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The Love of a Pessimist

It is natural, and no doubt correct, to suppose that Leonard Woolf has been thought to deserve an elaborate and large-scale biography because he married Virginia Stephen. But one needs to be careful how one phrases that remark. For the infinitely poignant story of Virginia Woolf’s life and death would certainly have been different if there had been no Leonard Woolf; his behavior in the marriage was remarkable and is the most impressive thing about him.

Victoria Glendinning is a very experienced literary biographer, and she has constructed a scholarly, detailed, and wonderfully readable narrative of Woolf’s life, one which extends well beyond the years of his marriage. For he was, or became, a busy and influential man in many fields—as publisher, theorist of the League of Nations, active Fabian, member of a Labour Party think tank, foreign affairs editor and sparring partner of Kingsley Martin on the New Statesman, and latterly autobiographer—and he was still steadily at work almost until his death in 1969, at the age of eighty-nine. Moreover, after Virginia’s death he fell in love again very seriously, with “Trekkie,” the wife of the publisher Ian Parsons. It was an amicable affair so far as it concerned Parsons, who was involved with another woman and had no objection to Woolf’s playing a husbandly role toward Trekkie. Nevertheless, of course, Leonard’s marriage is the heart of Glendinning’s story.

She is an admirer of Leonard Woolf; nevertheless, she has done something rather strange. Woolf wrote in his first autobiographical volume, Sowing (1960), that as soon as he entered his public school (St. Paul’s) at the age of fourteen, he “at once began to develop the carapace, the façade, which, if our sanity is to survive, we must present to the outside and usually hostile world as a protection to the naked, tender, shivering soul.”1 Why did he need a carapace, Glendinning asks? “He was good at his work, he was good at games. Perhaps he was sensitive about his small stature, his late physical development, the tremor in his hands” (he was afflicted with a hereditary “familiar tremor”). No, she decides, the reason—though he “could not, would not” admit it—was his Jewishness. This is the rhetorical implication of her opening pages, which go to some length to evoke the history of British Jewry in the earlier nineteenth century.

Woolf was born into a well-to-do, assimilated Jewish family, living in considerable style in Kensington, his father being a highly successful barrister. Already in the previous generation the Woolfs had, in Glendinning’s words, joined “a Jewish middle class, much intermarried, in the professions and in business.” Nothing would be more possible, of course, or even likely, than that Leonard as a schoolboy might have come up against some anti-Semitism, giving him a sense of social inferiority; but the trouble with the theory is that he himself explicitly denied it. He told Malcolm Muggeridge in an interview in 1966 that, as a boy, he “never realized I was any different from anyone else for years. I mean, nobody has ever said ‘You dirty Jew,’ or anything like that.” In his Principia Politica: A Study of Communal Psychology (1953) he gives a description of his boyhood home, with all the subtle class distinctions present there, as a model in miniature of the British “class system” in general; but, significantly, his younger brother Philip complained that he “gave no weight to the effect of our being Jewish.”

The best Glendinning can produce in the way of support for her theory is that St. Paul’s School had a reputation for anti-Semitism, and that Compton Mackenzie told Woolf late in life that a character in Mackenzie’s novel The East Wind of Love, which gives a picture of St. Paul’s School, was partly based on Woolf.2 In the novel, the hero’s great friend is the Jewish “Emil Stern,” but he is teased for being besotted by a Jew and drops Stern, whose entire attitude toward the world is darkened by the betrayal. As a reason for ignoring Woolf’s own denial this seems remarkably flimsy. As an adult, of course, as he wrote in 1968, Woolf came up against “the common or garden anti-Semitism, from the Mosley type to the ‘some of my best friends have been Jews.’” But, he said, “it had not touched me personally and only very peripherally.” Glendinning’s defiance over this is a bold decision—I would think rather too bold—for a biographer.

Leonard’s father died in 1892, not leaving a great sum in his will, and his mother, the flamboyant and loquacious Marie, was forced to move to a smaller house in Putney. She was proud of her success in holding the family together, and the children, apart from Leonard, made a cult of her, calling her “Lady” throughout their lives. Leonard himself was irritated by her. He thought she lived in a self-admiring dream world, and there would be serious trouble between them later on.

Leonard Woolf’s education at St. Paul’s was Spartan and severe and very largely focused on the Greco-Roman classics—so indispensable, as everyone agreed, for any young man preparing to rule the colonies, or indeed to do anything in the public service. (“We did absolutely nothing else,” wrote Woolf.) He nevertheless made his mark in the school as a talker, and in his last year he was elected to the Junior Debating Society, a somewhat famous and very lively institution founded by G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, and Lucian Oldershaw.3

The great revelation for Woolf, however, was Cambridge. Entering Trinity College in 1899, he almost at once joined, or helped to form, a close-knit group of friends—Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Thoby Stephen, and Clive Bell—who later would form the core of “Bloomsbury.” He became for a time, it would seem, Strachey’s closest friend. He was not disconcerted by the “Strachey voice,” with its zestful swoopings up and down the musical scale and weird displacements of accent, nor by Strachey’s outrageous frankness and fanciful obscenity. It was as much a social as an intellectual liberation for Woolf, and he was dazzled by it.

In 1902, through Strachey, he was elected to the “Apostles,” a distinguished debating society founded in 1820, whose doings were still largely unknown to the rest of Cambridge. These were great days for the society, under the influence of the philosopher G.E. Moore, the refuter of utilitarianism and of Berkeleyan “idealism,” who had been an Apostle since 1894. Glendinning reports a paper given by Woolf on May 9, 1903, taking up the notion of Plato’s cave, where men sit as chained prisoners, mistaking the shadows cast on the wall for reality; for only the enlightened few (such as the Apostles) realized that “the real world” lay outside and that not only the shadows but the prisoners themselves were mere “phenomena.”4 In the discussion that followed, the issue was summarized as “George or George or Both?,” the Georges being the novelist George Moore, an aesthete aloof from human affairs, and the historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, a man devoted to setting things right among the cavemen. Ought the George who is on the heights to go down again into the cave? Woolf thought emphatically “Yes.” If philosophers remain outside the cave “their philosophy will never reach politicians or people.”

Thoby Stephen would tell his sisters about his friends and he described Woolf to them as “a man who trembled perpetually all over.” Why did he do that, asked Virginia, intrigued. It was part of his nature, said Thoby: he was so violent, so savage; he so despised the human race. Woolf had had a dream about throttling a man and when he woke up he had pulled his own thumb out of joint. During May Week Virginia and Vanessa came up to Cambridge to visit Thoby, looking amazingly beautiful in their white dresses, enormous hats, and parasols, though in behavior they were reserved and demure. Woolf was introduced to them, and in the following year, being about to take up a post in the Ceylon civil service, he went for a farewell dinner with the Stephens, who had moved to Gordon Square. Virginia was convalescing after a severe nervous breakdown and again seemed subdued, but he had come to be recognized as a member of her circle.

He would remain in Ceylon until 1911. The authorities found him very conscientious and efficient and gave him reasonably rapid promotion (he became assistant government agent for Hambantota in 1908); occasionally, however, there would be minor complaints against him for heavy-handedness or tyranny. On one occasion, when a Ceylonese clerk spat on the office floor, Woolf made him get down on his hands and knees and scrub the floor clean, a bitter humiliation for the clerk, who did not belong to the sweeper caste. (Woolf himself later acknowledged having been in the wrong over this.) He disliked some of his duties, especially acting as a police magistrate; when it came to writing out a “guilty” verdict his tremor would grow so bad that his hand would not obey him. Soon, indeed, he began to develop a strong opposition to imperialism.

But what most strikes one about him in this period is what a thoroughly bad state of mind he was in. He seems to have loathed almost all the people he had to deal with, pillorying them ferociously in his diary or in letters. At Jaffna, during his first year in the country, he wrote to Strachey:

Lord! I’m damnably polite and nice and quiet but I feel at any moment I may get up and burst out against the whole stupid degraded circle of degenerates and imbeciles.

The white women in Colombo give him the creeps with their “pale dried-up faces and drawling voices.” He has a prim affair with the nineteen-year-old daughter of a tea planter, but wonders whether he is

only in love with silly intrigue and controlling a situation, and sometimes merely with two big cow eyes which could never understand anything and look as if they understood everything that has ever been, is or will be.

He shares a bungalow with a colleague whom he finds perfectly grotesque but has fantasies of living

alone with a burgher concubine in a long bare whitewashed bungalow overlooking the lagoon, where time is only divided between reading Voltaire on the immense verandah and copulating in the vast and empty rooms where there is a perpetual smell of bats and damp.5

Plainly he is overwhelmingly nostalgic for Cambridge and the glamour and liberation of the Strachey circle, but then in December 1906 Strachey’s latest letter, full as usual of his lustful designs on prospective Apostles (“embryos”), for a moment disgusts him and he tears it up. They are soon writing to each other again, however, and a letter from Strachey early in 1909 contained some most amazing news. He had proposed to Virginia Stephen. As soon as he had done so he was terrified that she would accept, but fortunately she did not; and now his theme was that, at all costs, Woolf must marry her. She was “sitting waiting” for him. “She’s the only woman in the world with sufficient brains.” Woolf answered that if only this could happen, life would probably be “supreme,” but that “the horrible preliminary complications, the ghastly complications too of virginity and marriage,” appalled him.

  1. 1

    Leonard Woolf, Sowing (Hogarth Press, 1960), p. 71.

  2. 2

    Compton Mackenzie claims to have been impressed by the independence of the schoolboy Woolf’s views, though Woolf could only remember encountering Mackenzie in a rugby scrum.

  3. 3

    There is a nice account of it in G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography.

  4. 4

    The phrasing is part of an Apostolic jargon borrowed from Kant and other German metaphysicians.

  5. 5

    He had brought with him to Ceylon a seventy-volume edition of the works of Voltaire.

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