Leonard Woolf: A Life, by Victoria Glendinning (Simon & Schuster)

I thought all the Bloomsberries had been well and truly picked, so it was a surprise to learn that Leonard Woolf, colonial administrator, political adviser, novelist, polemicist and husband of Virginia Woolf, had hung so long on the bush. There are many biographies of Virginia, of course, in which Leonard features as either the devoted, adoring adjunct or the manipulative, domineering warden of his wife’s genius. And there are numerous books chronicling the lives of the talented and not-so-talented members of their circle: Vita Sackville-West, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Dora Carrington, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncant Grant, Roger Fry, E.M. Forster … all of whom wrote copiously and often maliciously about each other, so there’s always been plenty of gossip if not hard information about Leonard to be obtained along literary byways.

Victoria Glendinning’s thorough, at times pedestrian biography moves Leonard from the margins of his wife’s story to the centre of his own. Leonard lived a long life – he survived Virginia by twenty-eight years – and it was a life filled with work, most of which seems to have found its way into these pages. Unfortunately a lot of this work, especially Leonard’s political activism and writing, is of little interest now, and the interesting stuff about his marriage to Virginia has been documented to death elsewhere.

The book places that marriage in perspective. It was for Leonard a defining event, but he had a life before it, and a life after it. His happy if unconventional relationship with Trekkie Parsons endured nearly as long as his relationship with Virginia. The Woolfs’ marriage, to the outward observer, remains mysterious – this, despite the plethora of information. It appears to have been empty of sex, or at any rate of sex between its contractual partners. Virginia was a cold fish, “frigid” in the psychological parlance of the time, and what sexual feelings she had were directed towards other women – most famously, Vita Sackville-West. Leonard, bemused or mildly irritated by such infatuations, remained faithful. Yet one of the achievements of this book is to convince the reader that the Woolfs had a genuine, loving and deeply intimate marriage. Virginia, as her family and friends and she herself readily acknowledged, was intermittently mad. (Her nephew, Quentin Bell, recorded somewhere that, in her hallucinatory imaginings, she heard the birds outside her window singing in Greek – which has always seemed to me a peculiarly highbrow kind of madness.)

Leonard’s early intellectual life was both precocious and protractedly adolescent. This was largely due to the influence of his close friend at Cambridge, Lytton Strachey. Strachey had this effect on a number of his male friends; Leonard was perhaps the only one who didn’t go to bed with him. Both Leonard and Strachey were members of the exclusive Cambridge group known as the Apostles – “the Society of Buggers”, in Virginia’s phrase – a group that in later years would achieve public notoriety for the number of Soviet spies among its members. It was through the Apostles that Leonard first became acquainted with Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, whose father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had been an Apostle himself.

Glendinning’s biography irritatingly accords this period of Leonard’s life the same seriousness and detailed examination that it accords his marriage to Virginia and his careers as colonial administrator in Ceylon and publisher of the Hogarth Press. A person’s life is a mixture of the trivial and the significant, and one of the more tedious aspects of modern biography is that it seems unable to distinguish the two. Everything is included, simply on the basis that it occurred; no stone is left unturned, even if it scarcely seems worth the turning.

The biography picks up pace and interest with Leonard’s marriage, in which he quickly assumed the role of vigilant nurse to his wife’s erratic genius. His own understanding of that genius seems to have been partial; he surprised Virginia by declaring the comparatively slight Orlando to be “in some ways better” than To the Lighthouse. The book is very good on the casual anti-Semitism that prevailed among intellectuals before the Second World War. Virginia’s brother, Adrian, included “imitating Jews” in his comic party pieces. For Leonard, a Jew, this must have been hard to stomach. He discarded his religion early, but this didn’t make him less a Jew in Bloomsbury’s eyes: Virginia referred to him as “a penniless Jew”, and ridiculed his family in virulently anti-Semitic terms. Leonard’s own autobiography is remarkable for its reticence on this matter, suggesting either that he concealed the effects of such barbs, or that he grew a protective carapace thick enough that they did not penetrate.

Virginia’s suicide in 1941 was both shocking and unsurprising: without Leonard’s constant support, it might well have occurred much sooner. Suicide is not, in itself, an irrational act, and may offer itself as the logical option when others have been exhausted. “Better to be dead than mad,” was Vita Sackville-West’s verdict. It is remarkable how many members of Leonard’s immediate and extended family ended their lives by suicide. “Nothing matters” was his credo, yet his deep commitment to social justice and personal relations suggests otherwise. Friends noted this contradiction, wondering “how a man with such bleak views of life can be so alive.” One friend challenged him directly on his apparent inconsistency, but Leonard was viewing things from a very great height. As he said in the final volume of his autobiography, from the perspective of eternity, nothing on earth is of any importance. But in one’s personal life, “certain things are of immense importance: human relations, happiness, truth, beauty or art, justice and mercy.” Or, as he put it to his friend, “Nothing matters, and everything matters.”

Christchurch Press

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