The essay is the first detailed study of Richard Williams Reynolds (1867–1947). It reveals that, although born in Liverpool, he was the illegitimate son of Brigadier-General Daniel Harris Reynolds of Arkansas by Annie Franklin, a British settler who had been widowed just before the Civil War, in which her lover fought for the Confederate Army. Educated at King Edward’s School (KES), Birmingham, and Balliol College, Oxford, Richard spent the 1890s in London, where he trained for the Bar and did some journalism. His membership of the Fabian Society brought him into close friendship with the writer Edith Nesbit. In 1900 he joined the staff of KES. His most famous pupil was J. R. R. Tolkien. In 1910 he married the novelist Dorothea Deakin, Nesbit’s niece, with whom he had three daughters. In 1922 he retired from KES. He and his family moved to Capri, where they associated with Axel Munthe and other writers and artists. But Dorothea died in 1924, and in 1935–1936 Richard suffered further losses on a Greek-tragic scale – the deaths of his daughters Diana and Pamela, and of the second wife whom he had just married. Pamela, a promising poet, perished in a fall down a cliff.
The book contains eleven essays, with an introduction and index. Six of the essays focus chiefly on four pivotal members of the influential “Bloomsbury Group” – the artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, the art critic Clive Bell, and the writer Virginia Woolf. Significant new light is shed on them, partly through the presentation of previously unpublished pictures, photographs, and texts, partly through the fresh examination of relevant manuscripts and images. At the same time the life and work of Fry’s wife, the artist Helen Coombe, and her feminist friend the suffragette-supporting inspector of prisons Mary Louisa Gordon, who were never “Bloomsberries”, receive close attention. The five non-Bloomsbury essays too are based on primary source-materials, including previously unpublished texts and images. The first presents thirteen letters from the British writer Rose Macaulay to the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan. It is followed by two essays about the prodigious teenage talents and achievements of Dorothy L. Sayers, destined for fame as a detective novelist and religious writer. The penultimate piece is about the exotic origin and eventful life of Richard Williams Reynolds, who taught J. R. R. Tolkien at school; and the last illuminates the artist Tristram Hillier and especially the personally and professionally important first visit he made to Portugal in 1947. The collection combines homogeneity and variety, and this combination contributes to a rich and balanced picture of the cultural scene in the first half of the twentieth century.
Bloomsbury in the book’s title is the “Bloomsbury Group” of writers, artists, thinkers, and theorists associated with the Bloomsbury area of London and active in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Essays 1–6 are mainly, but by no means exclusively, about four of its pivotal members – the artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, the art critic Clive Bell, and the writer Virginia Woolf. The essays do not attempt a comprehensive account of their lives and works, and the same is true of the writers and the artist treated in the five out-of-Bloomsbury essays – Rose Macaulay, Katharine Tynan, Dorothy L. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien’s schoolteacher Richard Williams Reynolds, and Tristram Hillier. Instead, the intention is to enhance knowledge and understanding of them by presentation of previously unpublished texts and works of art, pictures, and photographs, and by the close re-examination of known documents. Rebecca West warns that biography is often heavily reliant on speculation. The present book prefers to deal in hard facts, many of them previously unknown. The mixture of Bloomsbury and non-Bloomsbury, present even in the Bloomsbury essays, makes possible a varied and balanced picture of the cultural scene in the first half of the twentieth century.