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Public servant, private saint

5 October 2006

8:35 AM

5 October 2006

8:35 AM

Leonard Woolf: A Life Victoria Glendinning

Simon & Schuster, pp.530, 25

Leonard Woolf had a passion for animals, not unconnected with an appetite for control. Dogs (with the occasional mongoose or monkey) were his companions to the end of his life. Discussing human nature, he put them on an equal plane: ‘There are some people, usually dogs or old women, extremely simple and unintellectual, who instinctively know how to deal with life and with persons, and who display an extraordinary and admirable resistance to the cruelties of man, the malevolence of providence, and the miseries of existence.’

Woolf himself would never have included himself in this category; he could not be described as unintellectual; and far from being simple, though he had a massive moral directness, he was divided all his life between the pleasure he took in his literary and artistic circle of friends and his sense of public duty — as exemplified by his work for the Fabian Society and the League of Nations. Friendship won.

In fact, he coped with adversity every bit as positively as any of the dogs and old women whom he admired. His marriage at 31, in 1912, to an unstable genius, which would have broken many, brought out the best in him. He never ran away from his responsibilities as a husband, delighted in his wife Virginia’s company, protected her delicate emotions from upset and looked after her when the demons had taken her over. He resigned himself to a celibate, if not a wholly asexual, relationship with her, in spite of being a normally passionate man with the makings of a loving parent. Her suicide left him desolate, with the haunting feeling that perhaps he could have saved her; but his eventual discovery of a different love for the artist Marjorie ‘Trekkie’ Parsons is a tribute to his stoicism as well as to a relish for life which is so well conveyed in his own delightful, five-volume memoirs.

His reverence for life and his learning to handle tragedy came to him in his early teens. Charged with the task of drowning five new-born puppies, he realised suddenly how uncivilised and horrible it was to deprive an individual being of life; he learned in those years also to accept unhappiness and instability as inescapable; and though affections, truth and justice always mattered profoundly to him, in the last resort he found it comforting to utter the mantra ‘nothing matters’.


This well-balanced biography brings out the importance of his Jewish background, with close family ties and successful careers in commerce and the law. This endowed him with high professional standards, a power of affection and a Victorian integrity; not that all his siblings coped well throughout their lives; tragedy stalked them, some committing suicide. Leonard, the cultivated, fastidious thinker at the heart of Bloomsbury, proved one of the toughest.

Victoria Glendinning’s book dispels any notion of Leonard as an insignificant adjunct of his wife, dedicated almost entirely to nurturing her talent. Without the conversational brilliance of Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes or of Virginia herself, in some ways he seems the most admirable of the Bloomsbury circle, as humorous as any of them, the most selfless, perhaps the least arrogant — and second to none except Keynes in practical ability and experience.

His appointment in 1904, at 24, for example, to an ‘Eastern Cadetship’ in Britain’s Ceylon administration involved frightening responsibilities far beyond most of his friends’ capacities — from settling quarrels over irrigation to the supervision, none too happily, of hangings. Although he made enemies, his superiors were well pleased with him. He concealed his growing disenchantment with the British imperial service, but after six years gave it up, perhaps discovering in himself a harsh, authoritarian streak he disliked; he also missed the mental stimulus of companions like G. E. Moore and Lytton Strachey. Lytton had kept him entertained with sparkling letters from England, some about sodomy. Leonard, entirely heterosexual but anxious to preserve these epistolary gems and aware that their content was potentially scandalous, thought it wise to send them back to his home address protected by the diplomatic bag.

Requiring the same determination and competence that had distinguished Leonard’s service in Ceylon was the Hogarth Press, the small publishing company which he (with Virginia) founded in 1917 and which was his major achievement. He ran it to great effect, promoting, for its 50-odd years under his aegis, the highest literary standards; it was a far more substantial enterprise than the charming, amateurish Omega Workshop which remains emblematic of Blooms- bury to this day.

Victoria Glendinning’s biography reminds us, too, of the circumstances of his marriage, he in love, certainly, but approaching it in a theoretical spirit, as a way of binding more tightly together, in his Cambridge friends’ eyes, the Bloomsbury fellowship. He and Virginia hardly knew each other when he first contemplated her as his wife; she seems to have felt no physical attraction to him, but loved him because she knew he would care for her. The relationship, however, proved far stronger than many more conventionally promising arrangements.

In Glendinning Leonard Woolf has found a most sympathetic biographer, and I only wish that she had not slipped from time to time into chatty hack phrases, such as ‘have sex’, ‘a smidgeon’ and ‘Leonard did not do funerals’, which are so much at odds with her subject’s dignified nature. Fortunately, however, that is not the dominant note, and the test of a skilfully written book is whether its story grips from beginning to end. I never noticed the passage of time while I was reading this absorbing biography, right up to the final poignant paragraph about Leonard’s dog Coco, who, when her master died, aged 88, in 1969, could not settle to life without him and had to be put down.


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