by Victoria Glendinning
Published by McLelland & Stewart
(Review originally published March 10, 2007, The Globe
and Mail, Toronto, Canada)
Victoria Glendinning has done a brave thing. She has plunged her back hoe into
the already well-composted midden of Bloomsbury and levered out a shining new
portrait of Leonard Woolf. Brave too, because Woolf published his own highly
readable 5-volume autobiography. What new material could she possibly unearth?
A long-lived bunch they mostly were, but every Bloomsberry is now long-withered
and goneâ€” and likely their grandchildren too. Almost too much has been published
about this group of mostly minor artists â€” major exceptions being Virginia
and Leonard Woolf, Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot and Morgan Forster. Indefatigable
letter-writers, they worked nonstop with pen or paintbrush unless interrupted
by madness or death, yet the more thatâ€™s exhumed of their voluminous correspondence
to one another, the more imaginary they tend to become.
Glendinning has brought out from behind the sun of Virginia Woolf, the moon
of Leonard, a carapaced, darling curmudgeon with a gift for unconditional love,
an astonishing capacity for work, and some wondrous contradictions to his nature.
She amply reveals his leonine side. He roared â€” through his pen, mostly.
He was a political propagandist, semi-Marxist, and Fabian, a lefty but not
entirely a pacifist, a literary publisher, cofounder with Virginia of Hogarth
Press, journalist, stubborn campaigner for justice and reason over the bloody
irrationality of two world wars, co-designer of The League of Nations (forerunner
of the United Nations) an opponent of Zionism despite being a Jew, anti-colonial
despite his seven-year posting in his mid-twenties as a colonial administrator
to then-Ceylon where he rose to Assistant Government Agent, collecting revenue,
supervising hangings, and circuit-travelling throughout a ten-thousand mile
district of Ceylon.
He had a self-admitted â€˜dangerous passion for efficiencyâ€™. The day Virginia
drowned herself, he faithfully entered his carâ€™s mileage, as always, in his
diary. He disliked judging but woe betide any fool irrational enough to short
him on a mail order or promote a half-baked notion of how the government should
proceed or a publishing house be run.
Glendinningâ€™s thesis heavily weights his Jewishness as the chief shaper of
his melancholic fatalism, his outsiderâ€™s nature, as exemplified by his personal
motto: Nothing Matters. True, he came by his melancholy through family predilection.
A string of suicides and eccentricity ran through the Woolf family (as well
as Virginiaâ€™s) but he himself was reluctant to admit his life had been in any
way circumscribed by being a Jew. â€˜I have always been conscious of being primarily
British and have lived among people who without question accepted me as such
... [Anti-Semitism] â€˜has not touched me personally and only peripherallyâ€™.
He disliked any denominationalist, be it Catholic, communist or Jew, whose
fixed views prevailed over reality. His own wife, however, both on the page
and in conversation made numerous disparaging references to Jews.
Much has been written about their marriage, including quickly-debunked theories
as to Leonardâ€™s influence and control over Virginia. Whatâ€™s unquestionably
reiterated here was his utterly unconditional, selfless devotion to her and
his tireless vigilance over her, without which, it is certain, she would have
died decades earlier. Theirs was an extraordinary marriage of true minds â€”
if not, perhaps, bodies. It is strongly hinted that their marriage was never
fully consummated, due to Virginiaâ€™s phobic disinclination. She was also considered
too mentally unstable as to risk pregnancy. Leonard, an earthy and lusty man,
unhesitatingly waived his entitlement to sexual fulfillment and fatherhood
in exchange for the extraordinary intimacy of heart and mind offered by Virginia.
Little is revealed of Leonardâ€™s feelings about this sacrifice nor of the
impact on Leonard of Virginiaâ€™s later affair with novelist Vita Sackville-West
but in his bleak anthology, Leonard tellingly quotes Tolstoy: â€˜Man survives
earthquakes, epidemics, the horrors of disease, and all the agonies of the
soul but for all time, his tormenting tragedy, has been, is, and will be â€”
the tragedy of the bedroom.â€™
His second great love affair, with Trekkie Ritchie, a married woman with
whom he fell in love, two years after Virginiaâ€™s death, and shared amicably
with her husband until death, 26 years later, was similarly chaste. Leonard,
hugely attracted to womenâ€™s minds and bodies, had a perverse gift for choosing
women who were sexually unavailable. The man who promoted rational thinking
always, was a romantic at heart, who tenderly loved who he loved, no matter
One reads a biography, not so much to collect dry facts about a long-extinguished
life but to taste the actual person on oneâ€™s tongue; to imagine what it would
be like to sit for an hour in their company, slip inside their skin and visit
the world through their eyes. Among the details that best convey Leonard are
those of his relationship to animals. His life was measured out in dog lengths:
a series of spaniels, terriers, mutts, fancy cats and a marmoset, Mitz, who
rode on his tweedy shoulder. He adored gardening and the photos reveal a fit
man who never gained a pound. His face grew long and craggy but his hair stayed
full and his tanned arms never lost their sinuous grace. He was strict with
himself, highly disciplined intellectually and indulgent of the women he loved.
He welcomed the younger generations who flocked to him because he could be
counted on to be honest. He wrote daily to the end of his life despite concluding
shortly before his death, that the state of the world â€˜would be exactly the
same if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing
books and memoranda.â€™ In his long life he must have â€˜ground through between
150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.â€™
Perhaps he was right that Nothing Matters. Yet Hogarth Press co-publisher
Peter Calvocoressi protested: â€˜Leonard Woolf was the only man I have ever met
who seemed to me to be right about everything that matters.â€™ When one of his
female friends nudged him about his motto at the end of his life, he both reiterated
and reversed himself, characteristically. â€˜Nothing matters and everything matters.â€™
Victoria Glendinning is the award-winning novelist and literary biographer
of Trollope, Swift, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, Rebecca West, and Elizabeth
Bowen. She has brought this admirable, principled and singularly appealing
man exquisitely to life.
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