A writer diminished

“Defenders of Leonard Woolf’s wife, Virginia, have turned her into a heroine, even a victim, and diminished his formidable achievements”

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Leonard Woolf (1880-1969 (©LEBRECHT/ALAMY)

Leonard Woolf—like George Orwell—had a logical mind, a lucid style, a rare honesty and a keen eye for cant. He was, after John Maynard Keynes, the most worldly, capable and impressive member of the Bloomsbury Group. Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) and Leonard’s five-volume autobiography—Sowing, Growing, Beginning Again, Downhill All the Way and The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, 1960-69 (his participial titles influenced by Henry Green’s novels Loving, Living and Party Going)—are the greatest Bloomsbury books. But feminist defenders of Leonard’s wife, Virginia Woolf, have turned her into a heroine, even a victim, and diminished his formidable achievements.

Born in London, the son of a Jewish barrister and QC who died young and left his large family in straitened circumstances, Leonard was educated at St. Paul’s and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was chosen for the secret society, the Apostles. He spent seven years as a super-efficient colonial officer in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), founded the Hogarth Press (which hand-printed Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and many other important literary works) and was an editor of The Nation and the Political Quarterly. Always hoping to improve the world, he was active in the Fabian Society, the Labour Party and the creation of the League of Nations, and wrote 22 polemical, propagandistic and sometimes visionary books on imperial and international subjects. It is doubtful, however, that the peace conference he advocated could have prevented the impending catastrophe of the First World War.

In Ceylon, Leonard learned to speak, read and write Tamil and Sinhalese, and enjoyed his arduous work and formidable responsibilities. Though he weighed only 60kg, he was a good athlete as well as a keen gardener and lover of animals. In Ceylon he kept a tame baby leopard, a deer, a monkey and a mongoose. He constantly moved around his district by horse, bicycle and bullock cart, improving the agriculture, overseeing the harvesting of salt and collection of opium revenue, and supervising the massive religious pilgrimage to Kataragama (which I saw in 1969). He also judged criminal cases. He wrote that when the drop was too long in a public hanging, “the man’s head was practically torn from his body & there was a great jet of blood which went up about 3 or 4 feet high, covering the gallows & priest who stands praying on the steps”.

Leonard said he worked hard to increase the people’s “prosperity, diminish the poverty and disease, start irrigation works, open schools”. He was well aware of the benefits of a benevolent and incorruptible imperial rule: hospitals, schools, roads, trains, factories, laws, the English language and Christianity as well as the abolition of slavery,
cannibalism and genital mutilation. Paradoxically, he was opposed to the British domination of native peoples in India and Ceylon, but thought the less developed countries of Africa should wait for independence. His novel The Village in the Jungle (1913), based on his colonial years, was praised in Blackwood’s Magazine by Sir Hugh Clifford, the acting Governor of Ceylon, for being “written with first-hand knowledge of the people and their surroundings, with real psychological insight and sympathy”.

While Leonard was still in Ceylon, the homosexual Lytton Strachey bizarrely proposed to Virginia, before coming to his senses and immediately withdrawing the offer. (Their marriage would have been a certain disaster.) Though Leonard had met Virginia only three times, Strachey urged him to propose from Asia: “She’s young, wild, imaginative, discontented and longing to be in love. If I were you, I should telegraph.” 

Virginia Woolf had a nasty personality—right up there with Strachey. She snobbishly condemned the character and work of her contemporaries, denigrating “the strugglings and stumblings of D.H. Lawrence’s mind” in The Lost Girl, and called Ulysses “merely the scratching of pimples on the body of a boot boy”. When Katherine Mansfield died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 34, Virginia’s heartless response was: “A shock of relief?—a rival the less?”

Leonard had a very difficult marriage and was deeply devoted to his wife. Though caustic with colleagues who failed to meet his high standards, he was infinitely tolerant with Virginia. She bluntly declared that she was not physically attracted to him, but he saw their marriage, Peter Stansky writes, as “a calling, a commitment to a genius”. He abandoned a brilliant career in Ceylon, though he would certainly have achieved a governorship and knighthood had he remained in the colonial service. He gave up fiction after publishing two novels and several stories so he wouldn’t compete with Virginia, struggled to pay her medical expenses and put aside his own work to care for her during her recurrent mental crises. 

Virginia was wont to make antisemitic remarks, referring to Leonard as “my penniless little Jew” and when a question was raised would remark: “Let the Jew answer.” After being sexually abused by her two half-brothers, she was highly strung and frigid. Leonard was unable to penetrate her, and they had no sex life or children—a great sacrifice for this passionate man. Meanwhile Virginia had a long lesbian affair with the also-married Vita Sackville-West. She suffered depressions and mental breakdowns, and finally drowned herself in 1941. Her suicide note to Leonard exclaimed: “I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good.” After her death he supervised the posthumous publication of her works, appointed her nephew Quentin Bell as her biographer and sold her papers to university libraries.

Despite Leonard’s devotion and Virginia’s grateful tribute, some of her biographers maintained that he was too domineering. Stephen Trombley’s All That Summer She Was Mad (1982) absurdly claimed that Virginia “was perfectly sane. The diagnosis of insanity was an attempt on the part of the medical profession to enforce unwritten social codes as if they were the law of the land”. Irene Coates’ Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf? (1998) concedes that Virginia was insane, but wildly asserts that Leonard was responsible for the unravelling of her sanity and her suicide—though there is absolutely no evidence for these accusations.  In contrast to T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who put their crazy wives in insane asylums (Zelda Fitzgerald died there in a fire), Leonard nursed Virginia himself. If he had confined her in an asylum, he would have prevented her suicide, but also ended her literary career and condemned her to a loveless existence.

Leonard helped to puff Virginia’s novels, which are charged with sentimentality and style but lack substance and depth. Her exalted reputation is based more on her personal than her literary qualities. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a distinguished man of letters; she had a beautiful and talented sister; she herself was very beautiful and attracted to women; she was highly praised by the incestuous and self-congratulatory Bloomsberries; she was traumatised by the deaths of her young brother Adrian and her nephew Julian Bell, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War; she twice attempted suicide and eventually killed herself.

After Leonard’s excellent autobiography, substantial editions of his letters (1990 and 2001) and a good biography by Victoria Glendinning (2006) as well as his leading role in the avalanche of books about Virginia, it is quite difficult to say anything new about his life and works. Though Leonard was an atheist, Fred Leventhal and Peter Stansky have forcibly rammed him into a series of “spiritual lives”. The authors have already written about Leonard, and their short, introductory, sympathetic book, based on published material, has no argument and seems familiar. Stansky’s section on Leonard’s life is repetitious and Leventhal’s section on the political writings repeats a lot of what Stansky has already said. They quote extensively from Leonard’s autobiography, whose perception and profundity recall the Wisdom Books of the Hebrew scriptures; they don’t discuss his masterpiece novel.

Leventhal writes that the “interpreter of world affairs, the inveterate political gadfly, the consummate committee man, settled into a role as a public intellectual”. But he does not evaluate the current significance (if any) of Leonard’s mostly forgotten political books. Leonard, too severe on himself, remarked after two disastrous world wars that he had “achieved practically nothing”.

Leventhal justly praises Leonard’s “moral integrity and generosity of spirit, his lack of pretension, his austere and irascible persona, his stoicism and probity”. After Virginia’s death he found emotional fulfilment with his lover Trekkie Parsons, the estranged wife of his publishing partner at Chatto & Windus, which had bought the Hogarth Press. In a letter to Trekkie in 1943, Leonard expressed his near-existential creed:

The moment comes when one must stand up and defy fate. And that, I believe, is really the only way to meet it and to deal with God, death, and life. If one can recognise fate as fate, the inevitable as inevitable, even one’s own fate becomes impersonal. Then you can stand up and defy the universe, which is the only right attitude for a human being.   


Leonard Woolf: Bloomsbury Socialist
By Fred Leventhal and Peter Stansky
Oxford, 213pp, £30.00