Dorothy Parker? Margaret Irwin? Kingsley Martin? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The writers, artists, and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group formed complex and shifting intimate relationships. A wit once said:
They lived in squares and loved in triangles.
The geometric wordplay referred to the residences of the group. For example, Leonard and Virginia Woolf lived in London’s Tavistock Square while Vanessa and Clive Bell lived in Gordon Square. It also referred to their love lives; e.g., Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell had a child together while she was married to Clive.
The famous author Dorothy Parker has received credit for this quip and for a more elaborate version:
They were living in squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles.
Would you please explore the provenance of this family of sayings?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1928 book “Fire Down Below” by the popular English novelist Margaret Irwin. During one scene the character Peregrine referred to Bloomsbury as Gloomsbury, and his child asked for clarification. The word “love” was not employed. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
“Where’s that, Father?”
“It is a circle, my fair child, composed of a few squares where all the couples are triangles.”
“Perry dear what are you saying?”
The children could not understand . . .
This citation was uncovered by independent scholar Stuart N. Clarke who shared his knowledge via an article in the “Virginia Woolf Bulletin” and the “Virginia Woolf Miscellany”.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Irwin’s wordplay was remembered many years later by the columnist who wrote a “A London Diary” within “The New Statesman and Nation” magazine in 1941:
I wonder what people mean by “Bloomsbury”? I asked myself as I looked at the dismantled flat. Certainly it is no longer what Margaret Irwin used to describe in the ‘twenties as the place where “all the couples were triangles and lived in squares”. Whatever it was once, it is gone now.
Kingsley Martin was the long-serving editor of the periodical, and he wrote “A London Diary” under the name “Critic”.
In 1973 “Kingsley: The Life, Letters and Diaries of Kingsley Martin” by C. H. Rolph printed an instance. Kingsley received credit for the saying, but as shown in the previous citation he disclaimed authorship:
The Bloomsbury they now lived in had already acquired its legendary and seemingly imperishable aura of intellectualism; but as Kingsley says in Father Figures (page 149) they were “on the edge of Bloomsbury but not of it”. Demographically, he used to say, it was a place where the couples were triangles who lived in squares.
In 1975 an article by John Walker in “The Saturday Review” included an anonymous instance of the saying:
. . . the Bloomsbury set—where, as some wit has said, “the couples were triangles and everyone lived in squares.”
In 1979 a book review by Dianne C. Betts in the journal “Southwest Review” used the title “Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles” and included the following passage:
Bloomsbury has long been famous, or perhaps infamous, for living in squares and loving in triangles. They dared to flaunt convention, both in their speech and their behavior.
In 1986 a review of a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb in “The New York Times” included the saying:
On their determined promiscuity, Miss Himmelfarb allows herself the wry comment that the famous description of Bloomsbury — all the couples being triangles living in squares — was wholly inadequate to do justice to their polygonal connections. Their compulsive bisexuality was matched by their rampant homosexuality.
In 2013 the journal “Victorian Review” published a review of a book by Rosemary Ashton which included an instance:
. . . she maps a detailed, historical journey through nineteenth-century Bloomsbury in order to show that the early twentieth-century Bloomsbury Circle, avant-garde writers and artists who lived in squares and loved in triangles, were successors to earlier radicals, who introduced significant reforms, primarily in education, in this neighbourhood.
In 2015 “Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group” by Amy Licence attributed the quip to Dorothy Parker:
From there to Fitzroy Square, Bedford Square and back, a circle of family and friends met to drink cocoa and eat buns, to discuss or sit in sympathetic silence, seeking personal and artistic liberation through what writer Dorothy Parker described as ‘living in squares and loving in triangles’.
Also, in 2015 the website of the U.K. newspaper “Daily Express” published an article about a BBC drama called “Life in Squares”. The actor James Norton was asked about the name of the three-part series:
It came from a description of the Bloomsbury Group (a loose association of writers, artists and philosophers of the early 20th century) as “living in Squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles”.
In conclusion, Margaret Irwin is the leading candidate for creator of this quip based on the 1928 citation. Kingsley Martin gave her credit in 1941 which provides additional evidence of her authorship. The variant saying with the word “love” (“loving”, “loved”) was published in the 1970s.
(Many thanks to Dickon Edwards of Birkbeck, University of London who notified QI of the 1928 citation that Stuart N. Clarke had discovered. Edwards also kindly provided QI with scans from the 1928 book to verify the citation. Great thanks to George Thompson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. QI located the saying within a 1960 compilation of “A London Diary” columns from “The New Statesman”. Using this information Thompson precisely located and retrieved the 1941 citation. Thanks to Benjamin Barrett who highlighted the residences and love lives of the Bloomsbury group and indicated that an explanation of the pun would be helpful to readers.)
Update History: On November 20, 2018 the 1928 citation was added. The conclusion and other parts of the article were updated to reflect the new information.