Leonard Woolf: A Biography

Leonard Woolf: A Biography by Victoria Glendinning. Free Press, 2006, 512 pages, $30


Publishers Weekly: Although Leonard Woolf (1880--1969) was a seminal figure in the Bloomsbury set, he is known today primarily as the devoted caregiver of his wife, Virginia. That his life and career encompassed significant contributions to the literary, political, and cultural events of his times will be evident to readers of this exemplary biography, the first to do justice to a complex man empowered by his intellect and the friends he made at Cambridge but professionally hobbled by British anti-Semitism and his decision to put aside his aspirations in deference to his wife's crushing needs and his belief in her genius.


Victoria Glendinning is the award-winning author of Trollope and Vita the Life of Vita Sackville West, which both won the Whitbread biography award, as well as Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Rebecca West, and Jonathan Swift. She has also written three novels: Flight, Grown Ups, and Electricity: A Novel. She was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in Somerset, England.


On the day I phoned Ms. Glendinning, she had spent an afternoon clearing away the dead stalks around the perennials in her garden. Leonard Woolf, an avid gardener, might have spent just such a drizzly day in the same way."How did you decide to pursue a biography of Leonard Woolf?"

"I'd already done Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and Rebecca West, all of whom knew the Woolfs. I had read all of Virginia Woolf's letters and diaries and so on, and I just began to feel, 'What about Leonard, then?'

"There was a very necessary new wave of feminism in the 1970s, without which none of us would be quite where we are today. But a by-product of that time was a kind of knee-jerk downgrading of all men, especially if they were husbands. It seemed to me that a lot of wonderful women had had their due and there were some wonderful men, for God's sake!

"I knew nothing about him, really, except that it was always 'Virginia and Leonard' or 'Leonard and Virginia.' Some people thought he was a saint and some people thought that he was not only the oppressor of genius, but maybe the conniver in the death of genius -- especially North American feminists.

"Luckily he had a huge personal archive in Sussex University here. He kept nearly everything, but everybody culls their own archives, and I found that there is almost nothing there about the really bad things that had happened in his own family. I had to find out about those somewhere else -- from his old nieces, for example -- things like the fact that two of his brothers committed suicide, a sister-in-law committed suicide, a sister made an attempt. These were all after his wife's death. It somehow puts Virginia's suicide in perspective."

"What explains the almost vitriolic attitude those North American feminists had toward Leonard?"

"I don't know. I just don't know.

"A lot of the people who revere Virginia Woolf airbrush a lot of Virginia Woolf out. They project onto Virginia what they want in a wonderful, artistic, sensitive, unfortunate woman. They forget her racism, her anti-Semitism, her complete lack of understanding of the non-intellectual non-upper classes. The working woman was not of great interest to her.

"It seems to me she has been sanctified as a beautiful object, which has sort of taken off like a rosy cloud from the actual Virginia who is completely fascinating and wonderful and a genius and beautiful and clever, but not really altogether a suitable subject for an icon."

I speculate to Ms. Glendinning that I've always thought that many of those persons who have turned Virginia Woolf into an icon would have been summarily dismissed by her had they ever met.

"That's what I think. She published a series of essays under the title, The Common Reader, but I don't think she ever envisaged quite so many common readers, or quite such common common readers. She wouldn't have had the time of day for some of her common readers."

"Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey seem an unlikely pair of friends, given their different temperaments. What do you think drew them to one another?"

"Lytton Strachey was homosexually inclined, always, and became floridly so at Cambridge as a student. Leonard was enthralled to Lytton. He was very funny and very clever. In one or two letters Lytton deplores the fact that Leonard doesn't follow his proclivities. I think for Lytton, Leonard was, if you like, his straight man -- his point of reference. They were very good for each other.

"They were best friends, but once Leonard married Virginia, it was Virginia and Lytton that became the close friends. They were much more like each other. They were gossipy and malicious and illusive. They both went in for a particular kind of witty malice that wasn't really Leonard's kind of thing at all."

"The relationship between Leonard and Vita Sackville-West seems, understandably, a bit strained at times."

"Vita? Well, in one way, it was all aboveboard and understood that Vita and Virginia had this special relationship. Because of Virginia's mental vulnerability, both husbands monitored it. I think, if anything, Leonard was irritated at having to spend so much time with the Nicolsons. But I don't think he ever quite knew the slightly ribald and randy idiom of the intimacy of Vita and Virginia. It's quite extraordinary, really. I don't know if he knew that Vita and Virginia had a physical love affair. And I think when he read all of Virginia's letters to Vita and Vita's letters to Virginia after she had died, it must have been slightly more than he had reckoned with."

"When Lady Ottoline Morrell had those lovely weekends at Garsington, did Leonard accompany Virginia?"

"Hardly ever. It wasn't really the sort of thing that he liked. He was austere in some ways. He didn't like high society. I think it was partly the outsider feeling. He would never have admitted that being a Jew made any difference, but it did.

"He'd been bullied at school, and he made what he called his carapace around him -- a sort of protective shell, so that nothing mattered. He didn't even admit to himself that it made any difference that he was a Jew, but actually it did."

"The anti-Semitism voiced by many of the Bloomsbury group is quite jarring from today's perspective. Was their view representative of the general feeling at the time?"

"I think they were less inhibited about saying it. They prided themselves on saying everything -- talking about sex and semen and whatever they wanted to talk about. That was part of their rebellion against Victorian stuffiness. So, they talked about Jews as well.

"In the general middle- and upper-middle classes, and even in the working class in England before the war, there was a kind of unthinking, casual, but unattractive way of talking about Jewish people. It's rather like in Ireland; people from Dublin make jokes about people from County Kerry. Or people in England making jokes about the Welsh. It wasn't thought about as lethal, it was a sort of casual snobbishness about the outsider."

"I was interested that every time some new atrocity would occur during the second war, Leonard would break out in another round of eczema."

"It is very strange how Virginia had florid ways of expressing her anguish, and he had private physical ways of expressing his. The trembling hand was inherited, so it wasn't entirely stress and anguish, but it always got worse when he was nervous. The eczema was a real scourge to him -- terrible bleeding and itching, and that always got worse -- either after Virginia's illness or when he heard about what was happening in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It was his way of expressing distress because he couldn't allow himself any other way."

"Why, given the fact that the Woolfs published Freud and that several of the Stracheys worked with him, did no one think of having Virginia analyzed?"

"Well, I think two things. Even now, I don't think that people that have quite violent psychotic episodes, as Virginia often did, are quite suitable for analysis. It's more for neurotics than for psychotics. Also, because so many people they knew had jumped into this wonderful new thing, and they knew them very well, with all their tiresomeness and eccentricities, and even inadequacies, they just knew them too well. They wouldn't have sent a dog to any of them. It's as if your strange uncle was an expert in something; he's the last person you'd go to.

"Virginia, of course, never read Freud at all until 1939, a couple of years before her death. Leonard always had a very sound appreciation of Freud. He wrote an early review of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which he said, 'He's more a poet than a practitioner.' Many people would say that now, of course."

"It is so tragic to read that Leonard said, later in life, that he had made no impact on the world. To what extent is that accurate?"

"He worked nonstop for the prevention of war and for anti-imperialism. The number of committees, the number of pressure groups, and the number of hours he put in! I think that what he felt, at the end of his life, was that people were still as barbaric. After the empire was broken down or was cancelled, the countries broke down into civil war or into increased barbarism.

"I think what he was really saying is that human nature doesn't change. We are somehow unredeemable and we don't learn from history. Human nature doesn't get any better, and man's treatment of man doesn't get any better."

I confess to Ms. Glendinning that I find it a curious paradox that he maintained, throughout his entire life, that 'nothing mattered,' and yet he still worked so hard for social reform.

"I think it's very touching that when a much younger woman who was his great friend and support in his last years challenged him about that thing -- nothing matters -- he just turned to her and said, "Everything matters." In a way they mean the same thing.

"What accounts for the fact that people are still fascinated by Bloomsbury?"

"I think a lot of it is due to their accessibility. This particular group of people wrote letters all of the time. They were very articulate indeed. Everybody kept those letters. They sort of thought it was for posterity. The one time, in fact, that Leonard destroyed one of Lytton's letters because it disgusted him so much, Lytton was really, really angry.

"They spent a lot of their old age collecting-up, finding, and suppressing all of these bunches of yellowing old letters. They were self-conscious about their own posterity. And then, of course, there were Virginia's letters and diaries, which were the core of the whole thing, which she had kept and which Leonard sold to dealers in America.

"Then there became the American market, which was fed by more and more stuff, which the dealers went over and bought. I say they were rather like migrating birds returning to their feeding grounds every year. In fact, at one point the market was almost glutted, and they had to hang onto some of the stuff.

"Then, of course, there's the industry of academia. There are all these research students and MA students who have to have something to 'work on,' and there was all of this wonderful stuff to work on. It fed a great flood of books and articles, which, in turn, added to the archive, so that the whole thing grows exponentially. Now, all that is there for another generation to work on. But, if Leonard had destroyed all of Virginia's letters, it wouldn't have happened."

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader