The Perfectly Candid Man

Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904

by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, 224 pp., $5.95

Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911

by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, 256 pp., $5.95

Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918

by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, 288 pp., $5.95

Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939

by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, 259 pp., $5.95

The Journey Not the Arrival Matters

by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, 210 pp., $5.95

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf; drawing by David Levine

Born in 1880, Leonard Woolf died in 1969, having corrected the proofs of The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the last volume of his autobiography, a few weeks before he died. As the opening pages of Sowing, the first of these five volumes, show, he was intensely conscious of his Jewish origins on both sides of his family. His grandfather was Benjamin Woolf, a fairly prosperous London tailor (but on whose death certificate, Leonard points out, was written simply “gentleman”). His father, Sidney Woolf, rose above trade and became an extremely successful barrister. Leonard’s mother came from what Leonard calls a “soft” Dutch Jewish family (her father was a diamond merchant), the De Jonghs. They had nine children, of whom Leonard was the second son. Sidney Woolf died in 1892, when Leonard was only twelve, and his mother from having been affluent was reduced to difficult financial circumstances. Luckily her sons were most of them clever, and Leonard was one of the four who got scholarships at St Paul’s School in London and of the three who got scholarships at Cambridge.

He went to Cambridge in 1899 where among his contemporaries were Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, Thoby Stephen (brother of Virginia Woolf), Clive Bell, and J. M. Keynes. Among the Fellows of Trinity in 1902 were J. McTaggart, A. N. Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore.

His life began really at Cambridge, as it seems to have done for several members of his generation. Suddenly he felt that “to be young was very heaven.” At Cambridge he found friends who accepted him as an equal. They discussed literature and philosophy, and they played elaborate games in which they dramatized one another’s characters as those in Henry James’s novels. They laughed at one another’s eccentricities and delighted in them, Lytton Strachey’s high squeaky voice and legs tied into what Leonard called the “Strachean knot,” Thoby Stephen sculptural and monolithic, but with an infinitude of charm, Clive Bell forever fox-hunting but readily converted to the arts. They walked through Cambridge quadrangles reciting Swinburne.

They were an extremely fortunate generation. They lived their values, which provided them with standards by which they judged the world for the rest of their lives. Leonard, who belonged to the élite undergraduate society called the Apostles, quotes from a memoir by Henry Sidgwick about “the Society,” of which Sidgwick was a member in 1856: Sidgwick writes,

I can only describe it as the spirit of the pursuit of truth with absolute devotion and unreserve by a group of intimate friends, who were perfectly frank with each other and indulged in any amount of humorous sarcasm and playful banter…

Leonard Woolf comments that the Apostles of his generation would have subscribed to this account. In 1904 in Cambridge, a few friends, it seems, experienced a secular vision which they shared and in the light of…

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