I'm wavering between two and three stars. This was not what I expected, but really it's my mistake since Virginia Nicholson is upfront about the fact that she is primarily interested in social history on a micro level: What did the bohemians eat for lunch? What sort of clothes did they wear? How did they decorate their apartments? How did they take baths? Did they go on trips and if so, how did they travel? She organizes the book thematically, rather than chronologically, so that you don't get good sense of who did what, and when. If you are looking for an account of the major personalities or artistic accomplishments of the time, this is probably not the book you are looking for. The book covers a large time period -- 1900 through 1939 -- and other than asides about Victorians or Edwardians, there is really no sense of a time period. World War I is almost entirely glossed over, except to point out how the bohemians partied for days after the armistice. But this left me with even more questions: Why weren't the men required to enlist? Were they all conscientious objectors? Did they all know each other before or was this crazy party the first time they met? And, for example, the chapter on child-rearing: She briefly describes childhood for the Victorian or Edwardian child and then skips ahead to the public schools of the 1920s and 30s, interspersing some of the interesting educational schemes of the Bohemians. Personalities are randomly brought in and out to make a point, rather than provide a narrative. She mentions a few frequently -- Vanessa Bell (she is the author's grandmother), Augustus John and his long suffering wives/companions, Ida and then Dorelia, Carrington, Mark Gerstler, Lytton Strachey, Robert Graves, and a few others. There are a ton of people mentioned, some only once or twice, and almost always without context other than "This person, too, wore a beard!" or something along those lines.
This all sounds very negative, but I did find it interesting and learned a lot of Victorian/Edwardian era trivia. It's interesting to note that, for the most part, women ended up getting a raw deal. Though bohemianism could be liberating, especially for some upper-class women, most ended up sacrificing their art and careers once they were married. Though bohemians were more lax on housekeeping, the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing still had to be done and traditional gender roles were still strongly enforced. Even the artistic clubs with the enlightened bohemian men banned women from becoming members. And while both men and women were frowned upon for bending the rules, it seems like the consequences were much harsher for women. I can't think of any examples at the moment to back that up, but it seems true. Also, I have a suspicion that some people maybe used the idea of bohemianism as an excuse to act like jerks, and if called out, would say something like "I CAST OFF THE BONDS OF SOCIETY. MY ART IS WHAT MATTERS. Not this beleaguered woman I've impregnated for the fifth time, or my starving feral children, or the conventional losers that I scoff at yet sponge off of, or just being a genuinely nice person because BAH. SOCIETY." Which MAY be true, based on some of the anecdotes in this book. And that's my major issue, I think -- as much as the author wants us to give props to the bohemians for breaking down class barriers, giving women independence, promoting tolerance for other cultures (namely, gypsies), it's a bit of a tough sell. I don't doubt that it contributed and certain people were probably more helpful in others, but eating garlicky foods and refusing to wear white tie to dinner does not mean that the bohemians were more enlightened or less classist or racist than their conventional counterparts.