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Leonard Woolf: A Biography
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Leonard Woolf: A Biography

by Victoria Glendinning

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Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning draws on her deep knowledge of the twentieth century literary scene, and on her meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write the first full biography of the extraordinary man who was the "dark star" at the center of the Bloomsbury set, and the definitive portrait of the Woolf marriage. A man of


Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning draws on her deep knowledge of the twentieth century literary scene, and on her meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write the first full biography of the extraordinary man who was the "dark star" at the center of the Bloomsbury set, and the definitive portrait of the Woolf marriage. A man of extremes, Leonard Woolf was ferocious and tender, violent and self-restrained, opinionated and nonjudgmental, always an outsider of sorts within the exceptionally intimate, fractious, and sometimes vicious society of brilliant but troubled friends and lovers.

He has been portrayed either as Virginia's saintly caretaker or as her oppressor, the substantial range and influence of his own achievements overshadowed by Virginia's fame and the tragedy of her suicide. But Leonard was a pivotal figure of his age, whose fierce intelligence touched the key literary and political events that shaped the early decades of the twentieth century and would resonate into the post-World War II era.

Glendinning beautifully evokes Woolf 's coming-of-age in turn-of-the-century London. The scholarship boy from a prosperous Jewish family would cut his own path through the world of the British public school, contending with the lingering anti-Semitism of Imperial Age Britain. Immediately upon entering Trinity College, Cambridge, Woolf became one of an intimate group of vivid personalities who would form the core of the Bloomsbury circle: the flamboyant Lytton Strachey; Toby Stephen, "the Goth," through whom Leonard would meet Stephen's sister Virginia; and Clive Bell. Glendinning brings to life their long nights of intense discussion of literature and the vicissitudes of sex, and charts Leonard's course as he becomes the lifelong friend of John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forster.

She unearths the crucial influence of Woolf 's seven years as a headstrong administrator in colonial Ceylon, where he lost confidence in the imperial mission, deciding to abandon Ceylon in order to marry the psychologically troubled Virginia Stephen. Glendinning limns the true nature of Leonard's devotion to Virginia, revealing through vivid depiction of their unconventional marriage how Leonard supported Virginia through her breakdowns and in her writing. In co-founding with Virginia the Hogarth Press, he provided a secure publisher for Virginia's own boldly experimental works.

As the éminence grise of the early Labour Party, working behind the scenes,Woolf became a leading critic of imperialism, and his passionate advocacy of collective security to prevent war underpinned the charter of the League of Nations. After Virginia's death, he continued to forge his own iconoclastic way, engaging in a long and happy relationship with a married woman.

Victoria Glendinning's Leonard Woolf is a major achievement — a shrewdly perceptive and lively portrait of a complex man of extremes and contradictions in whom passion fought with reason and whose far-reaching influence is long overdue for the full appreciation Glendinning offers in this important book.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Leonard Woolf has found the ideal biographer in Victoria Glendinning. Scintillating, subtle, and wise, she lifts him out of the fog of Bloomsbury gossip and lets us see how various and remarkable he was in his own right." — Claire Tomalin, author of Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

"There's a special pleasure in a fresh approach to a significant life. Victoria Glendinning's clarity and cool intelligence lends itself easily to those qualities in her subject, and there's an admirable balance between her attention to Leonard Woolf 's autobiographies and the fresh ray she casts upon his life." — Lyndall Gordon, author of Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life

Claire Messud
After meeting Leonard Woolf for the first time, in 1911, the poet Rupert Brooke asked of him, "Was Woolf, who seems very nice, ever more than minor?" Brutal though this seems, it may reflect the consensus over time: he remains a figure best known for those to whom he was attached—his wife Virginia, of course, but also his close friends in the Bloomsbury set, including Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and Clive Bell.

As Victoria Glendinning makes clear in her comprehensive and eminently readable biography, it is an assessment born of ignorance of his varied accomplishments—perhaps, indeed, born of the fact that his accomplishments were so varied—and of the quiet complexity of his character, which was at once passionate, reserved and, above all, stoical.
—The New York Times

Publishers Weekly
Although Leonard Woolf (1880- 1969) was a seminal figure in the Bloomsbury set, he is known today primarily as the devoted caregiver of his wife, Virginia. That his life and career encompassed significant contributions to the literary, political and cultural events of his times will be evident to readers of this exemplary biography, the first to do justice to a complex man empowered by his intellect and the friends he made at Cambridge but professionally hobbled by British anti-Semitism and his decision to put aside his aspirations in deference to his wife's crushing needs and his belief in her genius. Glendinning, noted biographer of Vita Sackville-West, Trollope and others, brings her brilliant critical eye to an appraisal of Woolf's difficult personal life, which began with his father's premature death and the family's fall from middle-class comfort. Because the Woolves (as they were known) had a rich intellectual partnership, Leonard endured their celibate marriage and Virginia's lesbian affairs. Only after Virginia's death did he enjoy a sexually fulfilling relationship, with a married woman, which Glendinning documents through previously unreferenced material. This lucid biography is enhanced by Glendinning's humane and perceptive insight into Woolf's conflicted personality as well as by her assessment of his signal role in the literary flowering and political issues of the early 20th century. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Nov. 11) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Glendinning, the award-winning biographer of such writers as Anthony Trollope, Vita Sackville-West, and Edith Sitwell, tackles what may be her most challenging subject: Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), writer Virginia Woolf's husband. Leonard certainly deserves a biography of his own, although he has usually only been considered as an adjunct in his wife's life. Glendinning sheds light on his marriage but from Leonard's perspective. We also get large parts of his life outside his marriage-growing up in a large, middle-class Jewish family, being an unhappy but unaware colonial agent in Ceylon, and the many years of his life following his wife's suicide. And we see more of Leonard as an editor, publisher, journalist, political activist, and writer in his own right. Leonard published five volumes of autobiographical memoirs in his lifetime, upon which Glendinning draws, in addition to his letters, diaries, other published works, and accounts by his friends and family. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A generous and sympathetic portrait of the complex and fiercely intelligent man (1880-1969) who is best known as Mr. Virginia Woolf. A novelist (Electricity, 1995, etc.) and literary biographer (Jonathan Swift, 1999, etc.), the author brings to her work both a scholar's fastidiousness and a novelist's imagination and fondness for speculation. As Glendinning notes, Woolf in some ways led a remarkably happy life, his wife's 1941 suicide and other family tragedies notwithstanding (his father was killed by a horse-drawn omnibus). Always a strong student, voracious reader and liberal thinker-a man who until the end of his life was firing off trenchant and contentious letters to newspaper editors-Woolf had a successful early career as a civil servant in Ceylon, wrote a novel about the country that remains a classic there today, befriended some of the leading minds of his generation (Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot), founded the Hogarth Press, married one of the most remarkable women in literary history, published countless essays and reviews in the most respected journals of the day, wrote well-received books of political theory and autobiography. And-perhaps his greatest pleasure-he created a prize-winning garden at the Woolfs' home, Monks House, now a museum and literary shrine. Glendinning shows Leonard as a loving companion for the troubled and fragile Virginia, a man who never ceased caring for her even in her darkest moments. The author also deals thoroughly with the varied sexual interests and performances of the principals (late in life, Leonard blurted out at an editorial meeting: "My wife was a lesbian") and writes with bemusement of the elderly Woolf's appeal for youngerwomen, one of whom, an American, wrote him hundreds of affectionate letters. Glendinning also writes frankly about Woolf's intransigent insistence that religions-all of them-were primitive bunk. A closely reasoned, well-researched and eminently fair account of a gifted and giving man who married a miracle. Agent: Bruce Hunter/David Higham Associates

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Leonard Woolf

A Biography
By Victoria Glendinning

Free Press

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Glendinning
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-4653-5

Chapter One

In the Beginning

Having a child is problematic, wrote Leonard Woolf when in his eighties, and childless. It concerns the "new human being" as much as its parents, since this new human being is born without having given its consent. One should think twice, "from the point of view of the hypothetical child." He himself was born, without his consent, on 25 November 1880. There he is, Leonard Sidney Woolf, in the Census returns for 1881, a five-month-old baby.

Everyone, holding a baby, has to wonder what life holds in store for him. No one could have foreseen what would happen to this one. 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 éminence 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 lifelong mission was to prevent the barbarism and insanity of future war through international cooperation and collective security.

His anguished intelligence saw all tooclearly both the failure of this 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: ferocious and tender, violent and self-restrained, opinionated and nonjudgmental. Belief in reason pulled him one way, irrational passion another. He was disconcerting, inner-directed, attractive, always an outsider. The constants in his character were honesty, persistence and energy. He played all games, competitively. He was a dedicated gardener. He had an affinity with animals. Nonstop work - at his writing, at his political activities, in the garden - came naturally to him.

He liked women, and women liked him. ("I have always been greatly attracted to the undiluted female mind, as well as to the female body.") With his wife, he founded the Hogarth Press. He had no idea when he married Virginia Stephen how her mental instability would determine and distort his own trajectory, nor that she would become one of the most famous English authors of the twentieth century. He knew how to love, and she was the love of his life. After her suicide came change and a new attachment. In his last decade, five volumes of autobiography won him respect and recognition. He left not only distinguished books on international relations, but also satirical squibs, a great mass of literary and political journalism, a play, poetry, short stories, and two novels.

Eclipsed in the literary canon, and in the public imagination, by the illustriousness of Virginia Woolf - his family name, when standing alone, commonly signifying her, not him - he is a dark star. "You cannot escape Fate," he wrote at the end of his life, "and Fate, I have always felt, is not in the future, but in the past."

The five-month-old Leonard, dark-haired and blue-eyed, had an elder sister, Bella Sidney, aged four; and a brother, Arnold Herbert Sidney, always called Herbert, aged nearly two. Bella, Herbert and Leonard were joined in the nursery at 101 Lexham Gardens, Kensington, by Harold Sidney, Edgar Sidney, Clara Henriette, Flora, Cecil Nathan Sidney and Philip Sidney. The nine little Woolfs were born within twelve years, the youngest arriving in 1889. There had been yet one more baby, who died in infancy.

Even a rapid overview of Leonard's forebears recalls the remorselessly genealogical chapters of the Book of Genesis.

Leonard's mother, Marie de Jongh, was married at seventeen to Albert Zacharias Goldstücker, a City merchant. Marie's brother Benjamin de Jongh, a stock-jobber (a stock exchange member who buys and sells shares on his own account), married Clara Woolf. When Marie Goldstücker was widowed, aged twenty-two, an executor of her late husband's will was a brother of her sister-in-law Clara: Sidney Woolf, a recently qualified young barrister. He was Leonard's future father.

Sidney Woolf was living then with two recent widows, his mother and his elder sister Sophia. When Sophia remarried, her new husband was another of Marie's brothers, Anselm de Jongh. In 1875, the following year, Marie Goldstücker and Sidney Woolf were married; she was still in her twenties, and he five years older.

Thus the Woolfs and the de Jonghs were intricately connected. Leonard saw a lot of his maternal grandparents. They too lived in Kensington, at 7 Addison Gardens, and the little Woolfs were taken over to tea once a week. Leonard thought that his de Jongh grandparents "lived in the cleanest house and they were the cleanest people I have ever seen anywhere."

Grandfather Nathan de Jongh, a diamond merchant, lived until 1897, when he was knocked down by a horse-drawn omnibus. Leonard was then well into his teens; and his Grandmother de Jongh survived until 1902, when he was at Cambridge. The de Jonghs seemed to Leonard to be "rather soft" people. Grandfather de Jongh was tall, gentle, quiet, with a long white beard. In the house he wore a brightly colored smoking-cap, and was never seen without a cigar and a book. Outside he wore the same kind of clothes as "all the other gentlemen in Addison Gardens," but he nevertheless looked to Leonard as if he had stepped out of a typical picture of "caftaned, bearded Jews in a ghetto, straight-backed, dignified, sad, resigned, expecting and getting over two millennia nothing but misery ..."

Leonard remembered his de Jongh grandmother sitting in a high-backed ebony chair in her lace-curtained front window and always knitting, extremely fast. She wore a black lace cap over her white hair, "and beneath it was the round, pink face of an incredibly old Dutch doll." She brought the cap with her in a special basket when she came to visit at Lexham Gardens, for putting on after she removed her hat.

Leonard, describing these grandparents in what was to become Sowing, had originally written that the cap she wore was of white lace. His elder sister Bella, correcting his draft, insisted it was black. By publishing his autobiography, Leonard laid down and preempted the family myths. His brothers and sisters regularly and irritably corrected the record. Children born into the same family remember different things, and the same things differently.

Leonard thought Grandmother de Jongh never read a book or "suffered from an abstract idea" in her life, but he attributed to her special qualities. There are some people, he wrote, "usually dogs or old women - extremely simple and unintellectual, who instinctively know how to deal with life and with persons, and who display an extraordinary and admirable resistance to the cruelties of man, the malevolence of Providence, and the miseries of existence."

Grandfather Nathan and Grandmother Henriette de Jongh came to London from Amsterdam in the 1860s. Henriette's maiden name was Van Coeverden ("not Katz. Her sister married a Katz," wrote Bella, testily amending Leonard's draft). They had ten children. The eldest daughter, Flora, married Arnold Abrahamson, who lived in Denmark; Leonard had a slew of Scandinavian cousins.

The publication of Leonard's first volume of autobiography in 1960 elicited a small flood of memories and additional information. A Dutchman wrote about the origin of the name Van Coeverden: Coevordon (spelled sic) is a small town in the east of the Netherlands, "where there lived for centuries a good kind of Jews, small itinerant traders and small shopkeepers. But of course most of them are gassed now."

Before they moved to Addison Gardens, the de Jongh grandparents lived at Woburn Lodge, a Regency dwelling like a small country house, off Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. The house survived until the days when Leonard himself lived in the square. The de Jonghs, in London, must always have been comfortably off.

The Woolfs came up the hard way. Leonard's father, Sidney, was the second youngest of the ten children of Benjamin Woolf and his wife Isabella (née Phillips), both born in London in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Leonard's sister Bella understood that the family had started out in Spitalfields in London's East End, a tight little district of streets, alleys and courts, where the majority of London's poor Jews lodged, earning their livings in small workshops and warehouses, and marrying one another's cousins and in-laws. Nearby is the oldest surviving synagogue in London, Bevis Marks, established in 1701 by the Sephardic community who had come from Spain and Portugal in Cromwell's time and still tended to see themselves as the elite.

It is impossible to establish family trees for families like Leonard's, long-established in Britain, though there are many Woolfs, spelled sic, on record. Official registration of Jewish births, marriages and deaths only started in 1837. Some retained Hebrew names, and some were born and died with no public record of their existence. It is estimated that there were around 10,000 Jews in Britain in the 1760s, mostly in London, with a steady influx of those fleeing the persecutions in Europe. By the time Leonard's Woolf grandparents were born, the community had increased threefold. The Jews themselves were alarmed by the impact of the increase. The authorities of the Great Synagogue stopped giving relief to Jewish immigrants who had left their countries "without good cause," and the British government offered free repatriation.

No one in Leonard's generation knew where the Woolfs came to England from, or when, though it was probably during this late eighteenth-century influx from Europe. These newly arrived Ashkenazim (from Germany, Holland and Poland) mostly worked in the informal economy of the old-clothes trade, and as peddlers. The Woolfs too worked in the clothing trade - the earliest on record are Benjamin Woolf, a tailor and draper in Soho from 1819, and David Woolf, a clothes dealer in the East End at the same period. Others, including many Benjamin Woolfs, were furniture brokers, or crockery dealers, or cheesemongers. Zadok Woolf, son of a Benjamin, chose Samuel Phillips as a witness to his wedding in 1838. This, since witnesses were by custom either relatives or in-laws, suggests a family relationship between Grandfather Benjamin Woolf and Grandmother Isabella, née Phillips.

It was not until 1830 that Jews were allowed to operate regular businesses. Grandfather Benjamin Woolf moved out of the East End, and acquired a shop at 45 Old Bond Street. He later had a "waterproof" business in Piccadilly, and by 1835 was living in the apartment above his tailoring premises at 87 The Quadrant, Regent Street, a high-class shopping street.

Sheltered by colonnades, the Quadrant extended on both sides of Regent Street between Piccadilly and Oxford Street. The Woolfs, on the west side, had a chandelier-maker as one neighbor, and a tobacconist as the other. Benjamin and Isabella's first two sons - Israel John and Maurice - died in infancy. Benjamin subsequently begat Samuel, Bloom, Sophia, David, Daniel, Sidney (Leonard's father) and Clara. Also Henry, who was either an afterthought or a by-blow (a child born out of wedlock); he appears in no family record other than in Benjamin's will. Isabella's unmarried elder sister, Esther Phillips, lived with them. It must have been a terrible squash in the rooms over the shop.

Leonard's father, Sidney, was born on 16 June 1844. He was registered as Solomon Rees Sydney, but called himself Sidney, spelled sic - the name that he tacked on to the names of most of his own children, including Leonard's.

By 1861 the family were no longer living over the shop but were installed with three servants at 14 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, and Benjamin was describing himself as "Outfitter," a description soon to be replaced by "Gentleman" in official documents. In the mid-1860s the Woolf family moved to 5 Clifton Gardens, Maida Vale, with four servants, and co-religionists with comfortably large families on both sides.

Large oil portraits of these Woolf grandparents, who died before he was born, hung in the dining room of Leonard's childhood home. He remembered that of his grandfather as depicting "a large, stern, blackhaired, and black-whiskered rabbinical Jew in a frock coat, his left hand pompously tucked into his waistcoat." Grandmother Isabella in contrast looked "pretty, roundcheeked, mild, and forgiving."

The Woolfs were tough. The legend in the family was that Grandfather Benjamin Woolf's mother, Leonard's great-grandmother - not that she was born a Woolf, we don't know who she was - "used to walk to synagogue with hard peas in her boots in the evening of every Day of Atonement, and she stood upright on the peas in her place in the synagogue for twenty-four hours without sitting down until sunset of the following day, fasting of course the whole time." Leonard confessed to a sneaking sympathy with her. He had, he said, no sense of sin, but approved of doing things thoroughly.

At least three of Benjamin and Isabella's children, including Sidney, continued the shift into the middle class. Samuel ran his own tailoring business at the 45 Old Bond Street premises and then moved to Birmingham. Bloom married a stockbroker, Levi Cohen. Daniel married Sarah Myers and had two daughters and a son; but after Sarah died, Daniel got into financial trouble, emigrated with his son to the United States, broke off relations with his parents, and established a new family.

Leonard's uncles Samuel and David Woolf were not fortunate either. Samuel's Birmingham business failed. He took his family to Nuremberg and became German. His widow Sarah (Davis) was interned during the Great War "as she did not become a German" though her children did; her eldest son died in the Great War fighting for Germany. David, a solicitor, died young. His widow Louisa (Sarah's sister), left with four daughters, and pretty golden hair "out of a bottle," antagonized the Woolfs by taking as her second husband a Gentile stockbroker, Arthur Tritton.

In Leonard's childhood home there were stacks of gloomy sepia photographs of all these uncles and aunts, printed on stiff cards. Leonard and his brothers and sisters used to play whist with them, the ugliest face taking the trick.

Sidney, Leonard's clever father, was educated at University College School, which he left at sixteen. He qualified as a solicitor at the age of twenty, and four years later left the City practice he shared with his brother David and studied in the Middle Temple for the Bar, to which he was called in 1873. "Mr Woolf had not long to walk through the valley of brieflessness, but it was only by the most regular attendance in the Temple, by working as hard during the Long Vacation as during term-time, by bestowing unwearied industry upon his cases ... that he acquired, some few years after his call, a practice that caused his name to be well-known in the profession." Thus Sidney, by determination, application, and with no social advantages, became successful.

He had the luck, only three years after he was called to the Bar, to be involved in a notorious trial. There was a mutiny aboard an English vessel, the Lennie, which was manned by a Greek crew. The mutineers murdered the captain and all his officers, and ordered the Belgian steward to sail toward Greece. Instead, he steered toward France. There the ringleaders disembarked, sporting their dead officers' uniforms, while the gallant Belgian boarded a British ship lying close by, and effected the arrest of the crew. The ringleaders were tried at the Old Bailey. Sidney Woolf undertook the defense of three Greeks, and got two of them off. The case was widely reported and brought his name before the public.

In 1890, when he was forty-five, Sidney Woolf became a Q.C. Grandfather Benjamin Woolf "educated his sons out of their class," wrote Leonard, though none of them did as well as Sidney. One at least - whom Leonard did not name, but it was probably Daniel - was "an extremely brilliant and amusing scoundrel."

Grandfather Benjamin Woolf was a religious Jew, but a progressive one. As the prosperous members of the community moved out of the East End, new synagogues were established. Benjamin Woolf and his sons had seats in the Western Synagogue, a liberal congregation even before the Reform movement of 1840. In 1851, when Benjamin Woolf was elected a warden, and the synagogue was re-consecrated after renovations, the event was sufficiently newsworthy to be featured in the Illustrated London News. Benjamin held office for many years, and was zealous in his support of the Jewish Free School and of Jewish charities. When he died in 1870, he was praised in the congregation as "a charitable man of upright character."


Excerpted from Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning Copyright © 2006 by Victoria Glendinning. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Victoria Glendinning is the award-winning author of Trollope and Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West, which both won the Whitbread biography award, as well as Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Rebecca West, and Jonathan Swift. She has also written three novels: Flight, The Grown-Ups, and Electricity. She was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in Somerset, England.

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