Guest Post: The Bloomsbury Group and ‘The Silkworm’

ChrisC is a regular guest writer at HogwartsProfessor. He responded with what follows to my request that he write up thoughts he shared in private correspondence about J. K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective novels for your comment and correction. Enjoy!

Rowling, the Bloomsbury Group, and the (Possible) Literary Allegory of Silkworm

Throughout The Silkworm, author J.K Rowling offers what is more or less a running commentary on the current state of the publishing industry, and the authors who make up the literary world.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Throughout his investigation, Cormoran Strike runs afoul of publishers consumed by greed (with an implied over-fixation on any and everything digital that that hurts sales more than it benefits), writer’s quarreling among themselves for various slights both real, imagined, major, and minor.  Throughout all this it soon becomes (or at least should be) evident that the great majority of Silk is taken up with a scathing critique or Allegorical Satire of the Literary Establishment.

It’s the nature of that Satire that I’m interested in.  It’s been suggested here already that the Strike books are Ms. Rowling’s smuggled literary Key to the Potter Books.  Whether or not that prediction will hold true is a matter of time and whatever is written in the final books.  In the meantime, there were two clues that may hint at the possibly bigger literary fish has in mind with her Satire.

On page 56 (hardcover ed.), at the beginning of chap. 9, she makes the following reference:

“Leaning against a…wall…his gaze fell on a blue plaque fixed to a house opposite, commemorating the tenancy of Lady Ottoline Morrell, literary hostess.  Doubtless scabrous romans a’ clef had once been discussed within those walls too…”

Then there’s the matter of Owen Quine’s daughter, Orlando.  Later on, in an interview, publisher Daniel Chard informs both Strike (and therefore the reader) of the origin of the name.

“Named, he told me, for the eponymous protagonist of the novel by Virginia Woolf” (Rowling, 260, hardcover)

As it turns out, these two women have (had) a history together, and it’s here where the plot thickens.

Together, author Virginia Woolf and hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell made up part of group of painters, poets, playwrights, and artists who collectively are known as “The Bloomsbury Group”.

Technically, there’s a lot that can be said and talked about the Group.  They are, in essence, literary legends to those who know of them, both famous and infamous.  A list of the people who made up the group would be enough to make a publisher’s mouth water.  The list included such luminaries as poets Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Inkling friend Roy Campbell; painter Roger Fry, and art critic Clive Bell; and novelists such as Woolf, E.M. Forster, Ford Maddox Ford, and James Joyce.  Even economist John Maynard Keynes was considered a core member.

Together and separate they all made up the vanguard of the literary and artistic movement that is now called Modernism.  For a brief span of time, Bloomsbury were the taste-makers, mover-shakers and even the publishers of all who were considered “Best and Brightest” on the artistic front.  Any ink-stained wretch they should happen smile upon (say, a down-at-heels bank clerk like Eliot, or an itinerant struggling author such as Joyce) was potentially courted as the darling of the hour.  Together and apart, through novels, poetry, and most of all publication of critical essays, the Bloomsburys were thought to set the standard of everything that was right and “just so” about well written fiction.  The truth, however, is a lot more complex, and in time, it may have caught up with all the members.

The Bloomsbury Group is best thought of as the Anti-Inklings (or if you prefer, the literary Death-Eaters to the Inkling’s Phoenix Order, although this wasn’t true of all of them, as I hope to show).  The problem with the literary output of the majority of the Group lay in two things: their subject matter; and their treatment of Mythopoeic materials.

Tolkien critic Joseph Pearce has recorded a statement by writer (and Middle Earth fan) Patrick Curry that has a good deal of relevance to Bloomsbury, so I quote it in full:

“Angus Wilson once said that most modern novels are about adultery in Muswell Hill.  It was an exaggeration, but a pardonable one, for it drew attention to the tyranny of realism, narrowness, self-absorption, and ‘relevance’ that hold too many modern writers and critics in thrall” (Pearce, Man and Myth, 9)

That’s a line that has stayed with me ever since I first read it, and I think part of the reason was its succinctness.  However the more I’ve read of the Bloomsbury members in biographies of Mythopoeic writers Eliot, Joyce, Campbell, or Christopher Dawson, who were in close contact with the Group, the more Curry’s sentiment seemed to fit both the artists and their movement as a whole.  One of the things to be disappointed about the writings of most Bloomsbury authors isn’t the lack of fantasy elements or the like, but the lack of imagination; the lifeless prose and events that ultimately go nowhere; or else degenerate into a case of who snogged who (the irony there is, neither characters nor authors ever pause to wonder why they devote themselves to such empty pursuits, which would at least grant their mindless escapades a kind of tragic pathos).

The other problem comes from writers who seem to have at least some working knowledge of alchemical literary symbols, and who then use and abuse such symbols in narratives that are little better than quiet, modern updates of either Roman Shows, or just mindless pornography.  If a collection of symbols is all any story amounts too, then it stands to reason that those symbols have a value that is attested by their ability to uplift and entertain, and therefore should treated with a least a modicum of respect.  This respect was something most of the Bloomsbury Group could often never give to their writings.  It’s hard, after all, to respect anyone or anything if you truly believe they’re worthless.  That, I think, is the great flaw at the heart of the Bloomsbury story.  They didn’t think life or the people in it were worth anything, and so they passed that attitude onto what they put on page, screen, or canvas; and the worst part is they used what Eliot called the “Mythical Method” or Mythopoeia to do it.

To be fair, there was a bit of consolation to be had for some of the writers who drifted into Bloomsbury’s orbit.  T.S. Eliot, who always seemed to have a stable head on his shoulders, found his evenings with the Woolf’s and their set declining as his Anglicanism increased, Joyce, perhaps as an act of self-preservation seems to have limited his contact with the Group, and spent the rest of his career making peace with his Irish Catholic past, while Maddox Ford discovered that he wrote better not amongst the London Literati, but as a farmer working alongside Italian peasants.  These three writers, like the Inklings, seemed to have recognized something valuable in the symbols they worked with.  At the very least, they seemed to have grasped the Quality that Shakespeare termed “Mercy”.

If all this sounds familiar to anyone, it should come as no surprise that the malady of this one group of writers bares a notable similarity to the publishing world Cormoran Strike encounters throughout Rowling’s book.  None of the Bloomsbury Books that I’ve looked into are anywhere near as dire as Bombyx Mori, but it is easy to identify the sense of decay Strike discovers along the way with the sad, monotonous self-absorption of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, or Pounds Fascist Poetry.  Also like the Group, the troubles that the Publisher’s of Silkworm display seem connected to that same inability to see the value in life, and hence each other and their work.

This lack of a sense of values (Rowling may suggest) can have disastrous trickle-down effects not just on one’s personal life, but also on any given place of business.  In the case of Silkworm that business is the Publishing Industry.  It was no exaggeration when I said Bloomsbury carried real clout within the business as it was in their day.  The Woolfs brought Eliot into the spotlight, and Lady Ottoline was his patron for a time.  What is disconcerting is how well the book world has learned from the Group’s example.

The common complaint of struggling author’s these days is how publishers won’t touch their stuff unless it has things like Brand Names or Pre-awareness behind it.  In the old days it used to be the complaint that fantasy or science fiction wouldn’t sell.  Both are established criticisms Ms. Rowling has had to put up with, first from publishers and critics when she was writing the Potter series, and now (perhaps) she has had to deal with the second hurdle when it comes to marketing the Strike books under a pseudonym.

In both cases, the main problem is a lack of respect for the written word as a thing of value in itself, regardless of either name awareness or genre.  This lack of respect has determined, in a large measure, which books are chosen for publication, and even whether they will end up on store shelves or be relegated to the out-of-the-way online corner.  My fear is that the attitude of the Bloomsbury authors in their capacity as publishers may have influenced how the current industry sells it’s wares.  The basic thinking might go something like this: if what I write means nothing, why should I care how I have it published?  Who cares!

In all this, I can’t help wondering whether or not it was the practices of writers like Woolf or Pound and their one time clout that are determining the current shallow treatment of the written word.  I also can’t help but wonder if Ms. Rowling is either hinting at this, or at least something like it in her Allegory of the Silkworm.


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I’m probably a worse ‘generalist’ than I ought to be, when I think how many ‘Bloomsbury’ writers I have not read yet, nor the Galbraith corpus for that matter – though it is a happy thought that one does not ‘have’ to read everything.

    But I wonder whether in the first HP there is some play with E.M. Forster’s 1907 story, “The Celestial Omnibus” – at least, the first part of it, but perhaps more generally, both with respect to a ‘hidden world’ and to the enjoyment of poetry and fiction.

    It is comical in Forster’s Wikipedia article to encounter the clause ” he has been criticised (as by his friend Roger Fry) for his attachment to mysticism” and intriguing to make the acquaintance of Denis Godfrey’s study, Forster’s Other Kingdom (1968).

  2. Apologies, turns out I meant to post an original reply here all along. Got turned around trying to handle several things at once.

    D.L. Dodds,

    Right off the bat I’m going to have to make two apologies in one. The first is for the late reply, the second is in the form of a confession. I’m familiar with just two works of Forster. The first is “A Passage to India”, while the second is the writing manual, “Aspects of the Novel”. In both cases, I can’t say I was impressed by what I read.

    I did, however, take the time to find a helpful online copy of Godfrey’s book. My first impression went something like: “………Wait, what?” While I was, and still remain somewhat skeptical of Godfrey’s claims. That said, I have to admit that Godfrey does provide a bit of insight on my own reading (limited) reading of the author.

    The irony is that I’ve always thought “Passage” is one of those stories where something vital was missing. Like it needed just one other element to make it interesting. The funny thing was that the story it reminded me the most of is “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. That’s another story featuring tragic events in a natural cave-like setting. However, that story really does introduce a low level of supernatural trappings. In that regard, it’s almost like “Hanging Rock” is the novel that “Passage” perhaps needed to be, yet never was.

    The final irony is that until you’d brought up Godfrey’s book, I’d always thought Forster was a straight up materialist. At least that’s the impression I was getting from “Aspects”. With Godfrey’s claims, however, the same problems that were less discernable with “Passage” becomes a bit more obvious on this revised reading of “Aspects”.

    If there’s any truth to Godfrey’s claim, then if Forster did have an interest in the supernatural, or Other World, the tragic flaw in his character is that he couldn’t seem to make any sort of committing opinion on the subject, one way or the other. The picture of the author I got at first was just someone with a flippant, naturalist approach to novel writing. Looking at it again after having all this info delivered, he sort of comes off a lot worse.

    The following passage about the treatment of time in a fictional setting is as best an example of the kind of double-faced standard I’m talking about:

    “…we do not know, and the experience of certain mystics suggests, indeed, that it is not necessary, and that we are quite mistaken in supposing that Monday is followed by Tuesday, or death by decay.”

    So far, so good. The author has made a statement that wouldn’t be out of place in a work by C.S. Lewis. The trouble is just a few pages after this statement Forster deliberately contradicts himself by saying:

    “But it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel: he must cling however lightly to the thread of his story, he must touch the interminable tapeworm, otherwise he becomes unintelligible, which in his case, is a blunder (29)”.

    The contradiction rests on the profession of a possible metaphysic, only to turn round and apply the writing strictures of a naturalist, as opposed to a supernaturalism, belief system onto the novel as an art-form. The problem is if you go ahead and apply the dictum that Forster has established, then a lot of the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, or the plays of J.B. Priestly, where time not only suspended and broken up or suspended, but on occasion transcended, must all be counted as failures.

    I think what this reveals is that Forster is/was a lot like T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”. Even if he had an inkling into the metaphysical, he still lacked both the nerve and the belief necessary to “disturb the universe”. Because of this, both his novels and criticism suffer, and he ironical becomes a satirical target for artists like Eliot, who went on to surpass him by playing with the notion of time in an artistic medium. In the end, I’m this does little to change my mind about Forster as an artist of critic. In fact it just provides the worst sort of fuel to the original fire.

    As a consolation, however, I can mention one possible thinker who may have had an impact on the way Lewis might have conceptualized (as a “supposal”) the Other World. His name was J.W. Dunne, and he was mentioned near the end of Michael Ward’s “Planet Narnia”. I’ve found an essay on Dunne and as a possible influence on Lewis’s thinking, and I have to say it’s pretty darn interesting to say the least:

    Hope this reply was of at least some help.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I liked the Passage to India (1984), Room with a View (1985), and Howard’s End (1992) movies – and have never yet got round to reading the books (!), and have only dipped into Aspects of the Novel. Your observation “the tragic flaw in his character is that he couldn’t seem to make any sort of committing opinion on the subject, one way or the other” strikes me as a good one, which I’d like – and need! – to put to the test by further reading, as does “Even if he had an inkling into the metaphysical, he still lacked both the nerve and the belief necessary to ‘disturb the universe’.”

    Reading “The Celestial Omnibus” in this context produces a sort of consternation as well as direct enjoyment – how can he be so acutely critical of the things he satirizes, there, and then himself seem to turn out so like a variant of his targets?

    I want to see what-all I can find out about various Inklings, especially Lewis, and Forster – so far, I’ve only found the reference in his letter of 5 March 1955 to Ruth Pitter about “the Orthodox Atheists” showing themselves very alarmed in the ‘Cambridge Number” of the XXth Century magazine “at the influx of Christians (Butterfield, Knowles, and C.S.L.)”, including E.M. Forster “who is the silliest of the lot: disappointing, for I liked his novels”.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I see a copy of The Twentieth Century, No 936 (Vol 157): A Cambridge Number (of February 1955) for sale at Amazon, with a photo of the front cover included… I suppose any of the UK deposit libraries will have it, and many another (which has not discarded its magazine archives)… but cannot immediately find it readably online…

  5. D.L. Dodds,

    As to the question, “how can (Forster) be so acutely critical of the things he satirizes, there, and then himself seem to turn out so like a variant of his targets?” The best response I can find isn’t mine. It comes from Charles Williams in the introduction to the “Letters of Evelyn Underhill”:

    “One is apparently left to live alone with an Impossibility. It is imperative and in the end possible, to believe that the Impossibility does its own impossible work; to believe so, in whatever form the crisis takes, is of the substance of faith; especially if we add to it Kierkegaard’s phrase that, in any resolution of the crisis, so far as the human spirit is concerned, “before God man is always in the wrong.”

    In addition to being the best summation I can find to Forster’s issues re: spirituality, I like the quotation for the fact that I think Williams has taken the concept of literary alchemy and pretty much laid bare the facts in back of all the symbols and stages. More than that, he seems to say that the concept can and has applied to the lives of real life people. Williams was discussing the Crisis, or Stages, as they applied to complications in Underhill’s life. Yet I think it can also serve as an example of the kind of failed crisis undergone by the likes of Forster and a lot of the other Bloomsburys. Under Williams’ conception, Joyce and Eliot are two examples of people who have “lived the crisis through”, or “brought the crisis to its point”, and found their own way out the other side of things.

    The link containing the Williams quote can be found here, by the way:

    Just one further FYI on the mythopoeic implications of J.W. Dunne. It turns out Lewis wasn’t the only artist inspired by the idea of Serialism. Vladimir Nabokov was interested enough in Dunne’s writings to see if he could apply those same ideas to his own life:

    In addition, Anthony Peake’s “Time and the Rose Garden” is the best resource I’ve been able to find for how J.B. Priestly might have used his plays as a series of literary demonstrations of Dunne’s theories:

    “Thought you ought to know”.

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