Victorian Bloomsbury. By Rosemary Ashton. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 380. $40.00.)


In searching for rented accommodations for her annual summer research trip to London this year, this reviewer was struck by the way in which the geographic designation “Bloomsbury” automatically conferred a premium in terms of the weekly cost. This suggests that foreign visitors to London are well aware of the intellectual cachet of the area, which for most derives largely from its association with the “Bloomsbury Group” who lived there in the early twentieth century. In this study, Rosemary Ashton seeks to trace how Bloomsbury became “the undisputed intellectual quarter of London” over the previous century, a period, she argues, during which it acquired its “distinctive, important and above all progressive role in the life of both London and the nation” (ix, 1).

Its history in this role began in the decades after 1800, when the demolition of the Duke of Bedford's London house led to the development of the area north of Bloomsbury Square and the construction of Robert Smirke's new British Museum provided an intellectual hub. The subsequent decades saw rapid growth and expansion, though careful planning to attract “wealth and respectability” faced continual “encroachment” from “pockets of poverty” (5). It was the arrival of a number of “progressive institutions,” however, that shaped Bloomsbury's character as “the intellectual and cultural centre of London”; these included the University of London [1826], the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge [1827], University Hall [1849], the Ladies' College [1849, and renamed Bedford College in 1859], the Working Men's College [1854], the Working Women's College [1864], and the London School of Medicine for Women [1874] (8). Bloomsbury also attracted literary lions long before the arrival of Virginia Woolf and her coterie: Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, William Morris, and J. M. Barrie all resided there. It was a haven for unorthodox religious groups such as the Swedenborg Society, the Catholic Apostolic Church, and the Unitarians. Women, too, found a comfortable home there in which they were afforded a wide range of intellectual and educational opportunities. Bloomsbury's reputation as a genteel haven for the eccentric, the bohemian, the high minded, the radical, and the progressive was thus established long before 1900.

Though rarely revelatory, Ashton's study is impressively researched and detailed. The range of sources is breathtaking, and the prose is generally well crafted. Academics and general readers alike with an interest in the history of London will find much of interest and value here. At times, however, the structure of devoting each chapter to a lengthy description of a particular institution distracts from the focus on Bloomsbury as a physical site that inspired diverse but interconnected forms of intellectual activity. The first few chapters, for example, read more like a history of the University of London than of the neighborhood in which it was sited. Readers get an excellent sense of what was happening in Bloomsbury in the Victorian era, as well as of who the people were who made it happen, but the question of why it happened here rather than elsewhere in London remains something of a mystery.