Leonard Woolf: A Life

Vanessa Bell: Leonard Woolf
At the end of his life in 1969 aged 88, Leonard Woolf knew that he would be better known to history as the husband of Virginia than as an innovative colonial administrator in Ceylon, a staunch Fabian, an important publisher of modernist literature or the graceful writer of a classic autobiography. He was spared having to defend himself from the bizarre speculations of those who have adopted Mrs Woolf as their mascot. The internet and academic journals blaze with accusations against him, ranging from her murder to culpable neglect. (In a letter to Victoria Glendinning last May, Phyllis Grosskurth said she regretted writing the 1980 article that started this particular hare.)
The charges against Woolf are convoluted but, Glendinning shows definitively, false. Far from feeling himself diminished by her growing reputation, he appreciated his wife's genius and did all he could to make it possible for her to express it. He cherished her and showed her as much physical affection as she was capable of receiving, though he was himself highly sexed.
When, in his old age, her reputation soared, he spent a good deal of time shooting down the craziest academic theories about her, and gently correcting correspondents, telling them, for example, that she had never read French philosopher Henri Bergson, met novelist Dorothy Richardson, corresponded with Joyce or made a serious study of Freud.
The centre of the mystery is why Virginia Stephen, who shared the conventional, mild anti-semitism of pre-Great War, upper-middle-class England, married 'a penniless Jew' who looked like an Old Testament prophet. Even his lifelong hand tremor, says Glendinning, might have been an inherited trait (his father and possibly his mother had it), which mainly, but not exclusively, affects Ashkenazi Jews.
There is a good deal to be learnt about multiculturalism from examining Woolf's early life, for the Woolfs were assimilated to the extent that his father was a QC and Leonard was educated at St Paul's and Trinity, Cambridge, where he was elected to the Apostles, the secret society then in its golden age, including as members GE Moore, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes.
Though part of the English establishment, Leonard maintained a relatively uncomplicated Jewish identity (perhaps by refusing to take personally anti-semitic remarks made by TS Eliot, Harold Nicolson and his wife). This had nothing to do with the religion of his fathers, for he was, like his fellow Apostles, a militant atheist. His grandfather, Benjamin, had already discarded Orthodoxy in favour of the Reform movement and joined a Mayfair synagogue. Glendinning's great-great-grandparents were second-generation, English-born Jews, members of the same Jewish middle class as the Woolfs, which in 1858 numbered about 35,000.
Between 1883 and 1905, another 150,000 mainly working-class, Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived in Britain and were, no doubt, the reason for Virginia's prejudice. However, there was also a Jewish upper class and Leonard's Aunt Bloom's granddaughter, 'Dollie' Rothschild, married into it. Even after his marriage, and though Virginia was never entirely comfortable with his large Jewish family, Woolf continued to see them every week.
Woolf, the future colonial civil servant, and the homosexual Lytton Strachey made an odd couple, but from the day they met at Trinity in 1899, 'Leonard began to define himself by discovering his differences from Lytton,' writes Glendinning. Though Leonard could not share Lytton's sexual tastes (when I interviewed him for my biography of GE Moore, Woolf told me that he was the only person in their set who had 'never experienced any sort of homosexual desire', but Glendinning does not even try to tell us what it was like to be the only straight in their Cambridge village), he was a sympathetic listener and correspondent for the sex-crazed (and probably sex-starved) Strachey.
Intoxicated by ideas and by their contact with Moore, they read, wrote and talked of art, ethics, politics and religion, of Plato, Milton, Shakespeare, Henry James and Flaubert. When they drank too much, they weren't sick in the shrubbery, but marched through Trinity Great Court reciting Swinburne too loudly.
When he went to Ceylon in 1904, he and Lytton corresponded daily, sometimes twice a day. Over the 11 years he was on the island, Woolf lost his virginity to a prostitute, prosecuted his Colonial Service job with fairness and tried his best to understand the people he was governing. In February 1909, Lytton proposed to Virginia Stephen and for an agonising moment thought she'd accepted. With relief, he wrote to Woolf that it would really be much better if he himself were to marry her, as he'd 'have the immense advantage of physical desire'. It was another three-and-a-half years before the match was accomplished and the marriage will be the chief reason this book will have most of its readers.
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