Leonard Woolf: a Life, by Victoria Glendinning

The voyages of an outsider
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The Independent Culture

Leonard Woolf is one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th century, about whom the Bloomsbury industry has been very remiss. It has laboured, almost to death, his role as husband and carer of Virginia Woolf, with her complex mix of madness and genius, and remained airily indifferent to his other lives. But keeping his wife sane and able to write was only one of his jobs. Woolf became, among other things, a leading proponent of democratic socialism; an advocate for the dismantling of the colonial system; the publisher of TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Sigmund Freud; the author of one of the earliest blueprints for the League of Nations; and a respected authority on international relations. This, we now learn, was the man who believed that any intelligent person could acquire in a few months (if she or he worked with the "laborious pertinacity of a mole or a beaver") the knowledge necessary for the understanding of any subject; and who advised others to change occupation every seven years, as he himself did.

It helped to be an outsider. It gave him an independence within Bloomsbury, for he was never more conscious of his position than when inside its ranks. Most within this intimate circle came from the upper echelons of the professional middle class. Though Woolf and his father belonged to the same, he felt an outsider because his family had only recently "struggled up into it from the stratum of Jewish shopkeepers". He lacked the "intricate tangle of ancient roots and tendrils" that held his friends socially in place. He envied their assurance and manners, and despised their assumptions.

It does not surprise that, at Cambridge, fellow undergraduates teased him for being violent, savage and a despiser of the human race. The tremor in his hand, which remained all his life, may have had a physiological cause but it worsened under stress. It contributed to the image Virginia Stephen retained, of "that violent, trembling misanthropic Jew".

Though she became his wife, Virginia has been frequently accused of anti-Semitism. Victoria Glendinning's slant on this, as on much else in this bewitching biography, is more playful and more knowing. She acknowledges that Virginia shared in the unthinking habits of most English gentiles. But she also points out that by calling Woolf "a penniless Jew", as she often did at the time of their engagement, Virginia was "maximising the social frisson this would cause". Marrying a Jew, Glendinning astutely observes, was part of her rebellion against the conventions in which she was raised.

The first time Woolf saw her and her sister Vanessa, the beauty of the two sisters took his breath away. This was at Cambridge, in rooms belonging to the Goth, as he and his friends nicknamed the girls' brother, Thoby Stephen. Even then, he was not so dazzled by their white dresses, large hats and parasols as to miss the look in their eyes. It belied demureness, for it was "a look of great intelligence, hypercritical, sarcastic, satirical".

He saw Virginia only once more before disappearing to Ceylon for seven years. There the person he corresponded with most was Lytton Strachey. In terms of character, they were chalk and cheese. But Woolf, who went along with Strachey's high-camp stance and histrionic style, saw behind it the courageous honesty of an iconoclast in the making. Woolf had a knack for describing his friends and colleagues. He filled his five-volume autobiography with memorable vignettes.

But it needed a biography to bring him centre stage, to track down his Jewish background and to follow him around Ceylon as he moved from post to post in the colonial civil service. Here Christopher Ondaatje's Leonard Woolf in Ceylon (HarperCollins Canada) should be read in tandem with Glendinning, in part because his photographs enhance the tale.

At 27, he became assistant government agent in Hambantota, where he was expected to collect revenue, dispense justice and travel "on circuit", frequently acting as judge. It is not hard to see how colonial service shaped his later life. Obliged to keep a detailed diary, he developed a lifelong habit of list-making, later recording his car mileage or, in great minutiae, his expenditures.

He also learnt two things about efficient administration: never use two words where one will do, and always reply to letters on the day of receipt. But it was the unending jungle, he said, that "tempered in me the love of silence and solitude". Having begun his time in Ceylon, in his own words, "a very innocent, unconscious imperialist", he came to abhor the system he had served. And though in Ceylon he admired Buddhism, he carried with him through life a profound distrust of religion.

Strachey urged him to return and marry Virginia Stephen. He did so; and wrote two novels; and became interested in the role of co-operatives; and came to the attention of Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who harnessed him to the Fabian Society and set him to work on research. He outran their leash, writing books on international government and on Africa. He was high-minded but realistic, an ideas man with connections. He became an adviser to the Labour Party on international relations and sat on many committees.

This is also the man who bought a judicious range of items from a village auction, including apple trays, a garden roller, the contents of a shed. He loved animals and had a habit of loving, falling head over heels in love again at 62, two years after the tragedy of his wife's suicide in 1941.

It needed a biography as compelling as this to bring out Woolf's full stature. Many will rate this as Glendinning's finest biography, for there is not a page that does not contain something of interest or surprise. It is impossible not to admire this man who, in old age, went in on Tuesdays to the Hogarth Press that the Woolfs had founded, "a small greying figure radiating intelligence, muted humour and benignity". Even the astringent Beatrice Webb was moved to describe Woolf as a "saint with very considerable intelligence; a man without vanity of guile, wholly public-spirited". Woolf himself, would, I think, have been content with his own words: "an unredeemed and unrepentant intellectual".

Frances Spalding's life of Gwen Raverat is published by Harvill