Connect with us

Books

‘Young Bloomsbury’ explores queer family of choice in 1920s England

Meet the generation ‘That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression’

Published

on

(Book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Safe spaces. Gender bending. Families of choice. Gender fluidity. Young queers being seen by their elders (hetero and queer). Throuples. Banned books. Conversion therapy.

At a party, a couple, two beautiful bisexual women, sing the latest show tunes and dance. One of them, wearing a purple dress, plays her saxophone.

We see you, Gen Z!

But you weren’t the first to embrace queerness in all its fab permutations.

A century ago in London at a time when being queer was illegal, a group of queer, gender-bending writers and artists — young members of the Bloomsbury group – broke through sexual and gender boundaries and formed families of choice.

In 1923, Henrietta Bingham and Mina Kirstein were the bisexual couple that danced and sang show tunes at the party. Bingham in her purple dress played the sax, author Nino Strachey writes in her illuminating, entertaining new book “Young Bloomsbury: The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England.”

If you’ve had a queer friend rave about the gender-bending in “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, or if you’ve seen the movie “Maurice” (of the novel with the same name), you’ve heard of the Bloomsbury group.

For Nino Strachey, the Bloomsbury group is up close and personal.

For starters, Nino Strachey is a descendent of Lytton Strachey, the queer, razor-sharp writer and founding member of the Bloomsbury group. She is the last member of the Strachey family to have grown up at Sutton Court in Somerset (U.K.), home of the Strachey family for more than 300 years.

Recently, Nino Strachey talked with the Blade about why she wrote “Young Bloomsbury,” the parallels between Young Bloomsbury in the 1920s and Gen Z today and the reaction to her book.

The formation of the Bloomsbury group began after Virginia and Vanessa Stephen’s father died in 1904. Virginia Stephens became Virginia Woolf after her marriage to Leonard Woolf. Vanessa Stephens became Vanessa Bell after her marriage to Clive Bell.

The Stephen sisters “escaped” to 46 Gordon Square in London, Strachey writes in “Young Bloomsbury.”

There, they could have a “life free from adult interference,” Strachey writes.

The Stephen sisters got to know their brothers’ — Thoby and Adrian — Cambridge University friends. These friends included John Maynard Keynes (who would become an acclaimed economist), Lytton Strachey, who would transform the art of biography, Duncan Grant who would revolutionize the art world and E.M. Forster, who would write “Maurice,” a novel with a queer love story that wouldn’t be published until after his death in 1970.

These queer artists and writers found “new ways to connect,” Strachey writes, “a commitment to honest communication between the sexes, to freedom in creativity, to openness in all sexual matters.”

The group was beginning to have critical support at the onset of World War I. Though the group’s (which Strachey calls “Old Bloomsbury”) activities broke down during the war, the cohort’s work took off after the war.

By the 1920s, the Old Bloomsbury artists and writers, then nearly in their 40s, had become successful. Virginia Woolf was photographed in Vogue. Lytton Strachey’s biography “Eminent Victorians,” a satirical takedown of Florence Nightingale and other renowned Victorians, was the talk of the town. Duncan Grant’s paintings were popular.

A group of queer young writers and artists, who Nino Strachey calls Young Bloomsbury, became lovers, friends, and creative collaborators with members of Old Bloomsbury.

Called the “Bright Young Things” at the time by the press and notables such as novelist Evelyn Waugh, members of Young Bloomsbury included: Julia Strachey, niece of Lytton Strachey and author of the novel “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding”; journalist and literary critic Raymond Mortimer; music critic and novelist Eddy Sackville-West; journalist and socialist politician John Strachey; sculptor Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin and artist and illustrator Stephen Tennant.

Members of Bloomsbury who were younger than Old Bloomsbury and older than the group’s younger members included the painter and decorative artist Dora Carrington; and the bookseller, publisher and writer David “Bunny” Garnett.

Nino Strachey didn’t write “Young Bloomsbury” as an academic project. Her reasons for writing the book were personal.

“I wrote [Young Bloomsbury],” Strachey said, “because my child identifies as gender fluid and queer.”

“It’s been a delight,” she added, “Something for us to do together.”

It’s been lovely for Nino Strachey to look at the queer history of the Strachey family and their friends and lovers, and to find queer role models going back to the 19th century.

Strachey became interested in writing “Young Bloomsbury” a few years ago. “I was working for the National Trust,” Strachey said, “I was researching the house called Knole – the home of Vita Sackville-West [poet, novelist, gardener and a lover of Virginia Woolf] and her cousin Eddy Sackville-West.”

In the midst of this research, one of Nino Strachey’s colleagues told her that she’d found some boxes of Strachey family papers.

Until then, Nino Strachey hadn’t known that, in the 1920s, her cousin John Strachey had lived with Eddy Sackville-West in London. From their letters, “I learned that they were incredibly open about their gender identity and sexuality,” Strachey said. “I wouldn’t have expected that 100 years ago! I don’t think anybody had looked into the boxes since the 1920s.”

“I thought: this is something I must write about,” Strachey said.

In the past, people have concentrated so much on who had sex with whom in Bloomsbury, that they’ve forgotten how important friendships were to the group, Strachey said. “They would be lovers with each other. Have quarrels,” she said, “but they cared for each other. They formed life-long friendships.”

They didn’t have the words for it a century ago but Bloomsbury became a family of choice.

At a time when a man could be arrested for carrying a powder puff in public or a queer person subjected to conversion therapy, Bloomsbury became a safe space for young queer people.

“Older Bloomsbury members took on a parental role for queer young artists and writers,” Strachey said. “They nurtured not only their careers but their personal life choices at a time when many of their parents weren’t supportive.”

Young Bloomsbury members would be pressured to undergo conversion therapy, Strachey said. “It was legal then. It was horrible,” she said, “involving painful injections.”

Conversion therapy wasn’t the only way in which queerness was repressed. Then as now, books with queer stories were banned.

Bloomsbury rallied around when lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall’s novel “The Well of Loneliness” was prosecuted for obscenity. Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster wrote letters of support for Hall. The book’s publication was blocked because it was judged to be obscene. (It was published in the U.K. in 1959.)

“You might have thought that ‘Orlando’ [the gender-bending novel by Virginia Woolf] would have been prosecuted for being obscene,” Strachey said, “but luckily that didn’t happen because it’s couched in this wonderful, historical, fanciful language.”

Strachey loved learning about how both Vita Sackville-West (with her masculine presentation) and Eddy Sackville-West (with his makeup and eye shadow) inspired Woolf’s writing of “Orlando.” “Virginia put these people into a single character who survives for 400 years,” Strachey said.

“Orlando,” which remains a “contemporary” classic novel, is having a moment today, Strachey said. “It’s on stage in London. For the first time, with a nonbinary actor playing the lead,” she added, “It’s getting rave reviews!”

People have misperceptions about Virginia Woolf, Strachey said. “Some interpretations see her, perhaps, as being quite harsh and judgmental,” Strachey said.

Yet, Woolf could be “absolutely supportive” and quite funny, Strachey said. “She and Lytton were really naughty,” she said, “they loved to tease people!”

“There’s a series of photographs where they’re together and smiling, and you can see how they’re riffing off each other,” Strachey said.

Virginia Woolf and other members of Bloomsbury listened to the romantic troubles of younger Bloomsbury members when their families wouldn’t. “Eddy Sackville-West read his diaries to Virginia Woolf,” Strachey said, “He talked to her about his love life.”

Old and Young Bloomsbury members loved Noel Coward and musicals. Younger members of Bloomsbury clued older members in on new technologies from radio broadcasting to flying lessons to movies to gossip columns. Young Bloomsbury “was tuned into the world of the stage – to film actresses like Mary Pickford,” Strachey said.

Strachey has been heartened by the feedback “Young Bloomsbury” has received. Not just from journalists and reviewers, but from people at festivals. “The warmest moments have been when people come up to me,” Strachey said, “to talk about chosen families and queer role models.”

“Cis, hetero couples ask: How can we support trans young people,” she added.
This is important to Strachey. We think society is so inclusive, but it’s not, she said.

“The statistics for LGBTQ+ youth regarding self-harm, bullying, prejudice remain really high,” Strachey said.

Anything one can do to raise support and awareness is a good thing, she added.

Nino Strachey (Photo by Alex Schneideman)

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash

Published

on

(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

New book offers observations on race, beauty, love

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World’ is a journey of discovery

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Tiny Reparations Books)

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Do you really need three pairs of shoes?

The answer is probably yes: you can’t dance in hikers, you can’t shop in stilettos, you can’t hike in clogs. So what else do you overpack on this long-awaited trip? Extra shorts, extra tees, you can’t have enough things to wear. And in the new book “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” by Shayla Lawson, you’ll need to bring your curiosity.

Minneapolis has always been one of their favorite cities, perhaps because Shayla Lawson was at one of Prince’s first concerts. They weren’t born yet; they were there in their mother’s womb and it was the first of many concerts.

In all their travels, Lawson has noticed that “being a Black American” has its benefits. People in other countries seem to hold Black Americans in higher esteem than do people in America. Still, there’s racism – for instance, their husband’s family celebrates Christmas in blackface.

Yes, Lawson was married to a Dutch man they met in Harlem. “Not Haarlem,” Lawson is quick to point out, and after the wedding, they became a housewife, learned the language of their husband, and fell in love with his grandmother. Alas, he cheated on them and the marriage didn’t last. He gave them a dog, which loved them more than the man ever did.

They’ve been to Spain, and saw a tagline in which a dark-skinned Earth Mother was created. Said Lawson, “I find it ironic, to be ordained a deity when it’s been a … journey to be treated like a person.”

They’ve fallen in love with “middle-American drag: it’s the glitteriest because our mothers are the prettiest.” They changed their pronouns after a struggle “to define my identity,” pointing out that in many languages, pronouns are “genderless.” They looked upon Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and thought about their own disability. And they wish you a good trip, wherever you’re going.

“No matter where you are,” says Lawson, “may you always be certain who you are. And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Crack open the front cover of “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” and you might wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. The first chapter is artsy, painted with watercolors, and difficult to peg. Stick around, though. It gets better.

Past that opening, author Shayna Lawson takes readers on a not-so-little trip, both world-wide and with observant eyes – although it seems, at times, that the former is secondary to that which Lawson sees. Readers won’t mind that so much; the observations on race, beauty, love, the attitudes of others toward America, and finding one’s best life are really what takes the wheel in this memoir anyhow. Reading this book, therefore, is not so much a vacation as it is a journey of discovery and joy.

Just be willing to keep reading, that’s all you need to know to get the most out of this book. Stick around and “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is what to pack.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular