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.
I think the distinction that you draw between ‘art’ and ‘relationships’ is a false one, as regards the Bloomsbury Group. Not only were their experiments in living as serious as their innovations in art, but they developed biography and autobiography as art forms on a par with the novel or the oil painting.
Hi Simon, thanks for your comment. I see what you mean and I do agree, though I wasn’t thinking about it like that when I wrote this. Isn’t Virginia Nicholson’s book subtitled ‘Experiments in Living’? You’re right, of course, that it’s a false dichotomy and their art was their lives and vice versa; however I’m not sure that the series really does enough to bring that out. What do you think of the series?
It is. Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939. Perhaps that was in the back of my mind. I’m loving the series. I think it’s thoroughly researched and rings true, psychologically. I don’t think it smells too much of the library and no-one so far (episode three still to come) has been unkindly caricatured in the way Morris and Burne-Jones were in the dreadful Desperate Romantics. And it looks so beautiful.
I do like your review. There is not much chance I shall see the series in France: this is too much British. But I like the nuances you bring to your critic. I understand that akk is not in black and white and that there are both good and bad things. From what I read inbetween your lines, the setting is well researched and well done but the psychology is as well researched but less well done on screen. This is a / the tricky part when screen is concerned. Perhaps disappointing but my hope in this case is that itbrings people to books where nuances are explained and to the oeuvres d’art themselves. Thank you for your review: I have posted it on my FB page.
Yes, i do agree that the are no unkind caricatures yet. And it is aesthetically lovely! I suppose I just want a bit more depth, but then, it’s television and has to cater for everyone!
Thank you very much. Yes, as you say, it’s hopefully going to direct people more towards the work of the group, and it is very visually appealing. A shame you won’t get to see it! Perhaps on DVD?
No-one has commented on how unrelentingly dull the first episode was! Poor dialogue, poor sound … I sat through it dutifully but my wife gave up about forty minutes in and, at the end, I thought that I’d just wasted an hour of my life. Awful!
Perhaps, if I find them in France. Do remember that they do not belong to our culture at all – except for Woolf who is known here, of course. The film “Carrington” mad a mixed hit years ago and contributed to introduce Lytton Strachey and other “Bloomsbutyites” – but that was for an older generation. Lots of things that seem evident to British or American, Canadian, Australian, etc., people are completely foreign for the French. Downton Abbey was not a reat success over here: the class structure, the social context, the history, the culture and civilisation were too different. It would probably be the same with French films and series…
Reblogged this on Rogues & Vagabonds.
Yes, I see what you mean – I hadn’t thought about the cultural differences. ‘Carrington’ was a rather mixed hit here too, I think!
Oh it wasn’t that bad! I did actually enjoy it, though some of the sound was poor, as you say, and the dialogue not as sparkling as one might hope. I take it you won’t be watching the rest of it then!
My brother and sister-in-law had trouble with the sound, too, and I remember many people said the sound was bad on Jamaica Inn a while back, which was not my experience at all (and I should say that I’m a bit elderly and beginning to go deaf). So I wonder if it’s because I don’t own a television and watch on my Macbook, whereas they sit on the sofa and watch a TV on the other side of the room? Do you suppose that the sound design on modern programmes is beginning to cater to newer technology and different viewing habits? And I just don’t understand the suggestion that Life in Squares is dull, though of course Ian is far from being the only one to make it. I think it’s rivetting. I did notice (of course it’s been discussed on other forums) that The Daily Mail hated it and The Observer loved it. Those papers have very distinct readerships. Perhaps, again, we are noticing who the target audience is and not anything final about its quality?
I still think the first episode was dull. I see the Radio Times has made today’s third and final episode its TV “pick of the day” – but still can’t avoid using “under-powered” to describe it!
I wouldn’t think I found it dull because I’m not in the target audience. I’ve liked Virginia Woolf ever since being introduced to “To the Lighthouse” as an A-level set text in English Literature in 1964. Her books are amazing. Her life was amazing (my knowledge of that comes from Hermione Lee rather than anything more recent). But the TV programme was a big yawn.
I don’t know about the sound being different on different technology. I’ve tried ten minutes on my iMac and I’m not sure it greatly improved.
Well, I would’ve said that perhaps we’re not the target audience because we are already interested and know something about it, which is a problem I often find; documentaries etc on a subject I really like tend to disappoint me because I’m expecting to be told things I don’t know and inspired by it but they’re actually aimed at people with a low level of knowledge about them. I don’t think this is the case here, though, as presumably Simon agree!
I know that feeling – that a drama or documentary doesn’t live up to one’s specialist knowledge. But, if we exclude enthusiasts from the “target audience”, who does that leave? If the viewer is one who stayed with BBC2 after the “quiz hour”, but the Bloomsbury Group isn’t their “starter for ten” of choice, then how do they make sense of the characters in the way this drama introduced them?
OTOH, I see from Simon’s post that there are many ways of accessing the programme rather than just sitting there after Only Connect. Then the question becomes “Why would I access this programme rather than any other?”
It does seem to have been divisive and I’m aware that I’m in a minority, having enjoyed every minute. It wasn’t unimprovable, of course. I don’t think Virginia was made entertaining enough. Lytton Strachey once asked, rhetorically, who one would most like to see coming up the drive, and answered: ‘Virginia, of course’. I think it would have been most improved by being longer and slower-paced. I thought Eve Best and Catherine McCormack were very good as the older Vanessa and Virginia, and I’d have liked to see much more of them. It struck me as a bit helter-skelter. But I can see that, if one found it boring, drawing it out and slowing it down mightn’t have been the answer!