Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904
Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911
Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918
Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939
The Journey Not the Arrival Matters
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 which they lived during that short period in which it was possible for the vision and the personal relationships to be more important than any of their other concerns.
E. M. Forster in The Longest Journey and Virginia Woolf in The Waves created in fiction pictures of the effect on friends over a long stretch of time of the shared vision of the group. There is the sense of something like the Holy Grail being held up, but by failing hands, and becoming tarnished in the process of the years.
Leonard Woolf had the secret of perpetual youth. Perhaps this was because his view of life scarcely altered from that which he acquired from the Apostles. Over a hundred years after Henry Sidgwick had been a member of the Society, Leonard Woolf, nearly ninety, wrote in the last of these five volumes:
The visions of civilization and the partial, hesitating, fluctuating activation of these visions in the barbarous history of man, and the classical instances in which individuals have risked everything in a fight for justice, mercy, toleration, and liberty against the entrenched forces of kings and emperors, states and establishments, principalities and powers, all these have always given me not only an intense feeling about what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, but also the kind of emotion which I get still more powerfully from a play of Sophocles or Shakespeare, the Parthenon or the Acropolis, a picture of Piero della Francesca, a cello suite of Bach or the last movement of the last piano sonata of Beethoven.
This view, derived from Cambridge, remained with him intact throughout his life. That it did so gives one the monumental feeling of Yeats’s lines: “Minute by minute they live. / The stone’s in the midst of all.” The early vision frozen into an attitude sustained intact through sixty years of external social change is a bit monolithic. It could only result in a demonstrable, monumental despair. Reading Leonard Woolf’s account of the way in which he maintained his idea of his own civilized truth, beauty, and justice through two wars, the barbarism of modern dictatorships, and the destruction of the past and the countryside, one feels the force of his despair while at the same time one sees him himself as a figure of personified hope and faith in life.
Shortly before he left Cambridge, Leonard met the two sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, who were visiting their brother Thoby Stephen. (How like E. M. Forster’s novels all this is!) He found them extremely formidable and alarming, though “their beauty literally took one’s breath away, for suddenly seeing them one stopped astonished and everything including one’s breathing for one second also stopped.” His relationship with them—or with Virginia—was, however, interrupted for seven years during which he became a member of the Colonial Service, working in Ceylon. As Police Magistrate or District Judge he carried out his duties severely, qualifying justice only with common sense in his dealings with the Singhalese. He records, though, that on occasions when he had to pass sentence, a trembling of his hands which was hereditary and which did not in ordinary circumstances affect his handwriting, caused his hand to shake so violently that it was often impossible for him to write the words “I find the accused guilty” legibly.
He gives a not altogether sympathetic picture of himself in Ceylon, where he worked on an average twelve hours a day. Yet despite what he calls his relentlessness, he found himself intensely interested in the stories that the villagers told about themselves. He felt far more sympathy for them than for his fellow colonialists. On occasions he carried out Herculean tasks with superlative energy, and with little hope that they would do any good.
For example, in 1909 he had to devote a year to combating an outbreak of the terrible rinderpest cattle disease, which occurred in the district for which he was responsible. The cattle were the most valued possessions of the natives. Acting perversely against what appeared to the villagers to be their vital interests, he traveled vast distances, shooting infected animals in front of their owners’ eyes. “For months I spent hours and days trying to control the disease and limit the disaster, riding hundreds of miles in order to try to enforce the regulations and shooting stray cattle and buffaloes on the roads and in villages as a warning.”
At the end of this account of a work of cruel kindness which exhausted and disgusted him—which drove him at times to despair—and which caused the villagers to resent him, he admits, very characteristically, that he had no idea whether his efforts had the slightest effect on the epidemic.
The rinderpest catastrophe did more to persuade him of the wrongness of imperialism than the misdeeds of his fellow colonialists—who seem, for the most part, to have been overworked and harassed human beings living under pressures which were not likely to bring out their more amiable qualities. For this plague made him see that in helping the villagers against their will, he was also imposing an alien pattern of life on them.
In some ways Growing—about Ceylon—is his most revealing volume. It shows aspects of his character which, odd as it may seem to suggest this, help us to understand how he was able to endure the terrible mental breakdowns and the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Firstly, there was his capacity to absorb himself completely in work and to work unremittingly for weeks on end. Secondly, he discovered that he could love people—and also animals—across a gulf of uncommunicability. The passages of most poignant affection in this volume are those about the villagers afflicted with inexpressible wrongs, misfortunes, and illnesses; the diseased cattle he had to shoot; and his dogs. Thirdly, and most revealing of all, there is his love of the solitude which he found in the jungle:
It is difficult to know exactly why I found the jungle so fascinating. It is a cruel and dangerous place, and being a cowardly person, I was always afraid of it. Yet I could not keep away from it. I used to love going off entirely by myself…and wander about ostensibly to shoot something for dinner, but really just to wander. I liked the complete solitude and silence and every now and again the noises which break the jungle’s silence and which, as one learns its ways, tell one of the comings and goings around one. For a few moments one had succeeded in getting oneself out of the world of one’s fellow men—which I always do with a sigh of relief—into a world of great beauty, ugliness, and danger. The beauty was extraordinary and you never knew behind what tree or bush you might not suddenly see it. You slink slowly round a rock in thick jungle and there in a small opening are five or six dazzling peacocks.
This is the volume in which Leonard came nearest to writing poetry, and in which one becomes convinced that he was a man of imagination as well as of intelligence, sensibility, and understanding. Here also he is furthest from Cambridge and Bloomsbury which, as he confesses, had become very remote to him. His Ceylon is perhaps closer to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness than to Forster’s A Passage to India. He is less concerned about what the colonialists do to the natives than what being an occupier does to oneself—and the occupier/occupying situation to both occupied and occupier.
The complicated situation he analyzed was of the occupier’s working to improve the conditions of the occupied but, in doing so, imposing upon them the standards of a civilization which was more superficial than the ancient one and not necessarily conducive to greater happiness. Living among the Kandyan villagers “I felt there was some depth of happiness rather than pleasure, of satisfaction, which is a good thing and which the western world is losing fast.” And as regards the effect of the situation on himself: