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Leonard Woolf: A Biography
By Victoria Glendinning
499 pages; $30
Virginia Stephen was not exactly marriageable material even for a Christian, much less an impoverished Jew. She was beautiful but also unstable, a lesbian and a class snob who despised Jews. When Leonard proposed to her, she was not yet a writer. Without him, she might never have become one.
Leonard lived for years in Virginia's shadow and has since been rather forgotten. Victoria Glendinning reminds us that he was an influential thinker and writer in his own right, the eminence grise of the Labor Party who put his finger on all the weaknesses of the Left and whose advocacy of collective security underpinned the charter of the League of Nations.
Leonard was born into an increasingly impoverished middle-class London Jewish family in 1880, one of nine siblings. At Trinity College Cambridge, he met Clive Bell (who married Virginia's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell); Toby Stephen, through whom he met Toby's sister Virginia; and Roger Fry; and was soon elected to the Apostles and remained a lifelong friend to fellow Apostles Lytton Strachey, G.E. Moore, E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes.
At a loss for an income, Leonard joined the Colonial Service in the lowest possible position, as an assistant government agent in the jungles of northern Ceylon, where, generally isolated, he ruled as a sort of district commissioner, sorting out salt thieves, shooting buffalo stricken with rinderpest and even presiding over hangings. He lost his virginity only in his mid-20s, to a friendly Eurasian girl who turned out to be a prostitute.
A stern sahib but just and courageous, a haggard Leonard returned on home leave after seven years in different Ceylon postings; by then, his superiors, whatever their doubts about skinny Jews, thought his services invaluable. But when the chronically insecure Virginia accepted his proposal in 1914, Leonard turned down all of the Colonial Office's efforts to persuade him to return. There was no question that Virginia came first, as she always subsequently did, until, fearing madness, she drowned herself in 1941.
The marriage endured, despite the fact that it was never consummated. Eventually, Virginia's only sexual experience was with Vita Sackville-West, an affair that lasted four years. But her love for the loyal love and unwavering support that Leonard gave her was the great anchor in her life. They loved each other deeply and happily, though Leonard never knew what each new day would bring. It did not take much for Virginia to slip into yet another breakdown.
With Leonard's constant encouragement, Virginia wrote one great novel after another. In between Leonard founded the Hogarth press to give her something to do, printing the books themselves. Together they introduced Freud to British readers and published T.S. Eliot and Katharine Mansfield.
The Apostles were one of the underpinnings of the Bloomsbury set. Many were homosexuals. Keynes and Forster were the lovers of painter Duncan Grant, who in turn became the lover of Vanessa Bell.
Suicide was not unknown among the often tormented members of the Bloomsbury and Garsingtron sets. The gifted young Jewish painter Mark Gertler committed suicide in 1913. Virginia made her first attempt two years later. When Lytton Strachey died in 1931, the painter Dora Carrington, who had several heterosexual lovers but who had always adored Strachey, simply shot herself.
At age 35, Leonard, thin and troubled by a palsy in his hands, escaped conscription on medical grounds. He was anyway firmly pacifist, while two of his brothers were hit by the same shell in Flanders, one being killed.
By 1940 Virginia had begun hearing voices and in 1941 wrote a thank you letter of good-bye to Leonard. The river near their home was dragged, but it was weeks before some children found her body in it.
Leonard was devastated but not brought down. He continued to write, but at this point a wonderful woman entered his life and cared for him until his death. She was a South African-born painter named Trekkie Parsons, the wife of the editor and publisher of Chatto & Windus, a house which aided and eventually absorbed the Hogarth Press. Trekkie began visiting Leonard at his rural home and prize-winning garden at the end of 1942 and divided her time between Leonard and her husband for three decades, the rest of Leonard's life.
Trekkie was quite unlike the neurasthenic Virginia: joyful, a winning hostess and absolutely without hang-ups. She painted in Virginia's studio, while Leonard worked at his books and pamphlets or toiled happily in his garden. She brought to Leonard the peace and love he had always sought. He published the first volume of his autobiography in 1960.
Author Glendinning, who often makes mention of some Jewish forebears of her own, points out that in his last volume of memoirs, Leonard wrote of his Jewishness as the culture that made him what he was. He was widely loved and when he had encountered anti-Semitism, "it had not touched him personally." In his own short story The Three Jews, set in a London tea shop, there is the phrase, "They do not like us you know." Leonard wrote that he had "the immemorial fatalism of the Jew who learned the centuries of pogroms and ghettoes down to the gas chambers and Hitler."
Leonard the pacifist was no humbug; he had never really believed that good works and disarmament demonstrations, which he avoided, did any good. The plight of the world appalled him. But he never gave up.
Leonard Woolf died in August 1969 and was cremated.
Victoria Glendinning has written a wonderful biography. It does its subject great justice, but it comes rather late in acknowledging a gifted and good life. Unlike Virginia Woolf's characters, Mrs. Dalloway for example, Leonard Woolf appears doomed to be forgotten.
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