Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning

It's hard being the long-suffering spouse of a literary genius who dies leaving you carrying the flame. An enjoyable new biography turns the spotlight on Leonard Woolf at last, but after reading it Vanessa Curtis is no nearer to fathoming this enigmatic man
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In her diary for 18 August 1921, watching her husband Leonard as he mowed the lawn outside, Virginia Woolf wrote "A wife like I am should have a label to her cage. She bites!" Although these and other such comments were made with self-deprecating humour, they go some way towards explaining how the novelist gained one of her posthumous reputations, as a volatile and sharp-tongued woman married to a man only slightly less tolerant than a saint. Leonard Woolf, so this version goes, was forced to curb his voracious sexual appetite and develop instead a maternal protectiveness in order to shield his wife from the horrors of mental illness, while fielding her blows and tolerating her mood swings. And then there's the other legend, beloved of feminists, in which Virginia features as the sensitive, vulnerable, party-loving genius, and Leonard is the villain of the piece, a terrifying control-freak with no sense of humour who censored her every move and even, as one early attempt at biography suggested, dictated her suicide note while towering over her trembling frame.

As Glendinning reminds us in this long-awaited first full biography, Leonard Woolf, like his wife, was neither saint nor dictator but merely human, with "his own demons to fight in public and in private life, being a man of extremes and contradictions". These contradictions revealed him to be "ferocious and tender, violent and self-restrained, opinionated and non-judgemental". It is these dichotomies of character that Glendinning sets out to explore in her biography, relying heavily upon the massive Leonard Woolf archive housed at the University of Sussex.

The size of the archive itself is both attractive and prohibitive to researchers; here is an entire life preserved in boxes, the family correspondence, the documents from government work in Ceylon, the account books and records of all houses owned and extensive correspondence relating to the Hogarth Press. Here also lie the letters to and from admirers of his wife's and his own writings. Among all the work-related correspondence, awaiting the biographer's fascinated eye, are kept the minutiae of Leonard's personal life: the finicky instructions sent to tailors and watch-menders; the details of every record listened to and of mileage and petrol used; the lists of food and medicine purchased and servant's wages paid and the love letters to his last companion, Trekkie Parsons.

Leonard Woolf held several roles during his long life: son, brother, uncle, husband, colonial servant, Marxist, Socialist, key figure during the formation of the Labour Party in Britain, novelist, journalist, reviewer and editor. earing in mind the extent of the archive that has remained relatively untapped since his death in 1969, one could expect this first major biography to be far weightier than it is.

Nevertheless, there is much to admire in the first part of this book. Glendinning unrolls the lesser-known facts of Leonard's Victorian childhood with humour and delight. The revelations experienced by the 10-year-old boy as he looks at a spider's web, smelling the dark earth and the ivy surrounding it, overcome by "melancholy" and "cosmic unhappiness" are eerily similar to the juvenile experiences of his future wife, Virginia Woolf, who recalled similar glimpses into the hopelessness of mankind in her autobiographical "A Sketch of the Past". Young Leonard had his own patch of garden to cultivate, loved riding his bicycle, adored seaside holidays and wrote a family newspaper a little like his future wife's juvenile Hyde Park Gate News. These parallels are implied, rather than given, Glendinning wisely resisting the urge to rope in Virginia any earlier than necessary.

She has an intimate way of writing in the early chapters of this book, as if she were an indulgent friend of the family sitting at the fireside, leaning forwards to catch up on whispered family gossip: "Papa was not there because he was ill. Papa was often ill, which was why he and Mother went away to south coast resorts so frequently." Glendinning creates a heady whiff of the Victorian past with her descriptions of Woolf family life in the large and chaotic household in Kensington. Nine children lived in the shadow of a widowed mother with a demanding personality who "was adored, and who exacted adoration" from them all - save for Leonard, the one child who refused to call her by her pet name of "Lady" but stuck resolutely to "Mother".

Leonard continued to stand apart from the crowd. Leaving Cambridge University for his Civil Service job in the Colonial Service, he "stepped off the ship into the heat" of Colombo and embraced the noise and discomfort and a couple of prostitutes, too. He worked at the Pearl Fishery off the Gulf of Mannar: "the encampment stank, and was infected with flies" but Leonard ploughed stolidly on, overseeing the sale of oysters and detailing the sordid details of his chronic eczema in humorous letters to Lytton Strachey. This pre-Virginia part of Leonard's life in some ways provides the most fascinating part of this biography, for it is the only time when the man can be judged purely on his own merits.

The sections on his early married years with Virginia, detailing her breakdowns and their founding of the Hogarth Press, are centred around Leonard's perception of Virginia as the beautiful, chilly "Aspasia", the "intelligent, cultivated mistress of Pericles" but reveal little else that is new. Chapters on the later years of marriage between the two authors afford us some intriguing glimpses into life at Monk's House in Sussex where Leonard built ponds, laid bowling greens, tended orchards and purchased adjoining fields. Glendinning relates the well-known events surrounding Virginia Woolf's suicide but adds some additional snippets of information, some of which imply that Leonard lacked the correct emotional response. He noted down details of the cumulative mileage of his car on the way back from searching for his missing wife in the river. After attending her cremation he went straight off to have a haircut. And yet Glendinning reveals, just in time, the hidden anguish beneath the pedantic exterior, gleaned from having studied the page in his diary for 28 March 1941, the day on which he carried out that fruitless search for Virginia's body. The paper, observes Glendinning, was "obscured by a brownish-yellow stain which had been rubbed or wiped. It could be tea or coffee or tears. This smudge is unique in all his years of neat diary-keeping."

After Virginia's death, Leonard fell in love with a younger woman, Trekkie Parsons, and remained besotted for over 25 years. Trekkie's part in the affair is less clear, Glendinning only able to offer us the view that "she was almost certainly not his mistress."

There are many errors scattered throughout the book. For instance, Virginia Stephen was not 17 when her half-sister (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "step-sister") Stella died, but a far more impressionable 15. A Bach "cello partita" could not have been played at Leonard's cremation for there is no such thing. Clive Bell is erroneously captioned as Duncan Grant in one of the otherwise excellent archive illustrations. These are small things, but what is more noticeable is that Glendinning's power as a biographer seems oddly muted in some parts of this book, returning to full force in the final few chapters. Here she demonstrates a deep empathy for her subject.

Employing a novelist's eye for detail she draws a vivid picture of the long-faced widower, tending his garden, helping out with various community affairs, firing off the usual letters of complaint and stuffing them into the tiny red post-box in the village street, writing the final volume of his life and answering with patience and dedication, the interminable enquiries about his dead wife's life and work. Leonard internalised his anguish and remained a pillar of strength, staying busy and independent while everyone else disintegrated around him; two of his brothers committed suicide, a sister was incarcerated in an asylum and a niece attempted to gas herself and her daughter.

Glendinning's skill at capturing Leonard's reluctance to let go of life is such that reading of his death gives a true sense of bereavement. One can almost feel the hushed, reverent atmosphere surrounding his last few days at beloved Monk's House.

Logs and apples pile up in the disused downstairs sitting room where members of the Bloomsbury Group once sat in animated conversation around the fire. A solicitor visits to draft up the final will. Dogs pine, concerned visitors are turned away. A single weak pen stroke marks the final entry in Leonard's diary and only three precious confidantes creep in to witness the very end.

By relating his demise in this way, Glendinning opens our eyes to the extraordinary dignity of this most unique of men, and her "Aftermath" chapter on the bitterness and controversy surrounding the contestation of Leonard's will seems unnecessary, ending the book on a sour note.

Despite her conclusion that the "readers of this book will have made up their own minds about the nature and quality of Leonard Woolf, the whole man", it is difficult to come away with any clear impression of what the "whole man" was truly like. He and Virginia will forever be inextricably linked. He gave her the surname that enhanced her reputation and he enabled her to write, promoting and guarding her posthumous reputation with single-minded thoroughness and dedication. The other problem is that, perhaps pre-empting the inevitable biography, Leonard retained control from beyond the grave by having already published his excellent five-volume autobiography.

Glendinning's book is an absorbing read and she covers all the key areas of his life, providing some valuable insights into the strength of character that Leonard, modest, omitted from his autobiography. There is, however, still a sense of depths not plumbed, a character still yet to be wholly revealed. This is less the fault of the biographer and more because Leonard happened to marry a woman who blossomed into one of the most intriguing and enduring novelists of the 20th century. It is as if Glendinning has removed a low-wattage bulb and replaced it with a brighter one, shining her lamp on to Leonard. She succeeds in throwing his lean profile more sharply into view. But there it is again, his wife's tall shadow, leaning across the doorway and blocking out the light.