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Among The Bohemians: Experiments In Living 1900-1939 (2005)

Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2005)

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3.87 of 5 Votes: 1
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0060548460 (ISBN13: 9780060548469)
harper perennial

About book Among The Bohemians: Experiments In Living 1900-1939 (2005)

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.

Some books which tell history in a thematic context, rather than chronologically, can have been well researched and contain snippets of fascinating information, but still be incoherent and jumbled. Virginia Nicholson has done her research, selected her information and arranged it logically around the different strands of her theme of the experimental bohemian lifestyle. She has created a coherent, co-ordinated narrative and written it well.Her central theme is that the artists, writers, poets, etc. who inhabited 'Bohemia' were trying to find new ways of living, loving and raising their children. They were taking part in a social experiment or making a lifestyle choice. Sometimes the experiments were disastrous, sometimes the choices were very limited and sometimes the bohemians were a lot more sure about what they were rejecting than what they wanted to put in its place. Virginia Nicholson puts their case and hers compellingly but not blindly.Many of the artistic embracers of 'La Vie Boheme' came from traditional Victorian middle class backgrounds and could be seen as self-indulgent and unrealistic: poverty was not romantic for the many millions suffering from the low wages and unemployment of the depression. The artists however went hungry and suffered the diseases of poverty in the same way as those who had never been given a choice, they really did suffer for their art.If respectability is not a consideration what advantage is there to a woman in getting married? The mistresses did not seem to fare much better however. (The main advantages of marriage for a man seem to be that he gets his brushes and clothes washed and has a better idea which children are his.)Children can learn through play and this is certainly better than trying to beat knowledge into them, but there is a fine line between giving children freedom and neglecting them which some of the bohemian parents crossed.I found the chapters on interior design, clothing, dining and entertaining less interesting, but all the chapters go together to give an overall picture of these people and their lives, which was fascinating. (I will just observe that nobody should have let Dylan Thomas or Duncan Grant anywhere near a kitchen; Ford Madox Ford, on the other hand, would be welcome to visit mine anytime.)

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I really enjoyed this book about the hard living, hard scrabble life of artists/writers/models/hangers-on in the first four decades of the 20th century. Some were recognizable, such as Vanessa Bell, but others have been lost in the fogs of obscurity. It was interesting to learn that some of the education theories we have stem from this time and from the works of Rousseau. Reading this book inspired me to re read "Of Human Bondage" which now has me in its grip! Maugham is one of my all time favorite writers and Bondage is one of his greatest.Once I finish "Of Human Bondage" I will start on "Vile Bodies" by Waugh, which the author also mentioned.

My idea of a great bedside book. One wild anecdote after another, organized by topic rather than chronology, in good clear friendly prose.I see some reviewers found it dull. It's probably not best to read it all at once, I think the effect would be very choppy, and if you're looking for a reasoned in-depth discussion or a more traditional history book, you will be disappointed. I would dip in and read a few pages before sleep, finding one great story after another. It's true, there is nothing new under the sun in experimental rebellious living. And it was all much more of a bold leap in the 1920s and 30s when mainstream society was so deeply traditional and conservative, and there was no social safety net or modern medicine to rescue the starving artist from disease, addiction, and actual starvation.Nicholson also shows how it takes an extreme revolution by a brave few to change society in the long run, how what is extreme and shocking behavior for one generation becomes ordinary life for their descendants. Social freedom for women, all our modern array of choices in dress, food, domestic life, relationships... thank the Bohemians.

It's totally fascinating and I love it! It's insightful and enjoyably written, about those artists and hang-arounds and wannabes that you could find in London (mostly) in the first four decades of the 20th century. The author has also quite an insight in matters from her own family background - being the daughter of Quentin Bell, the son of Vanessa Bell - and though not an academic she treats the subject very well. The book is written with chapters on different themes, a choice made by the author as she (as she states herself) thought that would work better than having a chronological description of these people. Since the book is more about a style of life than aiming to be a biography of all the people who lived it, I think she made a right decision. Still, I think it would have helped with ONE chapter on the historical development - it's 40 years of history, from the Edwardian era up to the Second world war, passing through the Great war and the roaring twenties. A lot of stuff happened in that time and it would have been interesting to see if the bohemians continued to differentiate from 'ordinary' people in the same ways, or if there was a change. And I wouldn't have minded a little bit more on the subjects of religion and politics (which could be quite interesting, I think).(I even enjoyed reading her Notes on sources - which is quite a feat!)

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