- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007


By Victoria Glendinning

Free Press, $30, 500 pages, illus.


You know you are in the hands of a practiced, experienced biographer when before you even embark on the subject’s journey though life, you are treated to this kind of masterly summing up:

“He grew up to become a core member of a group of intimate and talented friends who continue to inspire interest and analysis a century later. In his early twenties, as a colonial servant, he administered ten thousand square miles of village and jungle. He became an anti-imperialist, a Marxist ‘of a sort’ and a socialist, and was an eminence grise of the early Labour Party in Britain as it became a party of government.

“His adult life spanned the two world wars; his writings informed the charter of the League of Nations and, as polemical journalist, as editor and author, his life long mission was to prevent the barbarism and insanity of future war through international cooperation and collective security. His anguished intelligence saw all too clearly both the failure of his great project, and what he saw as the failure of the Left in Britain. He had his own demons to fight in public and in private life, being a man of extremes and contradictions …”

The he in question is Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), who will probably always be known to posterity as the husband of the ever-more famous novelist and woman of letters, Virginia Woolf, to whom he contributed his name and decades of support of all kinds.

Victoria Glendinning is not, however, writing the life of anyone’s husband here. Her omission of the more famous Woolf in her exquisite summary is absolutely calculated, for she is out to demonstrate just what a substantial figure Leonard is in his own right. Yes, he is a part of the Bloomsbury Group ? that group of intimate and talented friends ? but like so many of its more important adherents, he brings something unique to their table.

And in the case of Leonard Woolf, that something is political science, just as for Maynard Keynes it was economics. He was a serious writer on politics, even a serious player on the left wing political scene in much of the first two thirds of 20th century Britain.

It is probably fair to say that the important weekly, the New Statesman, would not have been the force for sensible left-wing thinking it sometimes was if not for Leonard’s strenuous efforts. His particular nemesis in that publication was its editor, the redoubtable Kingsley Martin, who could be as reflexively anti-American as any in the British democratic left. Woolf never let such nonsense go un-challenged, sometimes in private but often in sarcastic “Letters to the Editor” such as this one written in late 1951:

“Week after week, every Friday, I have been reading with rapt attention and mounting excitement the thesis, reiterated and reverberating through your paper, that if only there were no Americans, we could all, under the guidance of the peace-loving, compassionate Father in Marx, Stalin, relax in peace and prosperity.”

Although Leonard had originally been turned off by anti-Bolshevik hysteria in the years following the Russian revolution, he had soon come to detest Communism as the totalitarian system he so clearly saw it was.

Readers today may find too simplistic Leonard’s notions of world government which were a significant indirect influence on the structure of the ill-fated League of Nations. Indeed, there were many in his lifetime who already thought that. But in his cold, analytical way, he was a genuine idealist, a consistent opponent of nationalism.

This led him to oppose Zionism, from the time of the Balfour Declaration, and even the considerable suasions of his distinguished historian friend, Lewis Namier, and of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann could not sway him. Once the state of Israel existed, however, he did not let his anti-Zionism stop him from visiting and being exhilarated by the vibrant new nation.

Writing in one of his splendid autobiographies near the end of his life, Leonard opined with his customary fairness that “you must not act upon a situation which no longer exists, but upon the facts that face one. When the Jewish National Home and hundreds of thousands of Jews had been established in Palestine, when Hitler was killing millions of Jews in Europe, when the Arabs declared their intention of destroying Israel and the Israelis, Zionism and anti-Zionism had become irrelevant.”

Glendinning is particularly interested in the subject of Leonard and his Jewishness and devotes a considerable amount of attention to it. His family was quite assimilated ? his father was a distinguished barrister and Queen’s Counsel and Leonard was not the only one of his many siblings to marry out of his faith ? but they were identifiedly Jewish. A resolute rationalist and unbeliever in religion, Leonard nonetheless seems to have thought of himself as a Jew.

Reading all that this book contains on the topic, one wonders indeed if he had any choice in his particular world or even in his own home about considering himself Jewish. It is distressing to see that the Bloomsbury group, those avatars of good taste and exquisite sensibility, were not above a measure of anti-Semitism.

This unfortunately most definitely does include Virginia Woolf, whose attitudes towards Jews went well beyond mere rhetorical foulness. Even making allowances for how waspish she could be about all and sundry, her anti-Semitic remarks about the Woolf family, and sometimes even about Leonard himself, to whom after all she was clearly devoted and extremely grateful, make for distressing reading.

When it comes to the story of the Woolfs’ remarkable but deeply strange marriage, Ms. Glendinning is exemplary. Refusing to go near the salacious shoals that other biographers have tried to negotiate, she is consistently judicious while always being lively and informed. She is a huge admirer of Leonard as husband and caretaker, as first reader, publisher, and agent, and as an all around mainstay.

Her portrait of his bereavement following Virginia’s suicide in 1941, showing this icy and reserved man so genuinely anguished, is touching. When Glendinning moves on to Leonard’s relationship with a married woman during the last quarter-century of his life, she treats it with the same sagacity displayed in her analysis of his marriage. It is interesting that neither relationship was probably ever sexually consummated, but Glendinning refuses to make too much of this, retaining both a sense of proportion and a healthy skepticism about testimony even from those most involved.

Can Victoria Glendinning make the reader love Leonard Woolf as Virginia did, or even like him? Perhaps not, but it is hard to finish her book without a measure of sympathy for this oddly wintry figure and a good deal of respect for his intellect and integrity.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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