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Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 Paperback – March 1, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nicholson, granddaughter of painter Vanessa Bell and great-niece of Virginia Woolf, is uniquely qualified to write about the experimental lifestyle of her grandparents' generation. The early 20th-century British bohemians-Bloomsbury and their extended circles, and lesser-known rebels like Roy Campbell and Jacob Epstein-rejected bourgeois Victorian values and embraced life as art, open marriage, Rousseau-influenced education and even poverty. Perhaps because she is an insider (despite having been born well after its heyday), Nicholson is able to communicate the ideals and desires of this generation without romanticizing it. The exhilaration of the bohemians' freedom and the hardships of the poverty in which many chose to live are equally portrayed. Their children place a golden haze on their youth but also blame their parents for not providing a rigorous education and a few rules to guide their way. The reader could also easily get impatient with how these talented individuals seemed determined to destroy themselves (the epilogue in particular reads like a catalogue of lives left ravaged by passions), but Nicholson effectively argues that theirs was the energy of true rebellion and implies that the excess was necessary to break with the constricting bonds of the past-and that the circle of bohemia ultimately changed how we all live. Although this account is written in a neutral, almost dry style as Nicholson examines the bohemians' daily lives thematically (sexual freedom, child-rearing, styles in clothing and interior decoration, etc.), the intimate conversations and salacious details related still titillate like gossip. Readers interested in the art, literature and personalities of this era will not be disappointed. B&w photos, illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

In a vibrant catalogue of anecdotes and tragicomic episodes, Nicholson pays homage to British writers and artists who challenged convention before the Second World War. Living for art could exact a price—Robert Graves, hoping to subsidize his writing, made a disastrous foray into shopkeeping, while a destitute Dylan Thomas used his books as furniture. For Nicholson, such recklessly hand-to-mouth living is downright heroic. Although the eccentric domestic arrangements of the Bloomsbury group are a familiar topic, she casts her net wide to include lesser-known figures like Nina Hamnett, a fixture at London's Café Royal, and Betty May—the cocaine addicted model of the sculptor Jacob Epstein—whose signature dish was grilled mouse on toast.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (March 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060548460
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060548469
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #747,841 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Lleu Christopher on January 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Among the Bohemians is a fascinating and thorough excursion through the colorful streets, homes and cafes of bohemian England during the early 20th Century. Virginia Nicholson, who is related to both the painter Vanessa Bell (often mentioned in this book) and the writer Virginia Woolf, handles the subject in a rather scholarly manner, covering a range of topics chapter by chapter. This organized approach may seem out of tune with the book's subject, but it works well here, allowing the reader to meet the same cast of characters from different vantage points. Like a naturalist studying the behavior of animals in the wild, Nicholson examines almost every conceivable aspect of bohemian life. Using memoirs from that era, we learn all about the homes, love lives, dress, eating habits, parties and child-rearing practices of these flamboyant characters.

Some writers (e.g. Herbert Gold) have successfully examined Bohemia from the inside, using a poetic and meandering voice, but Nicholson prefers the more sociological/ anthropological method. The fact that she is writing about a past era also makes a certain distance inevitable. Despite this methodical approach, Nicholson is not detached from her subject in a coldly objective way. She is clearly sympathetic and admiring of the people she describes. Indeed, she credits bohemians with creating much of the freedom we take for granted today. As she states in the introduction, Nicholson does not confine her study to famous people, though the well known (e.g. Dylan Thomas, Carrington, Robert Graves), are certainly not neglected. As an American, I had always associated Bohemia with places like Paris (which, Nicholson confirms, has always been the Bohemian capital), Greenwich Village and North Beach, but never England.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Tom Moran on May 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Virginia Nicholson's "Among the Bohemians" is an evocative account of the revolt against Victorian and Edwardian values engaged in by the artists and writers of the early 20th Century. The freedom from the constraints of convention that these bohemians fought for was won at a price - and the price was usually poverty, disease and, more often than not, a squalid and disquieting end.
Given the desperate nature of their lives, and their sometimes shocking deaths, the amazing thing is that the book is a fun read. Nicholson is an engaging prose stylist who knows how to pluck out that little detail that will interest her reader. It's not enough, for example, to point out that the artist Eric Gill engaged in incestuous relations with his daughters - he also refused to wear underwear. Dylan Thomas preferred to steal shirts from friends and acquaintances rather than launder the ones he had. The painter Augustus John leapt on just about every female in sight, and went about in his younger days like a bedraggled gypsy.
There are some omissions. I would have liked Nicholson to have included George Gissing's "The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft," simply because it includes so much of the essence of what these people thought and felt, and not to mention Quentin Crisp, the author of "The Naked Civil Servant," is a definite loss to the book.
"Among the Bohemians" is a bit too British and Bloomsbury-centric (understandable enough, given that Nicholson's grandmother was Vanessa Bell and her great-aunt Virginia Woolf), and the Americans who came over to Europe between the wars are practically ignored, but given the limits of what she's chosen to work with, it's a splendid job.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Shannon on May 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is a truly historical and sociologic analysis of the early 20th century movement known as Bohemianism. This movement and the individuals who comprised it are a frequently misrepresented group, and shallower attempts have been made to identify the impetus and driving force behind it and/or reproduce one's own simulacrum overnight. This book, unlike such endeavors, is clearly well-researched, thoughtful and well-articulated.

The reminder that the reader gets from this book is that if not for the artistic aspect that made these individuals remarkable and noteworthy, they would have been ordinary people who were living in or on the brink of poverty, and the reason that modern society remembers or cares is because of redemptive writing or art: something which is rather left out of the retrospective equation when we think of Bohemianism from a present-day point of view. Time, coupled with the artistic aspect, has twisted this somewhat into a romantic image. At the time, however, the "starving artists" themselves were not seeking a name for their lifestyle or trying to package their look or sensibility. They were muddling through quandries related to their work and linked to money issues: the idea of "I am an artist, therefore i despise wealth" (p.25), yet on the same page, "How I loathe poverty!" This paradox -- the clutching of the very chains that bind them -- is one of the analyses that really makes the book work. Other aspects of the lifestyle that are examined include concepts of value, aesthetics, sexuality and taste.

Perhaps the most fascinating investigation involves the evolution of the Bohemian world, which just can't be reproduced with an after-the-fact "how-to".
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