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.

He came to England on leave in June 1911, returning to his mother’s house in Putney, and was soon seeing Virginia fairly often, becoming a tenant in the house to which she and her brother Adrian had moved at 38 Brunswick Square. He was fast falling in love with her, and in his diary he celebrated her beauty and brilliance under the title of “Aspasia” (name of the cultivated mistress of Pericles). That his misanthropic self was still in existence one sees from an entry in his diary of quite hysterical repulsion toward the gentle and high-minded Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson: “a lascivious male old maid …an effete and rotten old lecher in the body of a eunuch frog…. I would rather touch a decaying dogfish than his body.” Vanessa liked the idea of Woolf’s marrying and looking after her sister; and in January 1912, with her encouragement, he plucked up courage to propose and was not entirely rebuffed. He was in doubt anyway about whether he wanted to continue in the civil service, and since there could be no question of Virginia’s coming to Ceylon, he sent in his resignation. In May, after some vacillations, she told him that she loved him, and they were married in August at the St. Pancras Registry Office.

He had practically no money—was, as Virginia liked to say to her friends, a “penniless Jew”—but this came as no surprise to her. More importantly, it was not clear whether they should, or could, have sexual relations. When he kissed her, as happened once during their courtship, she said she felt “no more than a rock,” and her doctors were inclined to think physical relations, and the attempt to have children, might be dangerous for her. In fact, the two experimented sexually a little during their honeymoon, but soon gave up.

We have come to an important part of the story. For what one cannot but conclude is that, with some part of himself, Woolf was deeply grateful to Virginia for not demanding sex from him and (to use his own phrase) sparing him the “ghastly complications of virginity and marriage.” The effect on him was astonishing. One might be tempted to say he became a “changed man,” but that would not be right. It was, rather, that there was now a new man side by side with the rancorous and deeply disturbed old one: an angel of forbearance, patience, wisdom, and practicality. My language may sound extravagant, but in view of the fantastic difficulty of what he had undertaken, and in a sense knew he was undertaking—for Virginia suffered a desperate psychotic breakdown within a year of their wedding and was to experience several more—it seems the only fair estimate of his conduct. He was, and continued to be, deeply and genuinely in love with her, and he had the shrewdness to realize that this was what she wanted and absolutely needed, so that he could scarcely tell her so too often. (Glendinning is good on this.)

Sometime in the early 1930s Virginia asked a friend what was the happiest moment in one’s whole life and, “with a shining face,” she answered her own question:

I think it’s the moment when one is walking in one’s garden, perhaps picking off a few dead flowers, and suddenly one thinks: “My husband lives in that house, and he loves me.”

To what extent she was in love with Leonard is a question of rather less importance. His idea of their turning printer, so relieving Virginia’s overabsorption in writing by spells of mindless physical labor such as typesetting (in the best of causes, literature), strikes one as inspired. (Quentin Bell, in his biography, writes that she would sometimes mildly curse her duties to the Hogarth Press as a nuisance, but that is hardly to the point.) Equally impressive is Leonard’s carefully considered decision to lie to her about her long novel The Years, which she was writing, with terrible accesses of self-doubt, during the middle 1930s. By agreement, he only read it at the galley-proof stage, taking an evening to do so while she waited in agony for his verdict; and on finishing he said, “I think it is extraordinarily good.” It was far from his real opinion, but any other response, so he probably rightly thought, would have precipitated another breakdown.

That the “new man” I have spoken of was not the death of the old one is brought home to us by his novel The Wise Virgins, begun during his honeymoon and published in 1914. Its protagonist, the young artist Harry Davis (evidently based to some extent on Woolf himself), feels himself hopelessly imprisoned in a vulgar, petty-minded suburban life. He falls in love with another painter in his studio, the dazzling Camilla Lawrence (plainly modeled on Virginia), and is intrigued, half against his will, by her emancipated, arrogant, effete family. She rejects him as a lover, however; and in his gloom and frustration he damns any chance of escape from his oppressive milieu by allowing the naive adolescent daughter of some family friends to fall in love with him and get him into bed with her. It causes so much scandal that he is trapped into marriage, and the novel ends in a miasma of hatred and rancor:

He hated them all intensely, his mother, Mrs Garland, Gwen; the thought of them filled him with loathing and disgust, as though they were something creeping, soiled. The foul, sordid world! There it was in Mrs. Davis, sitting wrapped round in her stale nasty clothes, soft, peevish, tear-stained. The foul and fetid world!6

His mother was intensely hurt and furious (as well she might have been) upon reading what was so obviously, at least to her friends and neighbors, a savage portrait of herself, and Leonard’s brothers and sisters were highly indignant too, though in fact it did not cause Leonard and his mother absolutely to sever relations.

One is inclined to draw up a balance sheet of Woolf’s qualities, as they come through in Glendinning’s biography. He was uningratiating, despotic, irascible over small matters, and a dogmatic pessimist (a role he relished). On the other hand, he was generous, unselfish, not vain, and someone to whom people would take their problems (he had the gift of objectivity). Virginia writes memorably about Leonard and despotism in her diary for June 25, 1935, a passage which throws as much light on her as it does on him:

A curious & rather unpleasant scene with Mabel. She was in tears, because Mr Woolf never believes a word she says. And I think its true. L. is very hard on people; especially on the servant class. No sympathy with them; exacting; despotic…. His extreme rigidity of mind surprises me; I mean in its relation to others: his severity: not to myself but then I get up & curse him. What does it come from? Not being a gentleman partly: uneasy in the presence of the lower classes: always suspects them, is never genial with them…. His desire, I suppose, to dominate. Love of power. And then he writes against it…. It goes with great justice, in some ways; & simplicity too.7

Victoria Glendinning is not afraid to be frank about Woolf. In later years he developed a mania for wars to the knife with inefficient tradesmen, troublesome public authorities, and such tiresome people, and she goes so far as to write that, in his battle with the Rural District Council responsible for Rodmell over a plan to site a sewage pumping station on a field of his, he came “close to the invisible boundary between what the world calls sane and what the world calls insane.” Nevertheless, she represents him as a noble character, a man with an extraordinary persistence in his pursuit of the good.

There have been one or two attempts to discredit Leonard’s own account of his marriage and expose it as a self-interested fiction. The best known, perhaps, is a review by Phyllis Grosskurth of the sixth volume of Virginia’s letters, in the Times Literary Supplement for October 31, 1980. Curiously, this brings us back to anti-Semitism. For Grosskurth centers her long article on a very disagreeable anti-Semitic episode in Virginia’s novel The Years, in which Sara Pargiter tells her cousin North how she has to share a bathroom with a fellow lodger. In fact they can hear him taking a bath at the moment; he is a Jew called Abrahamson, “in the tallow trade,” and he leaves hairs in the bath. “And tomorrow,” says Sara, “there’ll be a line of grease round the bath.” North shudders. “Hairs in food, hairs on basins, other people’s hairs made him feel physically sick.”8

Here, argues Grosskurth, we see the real reason why Virginia waited with such anxiety for Leonard’s judgment upon the novel: it was fear or panic about his reaction to this passage. This hypothesis of Grosskurth’s is entirely arbitrary, and I cannot honestly say I find it in the least convincing. She goes on to write that

All the evidence suggests that after the artistic failure of The Years, Leonard made a concerted attempt to undermine Virginia’s confidence in herself.

And one asks oneself why, especially as her books were the great money-makers of the Hogarth Press, he could possibly have wanted to.

But this prompts a different reflection. Virginia, one gathers, was fond of making Bloomsbury-style bad-taste jokes at the expense of Leonard’s Jewishness, and the fact that she allowed herself to do so, knowing he would not be seriously offended, seems to be proof of her great trust in him.

Of the mass of Leonard Woolf’s political writing and journalism the most influential was his International Government, published in the middle of World War I. It was reprinted immediately after the war and, so it is said, Lord Robert Cecil incorporated its ideas into the British Draft Covenant for a League of Nations, which he gave to Woodrow Wilson in Paris in 1919. Woolf is at pains in it to define and distinguish all the various international activities that had a potential relation to government: conferences, congresses, treaties, arbitrations, judicial tribunals, councils of conciliation, and so on, expounding the rationale of their procedures (where are majority decisions and voting appropriate and where not?) and pointing out—it is a point over which there is often confusion—that there are really two quite different forms of arbitration, the duty of one form being to decide how far some existing law or set of rules have been obeyed, and of the other, to draw up new laws or new rules.

The prose is calm, lucid, and economical, and the nearest the book comes to passion is over Woolf’s detestation of secret diplomacy. Its essential error, if it is an error—at any rate the baffling logical difficulty it is faced with—lies of course in the word “government.” Neither the League of Nations covenant nor the United Nations charter claimed to be founding a government; and one reflects that, though the UN, especially through its subsidiary organs, has acquired a great deal of independence (of action), it plainly—as the invasion of Iraq painfully reminded us—wields very little authority.

Certainly nothing could be more characteristic of Woolf’s dearly cherished pessimism (his favorite motto was “Nothing matters”) than his palinode regarding his political career, in the last volume of his autobiography. It is actually a very sensible piece of writing, not afraid of rational self-praise. “I was no fool at this particular game,” he writes.

It is not conceited for me to say that in mind, temperament, and experience I was peculiarly fitted for the kind of political work which I tried to do. I have a clear mind, capable of quickly understanding both theoretical and practical problems; I proved in my seven years in Ceylon, by my rapid promotion, that I was above the average in practising the art of politics and government; I enjoy making difficult, dangerous, and “important” decisions and acting on them.

But what, he asks, was the value of all this work?

Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.9

This Issue

December 21, 2006