Leonard Woolf: Biographical Afterword


Published originally in the Eland edition of Growing (2015).

Leonard Woolf devoted himself to many causes in his long life. He was a political theorist, an author, an editor, a publisher and a civil servant. Yet his great and varied achievements have, to a large degree, been overshadowed by those of his wife, the novelist Virginia Woolf. Notwithstanding the accusations made against him by his detractors, which range from the slanderous to the outright absurd, Leonard was a loving and supportive husband, who nurtured his wife’s talents and made it possible for her to write her celebrated novels. He was also, at times, rather reserved. He often expressed doubt in his diary over his own abilities as a writer, and owing to a tremor in his hands, which he inherited from his father, felt uncomfortable in many social situations.

Born to Jewish parents in 1880, Leonard spent his early life in Kensington, London. His father, Solomon Rees Sidney Woolf, a barrister and QC, died when Leonard was eleven, leaving the family in financial difficulty from which it never fully recovered. Leonard attended St Paul’s School, and while there won a classical scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where through his close friendship with the writer Lytton Strachey he was elected to the Apostles. The society, which in those days included GE Moore, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes as members, discussed politics, ethics and religion; discoursed on the works of Milton, Shakespeare and Flaubert; and ate sardines on toast (known as ‘whales’), which members washed down with numerous cups of coffee.

Leonard was awarded his BA in 1902, but he stayed for another year to study for the Civil Service exam. He had intended to become a writer, yet his family’s finances required him not only to make a living for himself, but also to contribute to the household. He was not able to read for the bar as his father had done, for this cost money; nor was he convinced that he stood much chance of becoming a schoolmaster. As he complained to Lytton: ‘I have to rush about finding out whether people will allow their sons to be taught by Jews and atheists.’ Thus, when he was offered an Eastern Cadetship in the Colonial Service, he accepted the position without hesitation. He was to be stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and departed from Tilbury Docks in November 1904. The voyage took a whole calendar month plus one day; he spent his time aboard the SS Syria talking to an Irishman named Scroope and engaging in a minor romance with Scroope’s sister, a “rather wonderful female”.

While in Ceylon, as we can see from Growing, Leonard corresponded with Lytton with pressing regularity. He lost his virginity to a prostitute and sought to fathom the customs of the people he was governing; he taught himself Sinhalese and Tamil, fell ill with typhoid and worked his way through the complete works of Voltaire. Although he was put in charge of running his own district in 1908, his doubts about imperialism made a future in the service doubtful, and after travelling to England for a year’s leave in 1911, he decided, as we can see, not to return to Ceylon. During this time Leonard began a relationship with Virginia Stephen, the sister of his Cambridge friend, Thoby Stephen. In diary entries he called her Aspisa after Pericles’s refined and brilliant mistress; she described him to friends as a“penniless Jew’. Yet her love for Leonard prevailed over prevailing snobberies, and the couple married on 10 August 1912.

The following year, Leonard’s first novel, Village in the Jungle, was published. Based on his time spent in Ceylon, it was a remarkable achievement – the first English novel about imperialism by many decades to be written from the indigenous point of view rather than the coloniser’s. Quentin Bell described it as, ‘A superbly dispassionate observation…a great novel.’ Yet it did not solve Leonard’s financial troubles. Since returning to England he had struggled to make money through journalism and had even taken a job fielding complaints at an impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. To make matters worse, Virginia suffered a severe mental breakdown in 1914, and Leonard devoted much of his time to nursing her back to recovery. With his help she was able to complete her first novel, The Voyage Out, and she became increasingly dependent on Leonard, who for nearly thirty years was her carer as well as her consort.

Leonard was opposed to Britain’s involvement in the First World War which broke out that year, and was at any rate rejected for military service on medical grounds. Turning to politics and sociology instead, he joined the Labour Party and Fabian Society, and became a regular contributor to the New Statesman, then in its infancy. He also wrote two books on consumer co-operative socialism, in which he suggested that economics should be organised according to the needs of consumers, as well as two Fabian reports on international government. These became part of the basis for the League of Nations.

Despite his involvement in politics, Leonard remained an active member of London’s literary society. In 1917 he and his wife bought a small hand-operated printing press and with the publication of Two Stories, which they bound themselves, founded the Hogarth Press. The pamphlet contained one story by Leonard (‘The Three Jews’) and one by Virginia (‘The Mark on the Wall’), who by now had developed a distinctive and highly imaginative prose style. Just as Virginia appeared to be finding her voice as a writer, Leonard, whose spare, unaffected prose was not well suited to the trends of the time, was beginning to lose confidence in his own. Rather than focusing on novels and stories, he decided to turn his attention to journalism, and through the Hogarth Press issued many tracts on politics and economics.

In addition to these tracts, the Woolfs published a number of seminal literary works over the next few years by such writers as E M Forster, John Maynard Keynes, T S Eliot, Christopher Isherwood and Robert Graves. They very nearly published Ulysses, though the two printers to whom Leonard showed the manuscript refused to take it for fear of prosecution. While running the press and caring for his wife, Leonard continued to take a fervent interest in politics. To coincide with the 1922 election, he wrote and published Socialism and Co-operation, in which he blamed the two main political parties, and in particular their archaic methods, for the First World War. He took issue, too, with the Treaty of Versailles and argued that in order to build a united Europe it must be amended to be fairer to Germany. He called for recognition of the Soviet Union, for Britain to adopt a more equitable system of taxation and for the government to put in place an educational system by which everybody would receive the same opportunities up to university level.

He also acted as the literary editor of The Nation and Athenaeum, commissioning many talented young authors, including Robert Graves and E M Forster. He founded his own political journal, The Political Quarterly, in 1930. In its early days it featured articles by writers of varying political persuasions, and reported on the important issues of the time, including the threat of totalitarianism in all its forms. Fascism was in Leonard’s view entirely deleterious to the fundamental values of civilisation, which for him were freedom, democracy, equality, justice, liberty and tolerance. The regimes of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler, with their disdain for basic human rights and freedom of expression, represented everything to which he was opposed.

Leonard and Virginia would later discover that their names had been included in the Nazi’s ‘Black Book’, a list of prominent Britons to be arrested if the Nazis had successfully invaded Britain in 1940. Like her husband, Virginia abhorred and feared totalitarianism, and the outbreak of the Second World War did much to worsen her already severe bouts of depression. Leonard tried to nurse Virginia through her turmoil. This time, however, he was unable to help her: on 28th March, 1941, Virginia wrote a letter in which she expressed her deepest regret and explained that her condition was once again getting out of hand: ‘What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it.’

That same morning, feeling that she could no longer be a burden to her husband, Virginia put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. She was 59.

‘It is no good trying to delude oneself that one can escape the consequences of a great catastrophe,’ Leonard later wrote. ‘Virginia’s suicide and the horrible days which followed between her disappearance and the inquest had the effect of a blow both upon the head and the heart.’

After the death of his wife Leonard began a relationship with Trekkie Parsons, a painter and an amateur botanist, whose husband, Ian Parsons, was abroad at the time with the Royal Air Force. For the next three decades Trekkie divided her weeks between the two men; when staying at Leonard’s house in Rodmell she slept in Virginia’s bedroom and worked in her studio. She was twenty years younger than Leonard.

In the years following Virginia’s death Leonard edited his wife’s diaries for publication, and in doing so was inspired to record his own recollections. He went on to write five volumes of autobiography: Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), Downhill All the Way (1967) and The Journey not the Arrival Matters (1969). These books reveal his boundless charm, his dry sense of humour and his sympathetic nature. Never before had he bared so much of his soul to the reader or, to use his words, given such a ‘clear spiritual X-ray’ of his character. They were extolled by critics at the time as his finest achievement, the sort of major work that, in his youth, he had sought to write but had been unable to. In the 1930s, he had conceived After the Deluge, his ambitious study of ‘scientific history’, as his masterwork. It was supposed to have the stature of books that his many talented friends had written. Instead it fell swiftly into obscurity and became a minor footnote in Leonard’s career.

The autobiographies faired far better: their success increased Leonard’s income to such a degree that, for the first time in years, Virginia’s royalties no longer added up to ten times more than his own income, but somewhere closer to five times. In the fifty years since their publication, they have seldom been out of print, and are still popular with anybody interested in the Woolfs and the Bloomsbury set.

While working on these books, Leonard lived a peaceful existence at his home in Rodmell. He accepted an honorary doctorate from the then-new University of Sussex in 1964 and the following year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His health was good and he was even well enough to revisit Ceylon. In April of 1969, however, at the grand age of 88, he suffered a stroke and although his condition improved slightly, he never fully recovered, and died on 14 August 1969 in the early hours of the morning. He was cremated and his ashes scattered alongside his wife’s beneath an elm tree in his much loved garden.

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