Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904-1911 Christopher Ondaatje

HarperCollins, pp.326, 24.95

As one who has always been a bit afraid of Virginia Woolf and daunted by heavy tomes on the Bloomsbury group, I opened this book cautiously. I soon found that I was wrong to be nervous as I became caught up in a fascinating story. Leonard Woolf was Virginia’s husband and his life was far more interesting than hers.

The author, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, is one of the most remarkable men of our times. Now one of Britain’s leading philanthropists, his life, as he says himself, has been in some ways an echo of Woolf’s. Skilfully, he interweaves his own childhood memories and experiences of the Ceylon of 50 years ago with the modern, ongoing conflict between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese. And he does this without ever losing the main thread of his story: the life led by Leonard Woolf during his seven years in the Ceylon civil service. The many sepia pictures help to blur past and present. Some, dating from before the first world war, come from the newly opened archives of the Royal Geographical Society, while others were taken by the author in recent years. They are timeless and I found myself constantly checking the acknowledgments to see which era each came from. There are also stunning colour photographs of the Sri Lanka of today.

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This is how history should be told. The politics of the British empire seen through the eyes of a superb administrator, whose gradual disillusionment with the system led to his becoming one of the key players in the development of the Labour party between the wars and one of the foremost men of letters of the 20th century. It was his concern for the impoverished and exploited villagers he lived and worked among that formed the basis of his subsequent socialism and his desire to improve the lot of Britain’s poor. His intimacy with and sympathy for the Sinhalese people were exceptional and resulted in an understanding of them unique among Western writers of his time. The author rates him above Conrad and Forster in his ability to bring indigenous people alive, rather than concentrating on the characters of the white colonists. Kipling may have captured India even better, but his opinion of empire could hardly have been more different. Woolf’s view of colonial rule and the life of a British civil servant comes across as clear and dispassionate, seeing the world from both sides, warts and all, while admiring the virtues of both. Yet there is a constant sense of foreboding; a feeling that something was wrong and radical change inevitable, that ‘good government was no substitute for self-government’.

Until I read this book I had no idea how influential Leonard Woolf had been on the writings of other towering contemporary figures. Lytton Strachey was his great friend and they corresponded copiously and intimately. Later, he came to know well George Bernard Shaw, who also visited Ceylon and drew on Woolf’s experiences when writing about that country. Unlike Michael Holroyd’s great biographies of Strachey and Shaw, Ondaatje’s book is immediate and accessible to anyone — and not at all daunting!

There is a lot of sex, too, implicit rather than explicit, which is of course much more titillating. Woolf liked prostitutes, dusky local girls. One of his published stories, ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, is about an Englishman who falls in love with a girl in a brothel, buys her out of it, lives with her, dresses her in European clothing and teaches her English. In time their differences prove greater than the attraction and he abandons her when she drowns herself, dressed in her ‘stays and pink skirt and white stockings and shoes’. He had a peculiar relationship with his wife. Sexually incompatible, they loved each other fiercely to the end, in spite of her bouts of madness and her affair with Vita Sackville-West.

Ondaatje completed 20 years of research for Woolf in Ceylon late last year. Following in his tracks around the island, he stayed in the places where his subject had been posted 100 years before, and he photographed them. The last of these, and the one they both loved best, was Hambantota, a fishing village in an utterly beautiful sandy bay on the south coast of the island. On 26 December 2004 it was annihilated, one of the places worst hit by the monster waves of the tsunami. Virtually nothing of the village remains and few of the inhabitants survived.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated