What’s the connection between Lytton Strachey and Monica Lewinsky?

Here’s a pop quiz for you: What’s the connection between Lytton Strachey and Monica Lewinsky? No googling!

Answer: There’s a Bloomsbury tale, immortalized by Virginia Woolf in her essay “Old Bloomsbury,” about how she, her sister Vanessa, and her brother-in-law Clive were sitting in the drawing room at 46 Gordon Square one evening in spring, when “suddenly,” as Woolf tells it, “the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s dress. ‘Semen?’ he said.”

For Woolf, this incident seemed to inaugurate or announce a new era in human affairs, a revolution in manners and mores, the kind of sexual candor and frankness she may have had in mind when she wrote, elsewhere, “On or about December 1910, human character changed.”

Looking back on the Lewinsky affair, and the semen-stained blue dress in particular, one wonders if Woolf was right.

Anyway, there’s an essay to be written on “Lytton and Lewinsky: Two Stains That Changed the World. Or Not.”


  1. jonnybutter August 16, 2017 at 6:44 pm | #

    Man, I was just thinking about Lewinsky. The Establishment Dems’ popularizing the ‘alt-left’ smear (yesterday) for Trump and GOP to take advantage of (today) reminded me of how she was treated.

  2. LFC August 16, 2017 at 11:28 pm | #

    Peter Stansky’s On or About December 1910 may be worth a look in this connection… or not.

    publisher’s page for the book:

    p.s. orig comment was longer, but it didn’t post. Maybe I didn’t have a sufficiently light touch on the ‘post comment’ button. (This has happened to me before here.)

  3. Larry Houghteling August 16, 2017 at 11:31 pm | #


  4. Frank Wilhoit August 17, 2017 at 3:06 pm | #

    Now tie ~~December 1910 in with George Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England.

  5. Nqabutho August 17, 2017 at 8:07 pm | #

    I don’t think either of those stains (supposing they actually existed as such) changed the world in any significant way, but go ahead and write the essay. In Woolf’s case anyway the comment on the stain indicated for Woolf a change in the world originating in other conditions in the world; the stain itself, or the comment on it, had no causal role in that. The Lewinsky stain, at least in the popular account, had a causal role, but what is its significance? Does Trump have interns? According to him he could stain away with impunity. As I wonder with him more generally, what’s holding him back?

  6. Billikin August 20, 2017 at 10:36 pm | #

    It was the best of stains, it was the worst of stains.

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