Watching ‘Life in Squares’, the new BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, is a matter of watching people self-consciously try to be unconventional, which is slightly painful. Somehow the ‘liberated’ approach in which, as Vanessa Bell says, if we are not free we might as well be our parents (that is, Victorians), seems stifling and uncomfortable much of the time, and I suspect that really is how it was. Freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, is the moral of this series, even if it does lead to changing society and great art.
The title is taken from Dorothy Parker’s quip that the Bloomsbury set ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’, or something like that. The first and the last of these are emphasised more than the painting, or writing, in ‘Life in Squares’, despite claims that this series was not simply prurient about the lives of those involved (‘sniffing the bedsheets’, according to Virginia Nicholson, a descendant). There is a lot of sex, and conversation, much of it trite, and although we are occasionally reminded of art (a shot of Vanessa Bell painting, Virginia Woolf mentioning her writing) the priority is on relationships.
The so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ were a collection of artists, writers, critics, publishers etc (many of them related) who, in the early twentieth century, rebelled against the stuffiness of society, trying to change everything about how we saw the world. Indeed the opening scenes are very late-Victorian, giving the viewer a real sense of what they – especially the Stephen sisters Vanessa and Virginia – wanted to escape from. The first episode set up this sense of a new generation forging the way ahead, from the sisters throwing their corsets out of the window to a genuine sense of the women’s desire for what men had – education, freedom, power. This sense is lost somewhat by the second episode, though, as relationships become increasingly tangled and we see ahead to their future beyond the heady days of youth and freedom.
Everything is very loaded; references to future events – Woolf’s depression and eventual suicide; her bisexuality; the death of Vanessa’s son Julian; the future marriage of ‘Bunny’ Garnett and Angelica Bell – these are all alluded to in a way which makes those who know about the events nod knowingly. This seems heavy-handed sometimes, as well as the way in which the characters appear so much what I expected that they are almost caricatures of themselves. The series is clearly attempting to do the characters justice, but with insufficient focus on their art it’s difficult to achieve that. The focus on Vanessa Bell is nice, though: it can’t have been easy being Virginia Woolf’s less-famous sister, apart from anything else, so it’s refreshing to see Bell, with her muted sadness, as a central figure (and I have always enjoyed her paintings). The aesthetics are wonderful, too; the clothes, the houses, reflect the post-Victorian-ness of the time, and no doubt will bring further visitors to Charleston, the Bells’ country home. It also perhaps asks the viewer to reflect on whether these somewhat naive fledgling attempts to forge a new kind of society, and a new kind of art, were successful, worthwhile, or doomed from the start. It will be interesting to see if the final episode brings any answers to these questions.