Leonard Woolf

Leonard Woolf

Leonard Woolf, the third of ten children of Sidney Woolf (1844–1892) and his wife, Marie de Jongh (1848–1939), was born in Kensington on 25th November, 1880. His father, who was a lawyer, died when he was eleven, leaving his family in financial difficulties.

Woolf was educated at St. Paul's School and in 1899 he went to Trinity College, on scholarships for five years. While at the University of Cambridge he became friends with Thoby Stephen, the brother of Virginia Stephen and Vanessa Stephen.

In 1902 he was the first Jew to be elected to the famous undergraduate society known as the Apostles. Other members included E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, George Edward Moore, Robert Trevelyan, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Desmond MacCarthy. According to his biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum: "G. E. Moore was the dominant influence there, and to him Woolf owed his commitment to rationality, clarity, and common sense; Moore's concern with states of mind and his basic distinction in Principia ethica (1903) between instrumental and intrinsic value was incorporated into Woolf's political theory."

In 1904 Virginia Stephen and Vanessa Stephen moved to to Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. They invited a group of friends to discuss literary and artistic issues at their home. The friends included Woolf, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Desmond MacCarthy, Mary Warre-Cornish, Duncan Grant, Arthur Waley and Saxon Sydney-Turner. Over the next few years others joined such as Roger Fry, Ottoline Morrell, Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge. This group of friends eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Group.

After leaving university he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service. On 10th August 1912 he married Virginia Stephen. He resigned from the colonial service after a six-and-a-half-year stint as civil servant. The couple embarked on a writing life at Hogarth House in Richmond and at her rented home, Asheham House, at Beddingham, near Lewes. In 1913 he published his first novel, The Village and the Jungle. The following year, a second novel, The Wise Virgins (1914).

In 1914 Virginia Woolf had a severe mental breakdown. Leonard nursed her back to recovery and in 1915 her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published. According to Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum: "He had recognized her genius before their marriage, but not the extent of her mental instability. For nearly thirty years one of Leonard's chief occupations was caring for Virginia. Without his vigilant love, her books would never have been written; he was her first reader, her editor, and her publisher. Though not a sexually active marriage, theirs was one of profound and enduring affection."

An opponent of Britain's involvement in the First World War, Woolf was spared becoming a conscientious objector by being rejected by the military as unfit for duty. Woolf joined the Fabian Society in 1916 and wrote two books on consumer co-operative socialism, maintaining in them that economics should be organized according to the needs of consumers. He also wrote two Fabian reports on international government that became part of the basis for the League of Nations.

Woolf began spending time with Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell at their home Garsington Manor near Oxford. It was also a refuge for conscientious objectors. They worked on the property's farm as a way of escaping prosecution. Other people who Woolf met at Garsington included Dorothy Brett, Mark Gertler, Siegfried Sassoon, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and T.S. Eliot.

Woolf also met Aldous Huxley at Garsington Manor. He later commented: "The Oxford generations of the nineteen tens and nineteen twenties produced a remarkable constellation of stars of the first magnitude and I much enjoyed seeing them twinkle in the Garsington garden. There for the first time I saw the young Aldous Huxley folding his long, grasshopper legs into a deckchair and listened entranced to a conversation which is unlike that of any other person that I have talked with. I could never grow tired of listening to the curious erudition, intense speculative curiosity, deep intelligence which, directed by a gentle wit and charming character, made conversation an art."

In 1917 Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded the Hogarth Press. Over the next few years they published the work of Flora Mayor, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Vita Sackville-West, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Graves, T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. They also published Virginia's Night and Day, a novel that deals with the subject of women's suffrage.

After the war they bought Monk's House, a cottage in Rodmell, so they could be close to her sister, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who lived at Charleston Farmhouse. In 1919 Woolf was appointed as secretary of an advisory committees on international and imperial questions that had been set-up by the Labour Party. In 1920 Woolf published Empire and Commerce in Africa, which analysed the economic imperialism of African colonization.

A member of the Labour Party he published Socialism and Co-operation, to coincide with the 1922 General Election. As Claire Tomalin points out: "His declaration of political faith, put out for the election of November 1922, blames the old men and old methods of the two main political parties not only for the First World War, but also for the troubles of Ireland and the Empire and the disastrous economic condition of the country. He wanted the Treaty of Versailles revised to be fairer to Germany, with the hope of building a united Europe; he wanted disarmament and recognition of the Soviet Union, and he supported the League of Nations; at home he proposed an educational structure which would give real equality of opportunity up to university level. Finally, he called for a more equitable system of taxation."

Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum has pointed out: "Woolfs' rising income enabled him to resign and write After the Deluge: a Study of Communal Psychology. The first volume (1931) surveyed the growth of democratic communal psychology in the eighteenth century; the second (1939) concentrated on 1830 to 1832. Woolf interrupted this work to write three shorter books in the 1930s on totalitarianism. In them he again advocated the need for socialist co-operation and international government, and he warned of the impending destruction of his civilization's values, which for Woolf were freedom, democracy, equality, justice, liberty, tolerance, and the love of beauty, art, and intellect."

Virginia Woolf had recurring bouts of depression. The outbreak of the Second World War increased her mental turmoil and Leonard Woolf arranged for Octavia Wilberforce to treat Virginia. He later recalled: "She (Octavia Wilberforce) had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack."

On 28th March, 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote a letter to Leonard: "I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer."

Later that morning she committed suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse, near her home in Rodmell. After her body was recovered three weeks later, on 18 April, Leonard Woolf buried her ashes in the Monk's House garden.

After the death of his wife he began an affair with Trekkie Parsons, a book illustrator, whose husband was Ian Parsons and at that time was abroad as a member of the Royal Air Force. After the Second World War Trekkie, who was twenty years younger than Woolf, spent the weekends with her husband and the rest of the week at Monk's House.

Woolf wrote five volumes of autobiography, Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), Downhill All the Way (1967), and The Journey not the Arrival Matters (1969). His biographer has argued: "Leonard Woolf's own personality is revealed in his autobiographies with remarkable detachment and integrity; a fatalistic strain in them sometimes masks the considerable charm, dry humour, and deep feelings of the man.... Futile as his political writing and committee work may have appeared to him, he was nevertheless right about the wrongs of imperialism and capitalism, the need for international organization, and the evils of fascist and communist totalitarianism."

Leonard Woolf suffered a stroke and died at Monk's House on 14th August 1969.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again (1964)

Then on Monday, July 3rd, only three weeks after I had arrived in England, I went and dined with Vanessa and Clive Bell in Gordon Square. I was alone with them at dinner, but afterwards Virginia, Duncan Grant, and Walter Lamb came in. This was, I suppose, so far as I was concerned, the beginning of what came to be called Bloomsbury.

What came to be called "Bloomsbury" by the outside world never existed in the form given to it by the outside world. For "Bloomsbury" was and is currently used as a term - usually of abuse - applied to a largely imaginary group of persons with largely imaginary objects and characteristics. I was a member of this group and I was also one of a small number of persons who did in fact eventually form a kind of group of friends living in or around that district of London legitimately called Bloomsbury. The term Bloomsbury can legitimately be applied to this group and will be so applied in these pages. Bloomsbury, in this sense, did not exist in 1911 when I returned from Ceylon; it came into existence in the three years 1912 to 1914 . We did ourselves use the term of ourselves before it was used by the outside world, for in the 1920's and 1930's, when our own younger generation were growing up and marrying and some of our generation were already dying, we used to talk of "Old Bloomsbury", meaning the original members of our group of friends who between 1911 and 1914 came to live in or around Bloomsbury.

Old Bloomsbury consisted of the following people: The three Stephens: Vanessa, married to Clive Bell, Virginia, who married Leonard Woolf, and Adrian, who married Karin Costello; Lytton Strachey; Clive Bell; Leonard Woolf; Maynard Keynes; Duncan Grant; E. M. Forster (who will be referred to in this book as Morgan Forster or Morgan); Saxon Sydney Turner; Roger Fry. Desmond MacCarthy and his wife Molly, though they actually lived in Chelsea, were always regarded by us as members of Old Bloomsbury. In the 1920's and 1930's, when Old Bloomsbury narrowed and widened into a newer Bloomsbury, it lost through death Lytton and Roger and added to its numbers Julian, Quentin, and Angelica Bell, and David (Bunny) Garnett, who married Angelica.

(2) Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again (1964)

The older generation would be there (Garsington Manor): Bertie Russell, Goldie Dickinson, Bridges, Lytton, Maynard; and then early in the afternoon there would be an irruption from Oxford of undergraduates or young dons. The Oxford generations of the nineteen tens and nineteen twenties produced a remarkable constellation of stars of the first magnitude and I much enjoyed seeing them twinkle in the Garsington garden. There for the first time I saw the young Aldous Huxley folding his long, grasshopper legs into a deckchair and listened entranced to a conversation which is unlike that of any other person that I have talked with. I could never grow tired of listening to the curious erudition, intense speculative curiosity, deep intelligence which, directed by a gentle wit and charming character, made conversation an art. And out of the Oxford colleges of those years came, besides Aldous, L. A. G. Strong, David Cecil, Maurice Bowra.

(3) Leonard Woolf, The Journey not the Arrival Matters (1969)

The psychology of September 1939 was terribly different from that of August 1914. People of my generation knew now exactly what war is - its positive horrors of death and destruction, wounds and pain and bereavement and brutality, but also its negative emphasis and desolation of personal and cosmic boredom, the feeling that one is endlessly waiting in a dirty, grey railway station waiting-room, with nothing to do but but wait endlessly for the next catastrophe. We knew the war and civilization in the modern world are incompatible at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Europe of 1933 was infinitely more barbarous and degraded than that of 1914 and 1919. In Russia for more than a decade there had ruled with absolute power a government, a political power, and a dictator who, on the basis of superhuman doctrinal imbecility, had murdered millions of their fellow Russians because they were peasants who were not so poor as the poorest peasants; the communists, being communists, were continually torturing and murdering their fellow communists on such grounds as they were either right deviationists or left diviationists.

In Italy there was established a government and dictator who, with a political doctrine purporting to be the exact opposite of Russian communism, produced, much less efficiently, exactly the same results of savage stupidity. In Germany the same phenomena had appeared as in Russia and Italy, but the barbarism of Hitler and the Nazis showed itself, in the years from 1933 to 1939 to be much nastier, more menacing, more insane than even the barbarism of Stalin and the communists.

(4) Leonard Woolf was living in Rodmell at the start of the Second World War.

The strange first air raid of the war - it was, of course, a false alarm, came to Rodmell on a lovely autumnal or late summer day. It came, I think, just after or before breakfast and I walked out onto the lawn which looks over the water-meadows to Lewes and the downs. It came, I think, just after or before breakfast and I walked out onto the lawn which looks over the water-meadows to Lewes and the downs. It was absolutely still; soft, bright sunshine with wisps of mists still lying on the water-meadows. There are few more beautiful places in England than the valley of the Sussex Ouse between Lewes and Newhaven.

It was curious that this Ouse valley should be so visually connected in my mind with peacefulness and beauty while I listen to the first air-raid sirens of the 1939 war, for, during the next six years, as soon as the phony war ended and the real war began, it was over the peaceful water-meadows and above our heads over Rodmell village that again and again I watched that many strange phases of the war in the air being fought.

The real air war began for us in August 1940. On Sunday, August 18, Virginia and I had just sat down to eat our lunch when there was a tremendous roar and we were just in time to see two planes fly a few feet above the church spire, over the garden, and over the roof, and looking up as they passed above the window we saw the swastika on them. They fired and hit a cottage in the village and fired another shot into a house in Northease. Through between 1940 and 1945 I must have seen hundreds of German planes and many of them dropping bombs of fighting British planes, except in this incident I never saw or had real evidence of a German plane firing bullets at people or buildings on the ground.

When the Battle of Britain and the bombing of London in earnest began, one watched daily in Rodmell the sinister preliminaries to destruction. First the wail of the sirens; then the drone of the German planes flying in from the sea, usually to the east of Rodmell and Lewes. On a clear fine day one could see the Germans high up in the sky and sometimes the British planes going up to meet them north of Lewes. There was very little fighting in the air immediately over the Ouse valley for the Germans flew regularly in a corridor more to the east.

(5) In his autobiography Editor, Kingsley Martin explained the influence that Leonard Woolf had on the New Statesman (1968)

Leonard Woolf had a powerful influence on the policy and character of the New Statesman. He had been literary editor of the Nation, to which I had often contributed in the past. I had known him and Virginia Woolf ever since the First World War, and found him, as I still do, the most companionable of men. He was already to advise me and became, I think, something of a Father Figure to me. No one was ever so ready for argument and, I must add, so obstinate and lovable.

(6) In January, 1941, Leonard Woolf, became concerned about the health of Virginia Woolf. He decided to ask the advice of their friend, Dr. Octavia Wilberforce.

Octavia Wilberforce practised as a doctor in Montpelier Crescent, Brighton, and lived there with Elizabeth Robins. Octavia was a remarkable character. Her ancestors were the famous Wilberforce of the anti-slavery movement; their portraits hung on her walls and she had inherited their beautiful furniture and their fine library of eighteenth-century books. Octavia had been born and bred in a large house in Sussex, a young lady in a typical country gentleman's house. But though she was always very much an English lady of the upper middle class, she was never a typical young lady.

She was already a young lady when she decided that she must become a doctor. It was a strange, disquieting decision, for in a Sussex country houses in those days young ladies did not become a doctors; they played tennis and went to dances in order to marry and breed more young ladies in still more country houses. Octavia's idea was not thought to be a good one by her family, and she received no encouragement there. Another difficulty was that her education as a young lady was not the kind which made it easy for her to pass the necessary examinations to qualify as a doctor. But her quiet determination, the oak and triple brass enabled her to overcome all difficulties. She became a first-class doctor in Brighton.

She had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack. Drastic steps meant going to bed, complete rest, plenty of food and milk.

On Wednesday, March 26, I became convinced that Virginia's mental condition was more serious than it had ever been since those terrible days in August 1913 which led to her complete breakdown and attempt to kill herself. I suggested to Virginia that she should go and see Octavia and consult her as a doctor as well as a friend. She had a long talk with Octavia by herself and then Octavia came into the front room in Montpelier Crescent and she and I discussed what we should do.

We felt that it was not safe to do anything more at the moment. And it was the moment at which the risk had to be taken, for if one did not force the issue - which would have meant perpetual surveillance of trained nurses - one would only have made it impossible and intolerable to her if one attempted the same kind of perpetual surveillance by one self. The decision was wrong and led to the disaster.

(7) Virginia Woolf, letter to Leonard Woolf (28th March, 1941)

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

(8) Leonard Woolf, The Journey not the Arrival Matters (1969)

On Friday, March 28, 1941, I was in the garden and I thought she was in the house. But when at one o'clock I went in to lunch, she was not there. When I could not find her anywhere in the house or garden, I felt sure that she had gone down to the river. I ran across the fields down to the river and almost immediately found her walking-stick lying upon the bank. I searched for some time and then went back to the house and informed the police. It was three weeks before her body was found when some children saw it floating in the river.

(9) Claire Tomalin , The Times Literary Supplement(1987)

Leonard Woolf's convictions put him on the left of the Labour Party, not as a revolutionary but what he called a "heretical socialist", believing that society should be run for the benefit of consumers rather than for either capitalists or trade unions; he wrote a book to this effect, Socialism and Co-operation, and another, derived from his experiences as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, deeply critical of England's imperial policies. His declaration of political faith, put out for the election of November 1922, blames the old men and old methods of the two main political parties not only for the First World War, but also for the troubles of Ireland and the Empire and the disastrous economic condition of the country. He wanted the Treaty of Versailles revised to be fairer to Germany, with the hope of building a united Europe; he wanted disarmament and recognition of the Soviet Union, and he supported the League of Nations; at home he proposed an educational structure which would give real equality of opportunity up to university level. Finally, he called for a more equitable system of taxation with a "specially graduated levy upon fortunes exceeding £5,000". It is worth noting Leonard's political creed, because Virginia undoubtedly shared his main views; she sometimes travelled with him to political meetings - to Manchester, for instance, in 1921 - and she also helped to organize regular gatherings of the Women's Co-operative Guild at Hogarth House, and of the local Labour Party at Rodmell. She was, Leonard writes, not a thorough political animal certainly, but "the last person who could ignore the political menaces under which we all lived".

(10) Janet Adam Smith, The Independent (29th July, 1995)

In their London house in Victoria Square, the Parsons had Leonard Woolf as a neighbour after Virginia's death in 1941; and after the war their lives and Leonard's ran close together. They moved out of their house and shared his in Victoria Square; Ian and Leonard became colleagues after the Hogarth Press joined Chatto's; they were neighbours in Sussex, and Trekkie kept Leonard company at Rodmell when Ian was in London. She was Leonard's companion on his travels to France, Greece, Israel, and his memorable return to Ceylon in 1960. She made the last part of his life a very happy one. "To know you and love you has been the best thing in life," he wrote. She was his "Dearest Tiger". He died in 1969, leaving Monk's House to Trekkie, who presented it to Sussex University. It is now in the hands of the National Trust and open to the public.