Wives of famous men do not always get their due from historians and biographers. Lincoln, Lenin, Churchill, De Gaulle, Lee Kuan Yew— the women they married and whose sacrifices enabled their work are scarcely known to posterity. What is true of politicians is usually true of writers as well. We read and admire Kalidasa, Goethe, Dickens, Balzac and Manto—but what do we know of their wives? And do we care?
This column is about a man whose work and life have been unjustly obscured by the (just) fame of the woman he was married to. Virginia Woolf is one of the most influential novelists of the twentieth century. Reasonably well known in her lifetime, her reputation has steadily increased since her death, as she has been discovered by feminists, by theorists and historians of the novel, and by a wide general readership. Meanwhile, her husband, also moderately well known while he lived, has since his death slipped further and further into obscurity.
Born into a family of London Jews in 1880, Leonard Woolf was educated at Cambridge, before joining the Ceylon Civil Service. Seven years as a district administrator taught him far more about life than any university could. However, he found being part of a racist system offensive to his humanistic sentiments. On ‘home leave’ in England, he proposed to Virginia Stephen, the younger of two brilliant sisters of a Cambridge scholar. When she accepted, he resigned his job and, with his wife, settled down to a life of writing and publishing in London.
The Woolfs were part of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, a coterie of writers, artists and scholars, active between the two World Wars, who lived in central London, not far from the British Museum. The men in this group were usually educated at Cambridge; the women often had brothers or fathers or lovers who had been to the same university. The ‘Bloomsberries’ included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, and the novelists E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf.
In the literature on Bloomsbury, Leonard Woolf is usually treated as an appendage to his more talented wife. Yet he was a considerable figure in his own right. He wrote some major works of political analysis (as well as a fine novel about his time in Ceylon), started and ran a pioneering publishing house (the Hogarth Press), edited the literary pages of the New Statesman and was active in the Labour Party. He also wrote what is one of the greatest of modern autobiographies. This was published in five, interconnected, volumes, under the titles Sowing, Growing, Beginning Again, Downhill All the Way, and The Arrival Not The Journey Matters.
The British writers of Woolf’s generations were of two types. The left-wing internationalists admired or apologized for Lenin and Stalin, while excoriating British colonial rule. The liberal nationalists savaged Russian Communism, while excusing or euphemizing the crimes committed by their fellow Britons in Asia and Africa.
Leonard Woolf, to his lasting credit, was unsparing in his criticisms of both communism and imperialism. After meeting a Russian Bolshevik in 1919, he wrote witheringly that ‘Communists, Roman Catholics, Rosicrucians, Adventists, all these sects which ferociously maintain a divine or absolute truth, monopolistically revealed to them, an elaborate abracadabra of dogmas and fantasies, fill me with melancholic misery’.
His dislike of Communism extended to its Chinese variant as well. In 1963, news came that Mao’s government was executing dissidents. When Kingsley Martin (a long-time editor of the New Statesman) defended the killings, Woolf wrote to him that ‘it is never right for an individual or government to do any vast evil as a means to some hypothetical good’. Then he added: ‘I believe I know what is good and that some of the things which I believe are true, but I don’t think my knowledge is so certain that it justifies me in injuring, torturing, or killing other people. So, although up to a point I am a Marxist, I do not think that justifies me in harming in any way even a non-Marxist flea’.
Woolf’s reservations about British imperialism were likewise long-lasting. When, in 1920, his colleagues defended the conquest of Africa on the grounds that the natives needed civilizing, he wrote: ‘Psychologically there is no difference between Captain Lugard [the man who had acquired Uganda for the British Empire] and the people in past centuries who burnt and tortured men and women from the highest of religious motives’. In 1921 Woolf stood unsuccessfully for Parliament, his manifesto asking for ‘the complete abandonment of the policy of imperialism and economic penetration’, and for the granting of self-government to India and Ceylon.
Forty years later, when he supported the granting of self-government to African colonies, Woolf was attacked in print by a white settler in Rhodesia, who said the natives would make a mess of ruling themselves. Woolf answered that with their world wars and the persecution of Jews on their own continent, the Europeans were in no position to preach to others.
Woolf was consistently critical of the reluctance of the British in India to transfer power and authority to Indians. As he once wrote: ‘I have no doubt that if British governments had been prepared to grant in 1900 what they refused in 1900 but granted in 1920; or to grant in 1920 what they refused in 1920 but granted in 1940; or to grant in 1940 what they refused in 1940 but granted in 1947—then nine-tenths of the misery, hatred, and violence, the imprisonings and terrorism, the murders, flogging, shootings, assassinations, even the racial massacres would have been avoided; the transference of power might well have been accomplished peacefully, even possibly without Partition.’
In his own group of friends, Leonard Woolf stood out for his personal decency and political courage. While the ‘Bloomsberries’ were undoubtedly very gifted, their literary and artistic intelligence had made them very arrogant. Despite the great books they wrote and the marvelous paintings they left behind, they were a snobbish, clique-ish, and self-promoting circle.
Unlike his more famous colleagues, Woolf was not at all Eurocentric in his influences or orientation. He remarked of Buddhism that ‘it is a civilized and a humane dream of considerable beauty and it has eliminated most of the crude anthropomorphic and theological nonsense which encrusts other religions’. And further: ‘The way of life as preached by Gautama Buddha is extraordinarily gentle, unaggressive, humane, far more so, it seems to me, in its verbal presentation and attitude than even that preached in the Sermon on the Mount’.
One cannot imagine Lytton Strachey writing in this fashion about a ‘Eastern’ religion. Nor can one imagine Keynes writing about an ‘Eastern’ politician in the way Woolf did about Gandhi, after meeting him in 1931: ‘At first sight he presented to one a body which was slightly inhuman, slightly ridiculous. But the moment he began to talk, I got the impression of great complexity—strength, subtlety, humour, and at the same time an extraordinary sweetness of disposition’.
Woolf was also precocious in his feminism, in his understanding that women had been abominably treated by society and by posterity. Of a woman he knew, who created some enduring co-operatives, he said: ‘If she had been a man, her achievements would have filled probably half a page of Who’s Who; though she lived to be over 70, you will not find the name of Margaret Llewelyn Davis in any edition of it—the kind of fact which made—and makes—feminism the belief and policy of all sensible men’. This was written in 1964; now, in a slightly less patriarchal world, the woman in quest at least has a short Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Llewelyn_Davies).
In a diary entry dated 19th July 1919, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘the only honest people are the artists, [for] these social reformers and philanthrophists get so out of hand, and harbour so many discreditable desires under the disguise of loving their kind, that in the end there’s more fault to find with in them than with us’.
Her husband was surely an exception to these strictures. Leonard Woolf was a social reformer, who worked to end the domination of men over women, of empires over colonies, of the state over the individual. His desires for the less fortunate members of his species were honourable rather than ‘discreditable’. Rather than propose ‘out of hand’ Utopias based on violence and an alleged perfectibility of human nature, he advocated steady, incremental change by democratic and non-violent means.
As both man and writer, Leonard Woolf was unflinchingly honest as well as absolutely free of self-promotion. This now forgotten husband of a still famous writer deserves to be better known, as well as more widely read. The place to start with may be the five volumes of his own autobiography, before moving on to Victoria Glendinning’s fine biography of the man. Meanwhile, let me leave you with a last quote from Leonard Woolf to whose truthfulness I can personally testify: ‘Work is the most efficient anodyne—after death, sleep, or chloroform—for pain, whether the pain be in your big toe, your tooth, your head, or your heart’.
GOOD HUSBAND, BETTER MAN
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 27th December 2014)