Monday, October 05, 2009

exploring bohemia

a new review of an old book -- I have no idea how I managed to miss this when it came out, nor how I could live without it :)

Virginia Nicholson: Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939

Penguin paperback 2003

Virginia Nicholson describes the citizens, customs, and traditions of a country that doesn’t exist, but which is instantly recognisable: Bohemia. Using the lead metaphor of a virtual country of which Bohemians of the early 20th century were the inhabitants, she gives us a very detailed and colourful account of what life was like in that virtual place and real time.

Nicholson is, of course, supremely qualified to serve as Bohemia’s ambassador to the modern world, as she descends from a family of Bohemian celebrities. She’s not called Virginia for nothing: Virginia Woolf was her great-aunt, Woolf’s biographer Quentin Bell her father, and Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, her grandmother. (Oh, and Julian Bell, whose adventures in China inspired Hong Ying was Quentin's brother. What a family.)

Considering these family connections, it would have been easy for her to explore the faraway realm of Bohemia through the eyes of its best-known citizens. Instead, she turned her attention to the lives and times of the less successful artists and writers, to those for whom the move from “normal” England to Bohemia often meant a descent into real hardship.

Like an anthropologist describing the customs of a remote pacific island population, Nicholson studies the minute details of everyday life in Bohemia and devotes separate chapters to elementary aspects of the lives of the natives, including money, love life, education, interior decoration, clothes, food, housework, travel, and partying. Being an anarchistic place by definition there is no section on hierarchy or power.

These chapters are populated with a swirling cast of painters, models, and writers ranging from the almost famous to the long-forgotten, so the “Dramatis Personae” in the appendix becomes the most valuable part of the book, as one gradually learns to navigate the social networks of 1920s Bohemia. There have been many memoirs and biographies of the people involved, so there is no shortage of brilliant quotes to liven up the proceedings. My favourite one has to be the (unattributed) geometric description of the Bloomsbury set as a circle of friends who lived in squares and loved in triangles.

As additional material to make the sheer visual wealth of Bohemia more palpable, I recommend to consult the book “Charleston: a Bloomsbury house and garden” (Frances Lincoln 2004) as well, which Nicholson wrote together with her father, and which contains many wonderful photos by Alen Macweeney of the country house where Vanessa Bell and various associates lived. Additional visualisation help is provided by the movie Carrington (about the various love triangles involving the painter Dora Carrington and the writer Lytton Strachey), which is now available on DVD.

In all of this, the very endearing Bohemian philosophy of life shines through, which essentially implies that for each individual their art, love, and friendships are infinitely more important than the ten million rules and regulations that Victorian society imposed on its members. Living in a society which in many ways is closer to Bohemia’s jurisdiction than to Victoria’s, we are bound to find the Bohemian rule-breaking and mischief-making amusing, even in instances which contemporaries must have considered truly shocking.

Therefore, the whole makes for a highly entertaining read, but it also provides food for thought and self-questioning. Many of Bohemia’s battles against Victorian norms have been won by now – for instance, women can wear their hair short, and men theirs long without shocking anybody. And yet, people with any kind of creative inclination still face the age-old dilemma whether they can afford to put their art (in the widest sense) first, or whether they have to make bourgeois compromises to ensure they can pay their bills. Today, there isn’t a separate country called Bohemia any more. On the sliding scale between Bohemian and Bourgeois, everybody has to find their own place.

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