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 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:

I certainly, all through my time in Ceylon, enjoyed my position and the flattery of being the great man and the father of the people. That was why, as time went on, I became more and more ambivalent, politically schizophrenic, an anti-imperialist who enjoyed the fleshpots of imperialism, loved the subject peoples and their way of life, and knew from the inside how evil the system was beneath the surface for ordinary men and women.

He does not confess to any deterioration of his character while he was in Ceylon, but all the same an increasing dissatisfaction with his “arrogant,” “over-severe,” “relentless” self is evident.

So he returned to England, and married Virginia Stephen. For a few weeks in 1911 he seems to have recovered the Cambridge vision, lived that life of idealism mixed with pleasure, among his old friends.

However, Cambridge had now hardened into Bloomsbury, a fact he took notice of many years later when J. M. Keynes in September 1938 read a paper to “a small audience of intimate friends” in which he discussed the vicious comments made by D. H. Lawrence in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell after a weekend he had spent in Cambridge, staying at Trinity College with Bertrand Russell. At this time Lawrence also met J. M. Keynes, Francis Birrell, Duncan Grant, and the Stracheys. Lawrence wrote:

To hear these young people talk really fills me with black fury: they talk endlessly, but endlessly—and never, never a good thing said. They are cased each in a hard little shell of his own and out of this they talk words. There is never for one second any outgoing of feeling and no reverence, not a crumb or grain of reverence. I cannot stand it. I will not have people like this—I had rather be alone. They made me dream of a beetle that bites like a scorpion. But I killed it—a very large beetle.

It gives some idea of the persistence of a group as amorphous and difficult to define as Bloomsbury that here, spanning half a century and two world wars, is Leonard Woolf discussing in Sowing, in 1960, what Keynes in 1938 wrote about a letter Lawrence wrote in 1915. Keynes, in his slightly patronizing way, having observed that Lawrence was “jealous” of the Cambridge friends, goes on to concede that perhaps they did, “like waterflies, skim too gracefully” “as light and reasonable as air” over the surface of life, “without any contact with the eddies and currents underneath.” There was “a thinness and superficiality, as well as the falsity, of our view of man’s heart.”

Leonard, having left Cambridge in 1904 and returned to find the Bloomsbury of 1911, argues that “a great deal of what Maynard wrote in his Memoir is true of Bloomsbury in 1914 but not true of the undergraduates of 1903.” This suggests a possible definition of Bloomsbury. Perhaps it was a shrine set up in a part of London called Bloomsbury where certain people, most of whom lived in that neighborhood, blew on a fading glowing Cambridge coal, to keep its brightness. If one thinks of E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Roger Fry as at the center of Bloomsbury, this is not so much because they exhibited its idiosyncrasies, but because in their writing they revealed something of the original vision in its purest form. And G. E. Moore, from whose Principia Ethica the impulse derived, was not Bloomsbury. For he remained in Cambridge, pure vintage 1904.

The virtue of Bloomsbury, compensating for accretions of snobbery, complacency, and cliquishness, was that a group of friends strove to remain true to values of intellect, art, friendship, and social justice, and judged their behavior by these values throughout their lives. Although seeming “modernistic” to most of their contemporaries, and although being tolerant of homosexuality and sexual promiscuity, members of Bloomsbury had a sense of scale. They were temperate, unextravagant, and they lived lives which were proportioned, in their love-making, eating, drinking, traveling, and general outlay of body, wealth, and mind, according to the measure of “invisible values” (to use a Forsterish phrase).

The fault of Bloomsbury—as distinct from the original Cambridge vintage 1904—was a pervasive snobbishness which extended to many things: intellect, taste, and, less overtly, breeding. Intellectually it was Francophile (that is one reason why, reacting to them, members of my generation went to Germany), socially it was upper-class English. Bloomsbury deplored naïveté unless it could be sold as charm (charm and good looks were extremely vendable). But no group of people was more skilled at making an intruder feel that he had come into an artistically designed room where he was standing awkwardly on a handmade rug with muddy boots, without being spoken to.

And so, ultimately the values whereby Bloomsbury excluded Wyndham Lewis, F. R. Leavis, the Anglican God of T. S. Eliot, and the “dark gods” of D. H. Lawrence from serious discussion were snobbish. Religious intensity and the religiously intense were excessive, too openly serious and menacing. They offended against good taste. Maynard Keynes in the memoir from which I have cited only considers D. H. Lawrence under the aspect of his once having made remarks about Cambridge which twenty years later can be sucked at like a bitter-sweet chocolate. (Enter Lawrence.) Lawrence: “You’re a black beetle.” (Exit Lawrence.) There is not the slightest suggestion that Lawrence had to be considered in the light of his being the greatest imaginative genius of his time. And to judge from various timid attempts I made to discuss him with them, I am afraid that Leonard and Virginia would not have admitted the genius of Lawrence either.

Leonard Woolf takes up a point made by Wittgenstein about them, echoing Lawrence’s, that they lacked “reverence for everything and everyone.” His answer is “we held nothing sacred and in religious respect,” but that “while refusing to accept or swallow anything or anyone on the mere ‘authority’ of anyone, in fact after exercising our own judgement,” (we) nevertheless showed reverence for “truth, beauty, works of art, some customs, friendship, love, many living men and women and many of them dead.”

They were neither frenzied Dionysians nor luminous Apollonians (though perhaps, covertly and in her art, Virginia was both). The effect of Bloomsbury was debilitating to anyone to whom it was not second nature to combine temperance with cultivated moments of permitted intemperance. The son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, Julian—a boy who, it is noted, shouted and laughed too uproariously as a child—in the Thirties threw up his Augustan-style witty poetry, his French-style mistresses, his Cambridge thesis, joined the Spanish Republicans and got killed. One cannot escape the conclusion that his death was at least in part a gesture of protest against the tolerant Bloomsbury restraints.

A social or cultural group of people does not, however, create the attitudes of exceptional individuals who may belong to it. It merely provides the conditioning circumstances in which they flourish or wither—whichever they happen to do. The exceptional does not merely reflect the attitudes of the group. He develops his own uniqueness within it. Leonard and Virginia Woolf were the very exceptional plants who flourished on this soil.

That Leonard so flourished is rather more surprising than that Virginia did. For one thing, he was so consciously—and they were so conscious of him as—a Jew. Cambridge Apostles were essentially blue-blooded and despite their intellectualism had the air of keeping a stable of athletic Cambridge Blues across the road. Keynes in his memoir calls Leonard (exercising of course his privilege of what Sidgwick called “playful banter”) “Woolf, a rabbi”—and seemed a bit surprised to find him among them.

For another thing, Leonard, unremittingly industrious, might well have seemed a bore. Even after he left Ceylon, he remained a kind of voluntary, vocational civil servant, animating endless committees of the Labour Party and the Fabian Society, the League of Nations Union, and even village politics. He had a whole life of meetings on these committees with Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Gilbert Murray, Clement Attlee, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and hundreds of other committee workers and do-gooders. He edited The Political Quarterly, and at various times, when Kingsley Martin was absent, The New Statesman. In addition to all this he managed his and Virginia’s own publishing firm, The Hogarth Press.

He fitted into Bloomsbury because he had the outstanding qualification of a member of a group of friends—that in spite of his involvement with the boring he was not in the least a bore. There are, it is true, longueurs in the autobiography, when, for example, he discusses at too great length the affairs of The Hogarth Press. But this is because autobiography is of necessity a monologue. In conversation he was as much a listener as a talker. To be with him was to experience the very rare excitement of total communication with someone. He had that perfect clarity of expression in his own speech which is exemplified in the writing in these volumes: so that he could make a dull subject—such as his account here of the English Cooperative Movement in Beginning Again—seem fascinating and amusing.

At the same time he was a listener who bridged with his attention the hiatuses and gaps, straightened out the windings, of what one was saying, so that he gave one the illusion that one was being lucid. He not only held you with his own conversation but he also listened with a glittering eye. He had no air of authority and importance. He simply projected into everything he said, or heard, or did, his whole personality. I do not doubt that the Singhalese villagers poured out their hearts to him, because, although in authority, and even a stern judge to them, they must have felt he was simply himself and, although in office, in no way an official.

To be both personal and at the same time a power in the world was very Bloomsbury. It would be almost true to write: “Scratch a Bloomsbury and you will find a public servant or a political thinker.” The outstanding members Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and Virginia Woolf came from families much distinguished in public life—the Anglo-Indian military Stracheys, Virginia’s father Leslie Stephen and her cousins H. A. L. Fisher (ex-Cabinet Minister) and Admiral Fisher, and the Quaker, public-spirited, chocolate-manufacturing Frys. Moreover although they shied away from the public platform, from uniforms, medals, and so on, members of Bloomsbury liked backstage politics: the more secretly glamorous, the more upper-class socialistic, the better. Although the values of the Apostles were Shelleyan they were also (after all, like Shelley’s) those of a ruling-class élite. The vision was vouchsafed to members of the most select upper-class undergraduate society in England.

Leonard once told me that what was boring about the unpublished sections of Virginia’s journal was that so much of them was about illness. A great deal of the last three volumes of his autobiography is, inevitably, about it too. It is agonizing rather than boring. Virginia underwent periods of insanity—the worst and the longest of which coincided with the First World War. Her attacks of insanity were precipitated by the exhaustion consequent on writing. When she was finishing a novel, or confronted by having to correct the proofs, she would become nervous and excited, refuse to eat, have hallucinations, talk more and more until she became completely incoherent, refuse all attempts to help her, becoming indeed aggressively violent with those who tried to do so. On these occasions she was also suicidal. And, throughout their marriage, when she was sane, Leonard always had to watch over her, to see that she did not exhaust herself and enter the dizzy spiral which would end with her having to be tended day and night by nurses.

He describes these illnesses in very great detail, as he does also their social life, their travels, their work together, when she was well. He tells how they started The Hogarth Press partly because they had both always been attracted by the art of printing—so they bought a press—and partly because the manual work was therapy for Virginia. Among the first pamphlet-size books they printed were Two Stories by themselves, Prelude by Katherine Mansfield, Poems, and, later, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. Later on they farmed out printing and The Hogarth Press became their own publishing firm.

Leonard relates the story of The Hogarth Press in too relentless detail, giving the name, date, and price of every book they published, analyzing the sales of his own and Virginia’s books, and ending up in The Journey Not the Arrival Matters with an unfair and biased blow-by-blow account of the row which brought about their parting from their co-director and partner, John Lehmann. This is the only part of his autobiography which seems obsessional and boring.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, this autobiography gives the impression of perfect candor. And indeed, though sometimes prejudiced, Leonard was a most candid person. However there are, as it were, pages missing. He does not tell the whole story. For example, he supplies every detail of his own and Virginia’s earnings from their books. This may delude the unsuspecting reader into thinking that here is a complete statement of their financial situation. However, he is silent about the cost of employing four nurses for months on end and in the middle of a world war, during Virginia’s first breakdown. Again, he tells us that they were friends of Harold Nicolson and his wife, Vita Sackville-West. He does not tell us that for some months Virginia was passionately in love with Vita, that this is the subject of her novel Orlando, and that the affair caused a major disturbance in both Leonard’s and Harold Nicolson’s lives.

The reader should be warned that there are such reticences, and that he may well expect some surprises when Mr. Quentin Bell publishes the life of his aunt Virginia, which he is, I understand, now writing. Leonard is also extremely reticent about his relationship with Virginia, in its more intimate aspects, when she was well. She once said to me: “What is wonderful about Leonard is that after all these years of marriage, I have no idea what he is going to say when he comes into the room.” That is a tribute. Perhaps what they had in common was their being, both of them, so extraordinary, and their remaining extraordinary to each other. She also had her solitude to match his. They both could understand what it meant to be alone. This can be a bond. Most of all they both had sincerity and objectivity which cut through all nonsense and went to the heart of any subject. This may sound austere but in fact candor and truth are delicious—and not at all boring—and as much at the root of real funniness as of the Roman severity which they also had.

Virginia Woolf is probably considered genteel by many people, but she could in fact discuss anything, including her own madness or—with equal objectivity—going bathing naked (in answer to his challenge) with Rupert Brooke. She never was embarrassing. Once, when I was staying with them a weekend in the country, we were discussing someone’s broken marriage—due perhaps to sexual failure—and I, being very young, asked timidly: “How much importance do you attach to sex in marriage?” “It depends on how much importance you attach to cocks and cunts,” said Leonard. Doubtless this answer would have enraged D.H. Lawrence but it was alleviating—an example of the candor (rarer in those days than now) which puts light and serious considerations together. This is to my mind true seriousness—funny.

This autobiography is above all a self-portrait of Leonard Woolf. It shows him as a man of extremely definite ideas arrived at by rational processes scarcely modified throughout his life. The most important thing to him was civilization. By this he meant a society whose leaders dealt truthfully with the citizens of a democracy, where beauty and the arts were honored, and where there were good laws administered justly. By 1960 he still thought that it had not been absurd in 1904 to think that an Athenian democracy which was not built on a slave state could be attained by the young who reacted against Victorianism:

There was no shadow of past defeat; the omens were all favourable. We were not, as we are today, fighting with our backs to the wall against a resurgence of barbarism and barbarians. We were not part of a negative movement of destruction, against the past. We were out to construct something new; we were in the van of the builders of a new society which should be free, rational, civilized, pursuing truth and beauty. It was tremendously exhilarating.

It is significant that Leonard looked to the Dreyfus case as the symbol for his time of what the then révoltés were fighting for. It was a struggle in which thousands of people passionately took sides against a great injustice inflicted on one man, a Jew, and fought for many years in order that this injustice should be righted. The difference for Leonard between his youth and his old age was that in his youth this one man Dreyfus had been vindicated, in his age “millions of Dreyfuses” had been murdered by Russian communists and German Nazis.

He could understand that the young of today should embrace “isms,” become angry young men (or beatniks or hippies) rather than accept defeat. But that they did so seemed to him further symptoms of the triumph of evil. He had no sympathy with communism, fascism, or any other authoritarian form of politics. He also had no sympathy with any religion, though

if one must have a religion, Buddhism seems to me superior to all other religions…. I could never myself believe in [the] Buddhism [of this priest]; it seemed to be, like all metaphysics, a dream which is after all nothing but a dream. But it is a civilized and humane dream of considerable beauty and it has eliminated most of the crude anthropomorphic and theological nonsense which encrusts other religions.

In his nonreligion, G. E. Moore was Christ who remained perfect to the end:

Moore was older. The extraordinary purity and beauty of character and of mind were still there, the strange mixture of innocence and wisdom. The purity, moral and mental, was the most remarkable of Moore’s qualities; I have never known anything like it in any other human being. It was as though Socrates, Aristotle, and the Pure Fool—the Reine Tor, is it?—had grown inextricably entangled in the same mind and body.

At the end of his life, he did a sum, and decided (perhaps with humorous-serious exaggeration) that he had devoted 200,000 hours of his life to good works and achieved absolutely nothing. (There was something Russian about him. Can’t one imagine a character in Chekhov saying that?) However, as his last volume’s title (The Journey Not the Arrival Matters) indicates, he also decided that good, or illusory good, was worth doing for its own sake:

In one’s personal life, in terms of humanity and human history and human society, certain things are of immense importance: human relationships, happiness, truth, beauty or art, justice or mercy…. Though all that I tried to do politically was completely futile and ineffective and unimportant, for me personally it was right and important that I should do it, even though at the back of my mind I was well aware that it was ineffective and unimportant.

About this, I can only remark that it reaches the limits of honest statement. It suggests indeed something like a dead end, a recurring decimal. For no one saying it does not also hear a voice which says, “But after all, what I did may have been important.” And beyond that he hears another voice which says: “But you have to recognize it was not important.” And beyond that another voice which says: “It may have been important,” and beyond that…and so on to infinity.

Why one is grateful to Leonard Woolf for this autobiography is precisely that he defines the limits of the honest, clear-speaking, perfectly candid man…And beyond that?

This Issue

April 23, 1970