Leonard Woolf: a Life
By Victoria Glendinning
SIMON & SCHUSTER pounds 25 (530pp) pounds 22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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 T S 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 Blooms-bury, 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 …