Leonard Woolf - Life and Work

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Leonard Woolf - Life and Work

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Edited: Oct 23, 2009, 6:51am

Leonard in old age, at Monks House, Rodmell, Sussex - Photograph from his autobiography.

Leonard nowerdays tends mainly to be thought of as Virginia's spouse, to some a man who lived for years in a cold, bloodless marriage. He was in effect, I believe, a man who met his intellectual match, who was himself a writer (although I think he decided to give this up so as not to compete with Virginia), publisher and a specialist - and possibly one of the first in this country - in International Affairs. He wrote a number of books on this topic and advised the government of the time. He also wrote a 5 volume autobiography and 2 novels.

Leonard Woolf by Vanessa Bell and Leonard Woolf's autobiography

Oct 23, 2009, 9:11am

I love that second painting of him. And am a bit pea green at you having the whole autobiography!

Oct 23, 2009, 10:45am

Woolf is such an enigmatic man to me. Willing to stand in the side-lines. I have never delved into his work, so would appreciate some hints on where to start. I know he wrote a biography or two?

Oct 29, 2009, 10:44am

Kiwidoc - I would start with Victoria Glendinning's biography of him Leonard Woolf: A Biography. I read it last year and became quite smitten. And in actual fact he was certainly not in the background at all in his time, it only seems so now.

This year I read his 5 volume autobiography which, although I felt there were some week points from time to time in the writing, I found very interesting. I am going to begin collecting his non-fiction works on Foreign Affairs, as he was one of our first specialists in this area.

His novel The Wise Virgins I thought very accomplished, and having read it felt that he might have given up writing novels so as not to compete with his wife, as anyone else writing a novel of this calibre would have continued to write I feel. He also wrote a novel set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka as it is now), where he worked for 7 years as an administrator.

Aug 12, 2010, 7:45am

Just finishing up "Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf?: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf" Irene Coates

The author feels that Leonard was a devil and the 'main' reason Virginia killed herself. Totally different view of the Woolf -Stephen relationship. She has some excellent points but it's really to much to digest at times. Very well written and good insights to Bloomsbury .

Aug 26, 2010, 10:27am

Interesting DF. Will have to read it, but almost through Vol 3 of VWs diaries, there is absolutely nothing to infer that Coates' view would be right. The diaries show a deep love of Leonard, and a belief that without him she wouldn't survive. Now one might say that bearing in mind these diaries were available for LW's reading she may not have written her true feelings here, but I'd be interested to understand how Coates came to her view. Putting the book on my list!

Edited: Mar 15, 2014, 3:54pm

Virginia Woolf herself said in her letter written before she went out of the house, put stones in her pockets, and waded into the water to drown that without Leonard she would not have lasted as long as she did. (SOWING, v.1 of LWʻs biography) VW says the same thing elsewhere too, which is not to say that she found their marriage perfectly uneventful with disagreements and difficulties.
She herself speaks of her mental instability. And who can not sympathize: after living a rather sheltered life given over to the life of the mind (her fatherʻs, Sir Leslie Stephenʻs, of course) and after having lost her mother, her older autistic(?) brother (about whom they were tight lipped in their high society rounds), and then her eldest sister (both were the Managers of Sir Leslie Stephenʻs close knit menage), and then her beloved brother Thoby, the bombing of London (which ironically ended just three months after her suicide), overwhelmed her. Irene Coatesʻ contention is not tenable: it sounds like an attempt to get an M.A. thesis out of innocent blood, frankly.

Not realizing this Column existed, Iʻve written about VW elsewhere. I wish I had known of this /topic/. The other is under /authors/ I think. The Cataloguing System supports what I always maintained, since Simmonsʻ (M.A.) Library School, under Kenneth Schaeffer (an urbane academic so natural he did not fear his real interests, in food, for instance, gave him less credibility among bookworms): namely, that if one classified the physical volume in one way, it was not
deletrious to cataloguing with ten different descriptive leads about a book. So /topics/ and /authors/ and /authors-readers/ and so on are all doing the same thing: one, numerically; the other, verbally, But in LT, the system seems to demand
exclusion, not inclusion no matter what. Perhaps thatʻs what drove me from librarianship, although I must say some librarians like Yaleʻs Sterling Librarian, Donald (Wing?) apologies, a senior moment) was indeed something to remember: A Librarianʻs librarian -- greetings, wherever you are. Would he have solved this issue? No, but the computerists can, by linking. It can give us Options under which tent to make our pitches.

Mar 15, 2014, 3:14pm

About Leonard Woolf. He was a Magistrate in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) for 7 years -- reminiscent of 7 years ʻ labour before marrying Rachel? Someone wrote that VW married LW because of something that happened to Vanessa (married to Clive Bell). That may well be, but VW in, I think, her diary, says she and her sisters were very conscious of their elder sister marrying . . their difficulties (sense of divided loyalties, perhaps -- does marrying mean abandoning father, Sir Leslie Stephens?). I think the Biological Clock had more to do with VW marrying and LW being there to marry and asking her .. .than anything else. Seemingly nobody else asked. A Magistrate is a knowledgeable candidate for a foreseeable risk to tie the knot with permanently. At times I do think there is a subtle envy too . ..on both sides of an issue: one camp being about LWʻs part Jewish
blood. If he had not said he was, who would have known?
Not me. Iʻm glad he took VW into marriage. She would have been miserable, left behind. She was fully up to par, too. LW said he and she started Hogarth House to give her a meaningful life. They gave all their writers a life and PUBLISHED THEMSELVES for which they were not POINTED AT for being SELF PUBLISHERS . . . . They were, in fact, INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS because nobody would have accepted VWʻs writings (except Eliotʻs house Faber and Faber as well as in the U.S. its sister company, Harcourt -Brace?, under the chief editor of New Writing who was also Eliotʻs editor, G- senior moment in NYC). This last mentioned editor deserves a studying: he was as good as Maxwell Perkins (for Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.)

Mar 29, 2014, 6:11pm

Good to see you in here Leialoha.

I think the Woolves were a perfect match for each other. Actually, Lytton Strachey once proposed to Virginia, but he hastily retracted, and is thought to be the person who encouraged Leonard in his wooing of Virginia. Clive Bell too had shown an interest at one time.

Edited: Mar 31, 2014, 12:02am

Thank you, Caroline_McElwee. Lytton Strachey! Well, I can imagine Lytton Strachey seeing VW as a mountain that he had not yet conquered. He startled everyone, not the least VW. In the days when I was very impressionable and with smoke in my eyes about VW -- that womanʻs power with words and a magnificently subtle style . . .who has put their finger on the elements that go into what makes up her magic with words, their nature and tunable parts that transport us into VWʻs protagonistsʻ/antagonistʻs mind? Well, in those impressionable days, I came upon photographs of Thobyʻs friends, all naked, in the sun, basking and the caption saying something like how their physical beauty (noticeable to the captioner, at least, but not to me) proved how genuinely brilliant they all were, unafraid, dallying, and (at least) Vanessa among them. Clive was there, but I donʻt know if he was engaged to Vanessa or not; but she worried -- about the clock. VW woke up, shocked, after years of truly open-ended friendships to the fact that she and Vanessa were so in love with Thobyʻs university chums, they never noticed why the men had shown little or no interest in them. And perhaps why she and Vanessa, little interest in them as male marriageable, and not compelling to marry.
I think VW finally uses the word homosexual. Itʻs like the sound of a dud, when the last nail is slammed into wood. It so happened Carringtonʻs biography lay in the proximity of Lytton Stracheyʻs on this abandoned part of a friendʻs friendʻs bookshelves. That was a revelation. At first I didnʻt believe it. Itʻs one thing for her to have been Stracheyʻs lover -- simultaneously with his male friends, in Caroline Morrellʻs amazing house of collected freedom lovers. Itʻs another thing for her to have been taken for a second partner (she says ehe was willing, supposedly just to stay in that brilliant company) but in fact closer to Stracheyʻs skin than he acknowledged. She loved him, I believe, no matter if he loved her, or how; he was amenable. Through her eyes one sees many in that group, through the years, coupling and uncoupling. By the time marriage is an obvious serious question to VW, but first to Vanessa, the circle is very small indeed. And the only person who was not as free wheeling as the Stevensʻ beautiful middle daughters was Leonard Woolf. By which time, Vanessa as she reasoned sensibly and VW agreed -- was glad that Clive sought her hand in marriage seriously. She and Virginia had long been compromised in bed by their Duckworth brothers, so sex was nothing new. Sackville-Westʻs interest might also have been of the same cool, dispassionate interest. LW had the merit of seemingly not going where he may have become vulnerable. But eventually, having seen what VW had, ostensibly for choices, they were equally exposed to ending with no one and yet seemed not hurried. They seemed equally detached. It was very natural, it seems to me, that by elimination, he remained -- and she. I doubt that he was a homosexual, but neither was he critical of any who was or had been. He was urbane in that. He also was above much that passed for passion, perhaps because there was so much of that, and among his closest friends, -- that is, men who had given him the best friendships he had ever known. He was not a virgin, he says, in SOWING. There was once an encounter or a liaison. He makes nothing of it, so it had passed out of his life like a meaningless chance meeting. His life is divided into two parts -- early, when he was a student at Oxford; and later, afte his return from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). For VW, the greatest change, she said, was in moving from their first house, which was dark and cramped, to the house in London, which was filled with huge windows through which trees looked into the rooms and light filled them with warmth. LW and VW were finely tuned to their environment and friends and so their marrying was easy to advance into. There was trust. Virginia was a snob in many ways -- in her pettiness to D.H. Lawrence, the coal minerʻs son, e.g.; but she could overlook social prejudice, too, and marry LW, at home with his Jewishness because it was a fact he could not escape and took care to avoid attracting attention to, there being little evidence of it; but also he not above bitterness toward tormentors. He disciplined himself. Even VW could not unsettle him; but she,too, was too intelligent to know how little it mattered in fact in his own life by circumstances and choice, surely and so their mutual respect allowed them to bind, fully intact, warts and much else. She had weathering sessions of Depression. She was not above criticism as a life mate. Most of all, they were adults and the clock did not lie about her future. Thatʻs simplifying the case, of course; but not unfair to say. LW CARED for her, genuinely, and did as she felt necessary including move from London to "the country," and after the bombing moved to the country, and she wanted to return to London, agreeing to do so. Uprooting Hogarth Press. He began in order that SHE have something to grasp firmly, work at, develop, and, frankly, shine. By was conscious that he himself was different all the years that he grew up, intellectually unchallenged and physically beaten to an emotional stolidity that he instinctively knew eventually could come to him, if he were patient. He went to Ceylon, for 7 years, returned, and, still patiently unmarried -- married. Not a Jewish woman, but as he himself knew a brilliant writer, psychologically troubled, but not beyond NOT THINKING OF MARRYING HIM. They joked about his being a Jew and she, not. (SOWING) She wasnʻt even a Christian, so there was no conflict, religiously. They were persons of Reason, and writers. He was devoted to her. She knew it. As Carrington was devoted to Stracheyand he, when it was convenient but also when there was no reason not to be, for SHE gave him little cause to not accept her as she was. (CARRINGTON) She was not a LIGHT as were the others. But she was STEADY, and inoffensive, virtually uncritical in any meaningful way. They respected her and she was grateful; but mainly she seems to have lived apart, even when in their midst. A shadow, without complaint, helpful. (She had liaisons with others as well. In that sense, she was also free of Victorian standards, but had to mind them because it was sensible to do so and foolish not to. Nor did she insist Strachey marry her. She is so little written about by them in their journals and so forth; but she is everything to her in herʻs. And just as she rises to Stracheyʻs level of need, no matter what or how he does or does not do something, so does Leonard to Virginia. I donʻt believe the marriage was cold. I believe it was warm as two long time confidantes exist, without fanfare, cavilling, pettiness. They joked about each other, in their diaries/journals. That humour, which they shared not only with their diaries but with each other in fleeting passages of both LW and VWʻs accounts about passing incidents. VWʻs end is quite distinctly another matter. And no one has ever charged LW with lacking whatever might have saved her, except one always gets innuendos from naysayers having nothing to add to the story of their caring lives together. When Strachey died, all the friends, according to her account, were with her, acknowledging her devotion to him. Itʻs very moving, for she tacitly admitted she was never one of them; but she could not truly live without caring, physically and/or otherwise for Strachey. Her autobiography is a genuine tribute to him: she virtually imitates him and to the best of her ability turns out a telling piece that is not easy to read and/or accept, at least in particular passages, without supporting evidence. Nevertheless, she succeeds in writing a book about her life and most importantly about her life with Strachey, rather than about Strachey himself, who no doubt overwhelmed her, even in her least devotional moments. LWʻs devotion to VW came also seemingly from a sense inpart of gratitude, I think, for he was inordinately shy, being more acquainted with books than with people all his life until he entered Cambridge and was accepted for the classicist he was by assiduous self-discipline and love of the Ancients -- his Magisterial duties in Ceylon honed his shyness off and developed in its place a sense of fairness, touching other peoplesʻ lives (which I sometimes see as him seeing a repetition of the Greek and Latin contenders for justice in the first and of law-and-order in the second) -- so that Virginia, I believed, recognizing LWʻs innate selflessness and capacity for caring, which is after all what Love is. She allowed him into her life, in marriage, granting him what he offered, in addition to his steady quiet flame of caring in marriage -- the future of ensuring a room in which to write.