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Woolf: A soft but influential voice

Leonard Woolf and Coco at Monks House, East Sussex. Leonard Woolf and Coco at Monks House, East Sussex. ("LEONARD WOOLF"/UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX)

Leonard Woolf: A Biography
By Victoria Glendinning
Free Press, 498 pp., illustrated, $30

Deciding to write a life of Leonard Woolf is probably not something Victoria Glendinning, a veteran biographer of such figures as Jonathan Swift, Anthony Trollope, Rebecca West, and Vita Sackville-West, undertook lightly. Not only is the landscape scattered with too many accounts -- letters, diaries, biographies -- of all sorts of minor Bloomsberries riding on the coattails of Virginia Woolf's reputation, but in a sense Glendinning has already been anticipated.

For although this is the first biography of Leonard Woolf, his five-volume autobiography appeared in the 1960s, when he was in his 80s. More recently an excellent and generous selection of Woolf's letters was published, ably edited and with commentary by Frederic Spotts . Of course there is always the important difference between biography and autobiography, but in Woolf's case his judicious unmisgiving and unwithholding account of himself, written in prose both graceful and humorous, gives any biographer something impressive to measure herself against. Glendinning measures up very well indeed.

If ever one felt the temptation to take the subject's words about himself as the truest possible account of that self, it would arise when that subject was Leonard Woolf. The masterly volumes of his autobiography trace out the life with leisured specificity: from his growing up in a large Jewish family in London (eight siblings), to Cambridge and his membership in the elite society the Apostles, to his seven years as a civil service administrator in colonial Ceylon. He returned to England in 1911 , fell in love with Virginia Stephen, whom Lytton Strachey had been urging him to marry, proposed, and was eventually accepted. He published two novels, the first one well received, but turned away from writing them doubtless in part because his wife was pre-empting the field. He became instead a prolific political journalist, published many books, and was associated with the New Statesman up until his death. Together with his wife, he established the Hogarth Press, under whose imprint appeared many distinguished volumes. He cared assiduously for Virginia in years punctuated by her mental breakdowns and culminating in her suicide, in 1941 . He proceeded to live for 40 more years, during which he fell in love and had a mutually enhancing relationship with Marjorie "Trekkie" Ritchie , the wife of Chatto and Windus publisher Ian Parsons . Glendinning puts it well when she writes, "In his maturity, his life's work was to combat the irrational savagery of nation toward nation, and to try and keep his wife from being overwhelmed by her devils."

There have been some pretty desperate attempts to somehow blame Leonard for his wife's illnesses. This can be done only by ignoring or "seeing through" the note Virginia left for him when she walked into the Ouse, a note that begins "I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness" and ends with "No one could have been so good as you have been from the very first day till now." We owe her the respect not to dismiss these declarations as deluded. Not that Leonard didn't have his own dark spots: Glendinning quotes from the autobiographical volume "Sowing," where he speaks of donning a "male carapace" to cover up fears and doubts; its template was "Nothing Matters." In fact a lot of things mattered a great deal to this man of many parts. At age 14 he announced that he no longer believed and would never go to synagogue again, and his disgust for all official religion was maintained through his life. Another formulation from the autobiography casts a cold and realistic eye on himself as an administrator in Ceylon, saying that "the best chance of getting uncivilised laws abolished or changed is that they should be strictly applied by civilised judges who abhor them."

Leonard was very much interested in sex, had some of it in Ceylon, but determined to marry Virginia even though she told him, before the marriage, that she felt no physical attraction for him. Glendinning, noting that Virginia's sex experience at that point was "minimal and not encouraging," settles for the following balanced formulation of their sex life together: "The marriage was consummated, not infrequently, but incompletely." This is a judicious way of saying there was no penetration.

For the remainder of their marriage, he made no advances toward other women, although Glendinning tells us that he was "an aficionado of big breasts" and quotes a lovely remark of E. M. Forster's about a well-endowed woman he and Leonard had met: "Even my eyes could not leave her breasts, so I had no doubt as to the destination of yours." Forster acknowledged that it was through Leonard's help and encouragement that he was able to finish "A Passage to India," over which he'd struggled. It's possible to see, in the temperament and moral sense of Forster's Cyril Fielding , from that novel, a kind of homage to the skeptical, disbelieving Leonard.

The latter pages of Glendinning's biography are most notable for the testimony they give of how many women, after Virginia 's death, were drawn to her husband, wrote him, identified with him, insisted on seeing him, and so forth. Toward them Leonard maintained his usual gallant good sense, and kept on writing, editing, traveling, and eulogizing his friends as they passed on.

Leonard was reluctant to see the correspondence between Virginia and Vita Sackville-West published, and Glendinning thinks that reading about their affair must have reinforced the "nullity" of the sexual side of his married life. At one of the last meetings he attended at the New Statesman, when some issue involving homosexuality was being discussed, he suddenly said, "My wife was a lesbian." It was typical of this tightly strung un-Bloomsburyish man to leave it at that.

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Shelf Life."