“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
Life in Squares is a new BBC period drama following two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, as they seek artistic and personal freedom in the early years of the twentieth century among a group of similarly enlightened writers and artists who will eventually form the Bloomsbury Group. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Virginia is the writer who will later become Virginia Woolf, but the show makes precisely no effort to signal this; Life in Squares is not a drama whose main draw is going to be Woolf’s Life and Works.
What is it, then? It’s hard to tell, on the whole, what the show is driving at. Clearly it’s faintly obsessed with the traditional narrative which sees Victorian strictness moving into Edwardian debauchery (mainly represented by gay people having sex and wives not kicking off when their husbands have affairs), but it’s not a show that throws any new light on this rather hackneyed theme. We’re not even really encouraged to think about the consequences of the supposed stiff-upper-lip social restraint from which the Bloomsbury milieu emerge, with the sisters’ prudish aunt banished off screen in the first twenty minutes and the only hint that homosexuality was still a punishable offence a policeman swinging his truncheon menacingly in the background. It all feels as if the Bloomsbury group have just come up with the idea of decadence and nobody ever had thought of it before.
As a result, there’s very little tension to the episode; or, rather, what tension there is is fatally mismanaged. It begins as a potentially fertile exploration of the relationship between sisters, and how that can be threatened when a man comes on the scene; but too many characters are introduced, too many problems worried about, and the issue becomes lost beneath sex scenes and cod-feminism. This happens again and again throughout the episode: a tension is introduced and quickly defused or forgotten, because actually to explore the rise of libertinism is to damage the myth of the Bloomsbury group, the myth that they were pioneers, social entrepreneurs if you like, forging their own way in a world of rules. We forget that they had servants, that they were at least a little anti-Semitist, that they weren’t totally enlightened and golden and shiny.
And this is the heart of the matter. Life in Squares just feels a bit conventional: soft-focus, romance-heavy period drama ultimately more interested in preserving a popular myth than in historical or psychological reality. The costumes are pretty, but there’s nothing much beneath the set-dressing.