After surveying grandmother Vanessa Bell’s home in Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden (not reviewed), Nicholson moves on to a broader but related subject: lifestyles of the poor and avant-garde.
“I make no apology for my fascination with the laundry-list view of history,” writes the author, who deems domestic arrangements and personal habits “the kind of detail I find not only revealing but indispensable to understanding.” This everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach is most effective when applied to less familiar material. Chapters on bohemian attitudes toward marriage, sex, and feminism tend to degenerate into, yes, laundry lists of famously unconventional ménages (Laura Riding, Robert and Nancy Graves; Duncan Grant, Vanessa and Clive Bell, etc.) and yet another portrait of New Women scandalizing the bourgeoisie with their short hair and cigarettes. But when Nicholson delves into childrearing, clothes, food, and housework, she vividly delineates just how revolutionary Britain’s early-20th-century bohemians were. (She seems unaware that an American avant-garde was pursuing a similar course.) The author’s résumé of the ridiculous amount of tight-fitting attire well-bred Edwardians, male and female, had to change in and out of several times a day, for example, reminds us how liberating were the loose, colorful garments painter Augustus John and others wore, romantically emulating carefree gypsies. Dirty, squalid garrets make more sense after Nicholson points out that the alternative before modern appliances was a houseful of servants, the money to pay them, and hours spent supervising them. The avant-garde prided themselves on caring about art, not appearances, and while the author doesn’t ignore the contradictions involved in generally middle-class rebels living like the most disreputable poor, she respects their commitment to a freer existence. As well as the usual Bloomsbury suspects, Nicholson draws her examples from other names well known in British cultural gossip: Cyril Connolly, Nancy Cunard, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, Ford Madox Ford, etc., etc.
Entertaining social history, though the author’s fondness for long quotes and many, many examples make it more fun to browse than to read cover-to-cover.