Jonathan Cecil

Squeaks and squawks

Jonathan Cecil is nostalgic for the voices of the Bloomsberries

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The Bloomsbury Group

The British Library

The British Library, pp. , £

How often, when listening to announcers or weather forecasters or politicians on the radio, do I think, ‘That’s an ugly voice’! This seldom applies to speakers with educated regional accents, such as Scottish, Irish or Yorkshire, but all too often to those from London or the Midlands where good standard English is becoming a rarity. This is not a matter of class; ‘Sloane’ voices are as unappealing as ‘Estuary’ ones; indeed the two sometimes hideously cross-fertilise. Good speech is a matter of clarity and the unselfconscious enjoyment of the spoken language.

It was an unexpected and nostalgic pleasure to listen to old recordings of or about the Bloomsbury Group. These have been enterprisingly collected on two CDs and drawn mostly from the BBC Sound Archive or the Charleston Trust. Knowing about Bloomsbury as I do, my grandfather being Desmond MacCarthy, and my parents being friends of Virginia Woolf among others, I had expected to hear high and precious didactic voices. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to hear so many unaffected and vocally mellow speakers, cultivated but not artificially so.

The Bloomsbury voice — as amusingly imitated by my mother — was in fact derived from Lytton Strachey’s voice; a high-pitched, emphatic squeak. Perhaps unsurprisingly Strachey was never recorded; his voice would hardly have been wireless-friendly. But others, like Frances Partridge, caught some of his speech mannerisms. In Frances’ own recorded interview she gives an illustration of Bloomsbury emphases: ‘I don’t believe a single word you say!’ And Bertrand Russell gives a hilarious example of the Strachey sound. Asked what literature should aim at, Strachey squeaked ‘Passion!’

The most agreeable voices are the voices of the older men, those who were undergraduates in Victorian times. Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy and E. M. Forster all spoke charmingly, with fine open vowels, in happy contrast with the later pinched ‘flet het’ pronunciation of the Thirties like, say, Neville Chamberlain’s. In MacCarthy’s delivery there is a certain enjoyable theatricality, as there is in Virginia Woolf’s, in her whimsically poetic wireless talk on words.

These speakers all come from ‘Old Bloomsbury’, the pre-first world war circle. On the second CD we hear from later Bloomsberries and their friends. Oddly enough, the most emphatically Cambridge-cultivated voices come from two interviewers, one a generation younger than Old Bloomsbury, Quentin Bell, the other even younger, the late Julian Jebb, whose hurried, precise diction echoes that of the amusing Dadie Rylands.

The oddest sounding voice is that of my father, David Cecil. It rises from baritone to a squawk — the opposite of a squeak — and varies its speed of delivery rather in the manner of his driving. Those who never met him might think his a mannered voice; he was, in fact, the least affected or self- conscious man I have known. Nor was he at all Bloomsburyesque in his strong religious views and un-cliquishness.

A humanist scepticism, a rejection of Victorian sexual morality and a belief in friendship as an ultimate good were about the only common creeds of Bloomsbury. The very term ‘Group’ is misleading, suggesting some unified political or artistic movement. The works of Virginia Woolf the novelist, Maynard Keynes the economist, Duncan Grant the painter and Lytton Strachey the debunking philosopher had little or nothing in common, the only unifying link being membership of an intimate circle of friends mostly living in the Bloomsbury district of London.

What is certain — borne out by these archive recordings — is that the Bloomsberries knew how to enjoy themselves. Frequent parties, dressing-up, private theatricals, practical jokes and, above all, brilliant, spontaneous conversation both flippant and serious — these, in lively reminiscences, make for exhilarating listening.The downside — the sometimes unhappy, untidy consequences of sexual liberation — is scarcely touched on in these recordings, the subject of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, in terror of losing her sanity once again, striking the only sombre note.

Virginia Woolf herself is the most frequent subject of these reminiscences, which do become slightly repetitive. It is clear that, despite her daunting personality and her short way with people she considered foolish or pretentious, she was greatly liked for her zest for life and her teasing humour. One of the most delightful tracks features Marjorie Strachey describing Virginia passing the butter to her brother, Adrian Stephen. This may sound, in its seeming banality, like an Alan Bennett parody, but it is a charming, unpretentious vignette of Bloomsbury enjoying itself to an almost slapstick extent. By contrast, the most moving account is of Virginia’s disappearance and death by her housekeeper, Louie Mayer. It is factual, unemotional and heart-rending.

The most baffling track features Clive Bell (died in 1964, recorded in 1980, or so the booklet says). There is certainly something ghostly about his 41-second interview, telling a completely pointless story about Lytton Strachey. But this fragment, with its slipshod dating, is a rare lapse in an excellently edited compilation by Duncan Heyes.