness of the scene was what impressed me; a twilight view of London. Houses very large & looking stately. Now & then someone, as the moon came into view, remarked upon the chance for an air raid. We escaped though, a cloud rising towards night.
And with that beautiful scene, that’s it for this week.