Past course:
Reading Bloomsbury

Dora Carrington, portrait of Lytton Strachey, 1916

Dora Carrington, portrait of Lytton Strachey, 1916

Dates: Sunday 23 July–Friday 28 July 2017
Venue: Homerton College, Cambridge

This course has now finished. A brief account of our wonderful week can be found on our Facebook page.

Course description
Reading Bloomsbury
will explore some of the literature, art, and ideas developed by a lively group of intellectuals, many with strong Cambridge connections, who lived in Bloomsbury in London from about 1904. The course offers itself as an antidote to some current views of Bloomsbury; we will focus on the work and ideas (rather than the love affairs) of these very interesting people, from whom we can still learn a great deal.

The loose grouping of people around Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, and others, were serious writers, artists, and thinkers. They were people who engaged seriously with the pressing political and social issues of the day. We will study the intersections as well as the differences between Bloomsbury and Cambridge, focusing on the period from about 1910 to the 1930s. We will explore their thinking on some of the most important issues of the period, such as the First World War and the peace settlements, international relations, the franchise, the problems of an unreliable press, rights for women, freedom from sexual repression, the emergence of fascism.

A number of the Bloomsbury circle were much involved in the Labour Party. How did their political thinking and action intersect (or not) with their aesthetics in literature and art?

Reading Bloomsbury takes place in the week following our first summer course, Woolf's Rooms.


Lecture topics, one per day:

• Cambridge and Bloomsbury
• Sexual Politics: Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster and others
• Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury art
• Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925): women, clothing, and Bloomsbury aesthetics
• Bloomsbury, Pacifism, and Politics: Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, E. M. Forster

 We will also explore some of the historical context, and will undertake 'close readings' in the traditional Cambridge manner. We will study key writings alongside some Bloomsbury visual art. The Bloomsbury course studies Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and 'The New Dress', plus some Woolf essays, but it won't repeat material from the Woolf course. 

Vanessa Bell, Interior with Table, 1921

Vanessa Bell, Interior with Table, 1921

We are delighted to confirm that Frances Spalding will lecture on Cambridge and Bloomsbury. Frances is a leading expert on Bloomsbury art and ideas and is author of several outstanding biographies. Website here.

Bloomsbury expert and Fellow of King's College Peter Jones will lecture on Bloomsbury and politics, looking at the thoughts of Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell and E. M. Forster on pacifism, politics and the First World War.

Other teachers include Alison Hennegan, Claire Nicholson, Claudia Tobin, Nadine Tschacksch and Trudi Tate. We are delighted to confirm that author Susan Sellers will give a reading from her new work in progress.

There are no pre-requisites, but you will get most out of the course if you do some reading in advance. See preliminary reading list below.


Supervisions last for one hour and take place on four days of the course. Students meet in very small groups (usually 3 students) with a Cambridge supervisor for a detailed discussion of the text of the day. Weather permitting, some supervisions can take place in Homerton's beautiful gardens.

Every day there will be time to spend reading, to reflect upon the work covered so far, and to prepare for the next day's work. A rare chance to immerse yourself in Bloomsbury ideas and writings and to take the time to read and think.


The course includes an excursion to Bloomsbury in London with art historian Claudia Tobin, a guided visit to a Cambridge college with close Bloomsbury links, plus a talk and afternoon tea at the Orchard Tea Room at Grantchester with a talk by Bloomsbury expert Claire Nicholson.

Some free time is included in the schedule, so you may want to visit other Cambridge colleges, museums, and Heffers bookshop, or go punting.

Evening activities include talks and/or readings, and a formal Cambridge college dinner. Some evenings will be free for you to pursue your own interests, or spend time with other participants.

Accommodation and meals

Our students stay in good quality student accommodation in Homerton College, living as Cambridge students do. The main buildings are lovely Victorian gothic, while the bedrooms and bathrooms are comfortably modern, all single and ensuite. The accommodation is a short walk from the lecture room, on the same site.

There is a college café/bar on site to buy light lunches and snacks, and a number of nearby restaurants and cafés, including the award-winning Cambridge Cookery School café just across the road. Or you can venture a bit further into the city centre, to explore a wider variety of culinary options.

Communal meals are an important part of our course. A welcome dinner, a traditional afternoon tea, and a formal college dinner are all included in the course fee.

Suggested preliminary reading:

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Leonard Woolf, 1940

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Leonard Woolf, 1940

You could start with these writings:

• Virginia Woolf, 'Old Bloomsbury' (1928) in Moments of Being

• E. M. Forster, 'What I Believe' (1939). Online edition:

 • Frances Spalding, The Bloomsbury Group (2013)


If you would like to do further background reading, you might read one or more of these titles (all optional)

Victoria Glendinning, Leonard Woolf: A Life (2006)

Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography (1994)

Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell: A Biography (1983; republished 2016)

A full reading list will be sent to participants in April 2017.



• Ian Sansom article in the Guardian on Bloomsbury (2011): here.

• Susanna Rustin article in the Guardian on Bloomsbury (2015): here.

• Extract from Glendinning biography of Leonard Woolf in the Guardian (2006): here.

• Paul Levy review of Glendinning's biography of Leonard Woolf (2006): here.

• Paul Levy on Lytton Strachey in the Guardian (2002): here.

• Art UK on Vanessa Bell: here.

• Art UK on Dora Carrington: here.

• Art UK on Roger Fry: here

• Other Bloomsbury links: here.

Vanessa Bell, Memoir Club, c. 1943

Vanessa Bell, Memoir Club, c. 1943

Comments from students who attended our 2017 summer courses:

• Studying in Cambridge was like a dream come true: each morning we had an inspiring lecture followed by another hour in which we could discuss the topic of the lecture with one of the tutors. It was a lovely experience to study with students from all over the world and of all ages with the same interest in literature and to have ample opportunities to discuss with them the novels of Virginia Woolf. In the afternoon an arranged trip was offered or we studied the text for the next class together. Thanks to Trudi and Ericka who perfectly arranged all lectures, the dinners and several trips, even one to Bloomsbury in London, and made me feel at home in Cambridge.


Comments from students who attended our 2016 summer course:

• I have really enjoyed my week here. Being a 'common reader' I was nervous I would be outnumbered by university academics, but there has been a great mix of people attending. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the planning of events.

• Inspirational experience of academic supervision.

• An inspirational and well-delivered course that has more than fulfilled my expectations. It has been a real privilege to have had stimulating lectures and supervision by such esteemed academics. And having a small supervision group was an absolute treat.

• I would like to thank the whole team of their considerable efforts, expertise and thoughtfulness.

• Terrific mix of intensity and rest. I appreciated the variety of readers, range of speakers, choice of texts.

• It has been a fab week, and I look forward to joining you next year. Thank you!

• I think the course was fantastic, and organised very well. The lecturers were extremely interesting.