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.” 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 …

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