Leonard Woolf: A Biography

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 extremes,


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

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
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

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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 too clearly 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."

Sidney Woolf, Leonard's father, is the only one of Benjamin's sons mentioned in the records as playing a part in the Western Synagogue's management. The Reform movement caused bitter schisms in the community, even as it sought to bridge the gulf between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. The Reform Synagogue was consecrated in 1842, after many disputes, as the "West London Synagogue for British Jews" -- an appellation illustrative of the members' desire to affiliate themselves with the national mainstream. It moved in 1870 to a custom-built edifice at 34 Upper Berkeley Street, in smart Mayfair. Attendance at Upper Berkeley Street was not only a religious but a social and political statement. The service was simplified, the music was good, and the leading families, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, had seats there.

The first three-quarters of the nineteenth century were a propitious time for British Jews, though the improvements -- contested at every point -- only serve, in retrospect, to highlight the previous disadvantages, and the exclusion from national life which was the price of toleration. One by one, most of the "disabilities" -- the blocks to trading, professional status and participation in public life -- were removed by law. In 1827 University College, London, opened as the first English university to admit students regardless of race or religion. In 1833 the first Jew was called to the Bar. In 1837, Benjamin Disraeli entered Parliament, eligible because he had been baptized a Christian; in 1868 he became Prime Minister. Baron Lionel de Rothschild was the first Jew to take a seat in the House of Commons without taking the statutory oath "on the true faith of a Christian," in 1858. By that time there were around 35,000 Jews in Britain, the majority of them second generation and English-born.

There was a Jewish middle class, much intermarried, in the professions and in business. This is where the Woolfs and de Jonghs fitted in. There was also a wealthy Jewish upper class, which included Rothschilds, Montefiores, Goldsmids, Mocattas: the internationally connected network of Anglo-Jewry known as "the Cousinhood." Leonard's family was to make a connection with the Cousinhood when his Aunt Bloom's granddaughter Dorothy (Dollie) Pinto married James de Rothschild.

Being a "British Jew" was important to the middle classes. Eminent Jews, in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, were praised as great Englishmen, and the doings of the Royal Family were featured with loyal enthusiasm. But assimilation was out of order. Grandfather Benjamin's will was uncompromising. He left to his youngest daughter Clara £1,000 for her marriage, plus £200 for a wedding outfit, provided she married "a person of the Jewish faith." (Clara took no risks. It was in the year after her father's death that she married Benjamin de Jongh.) Benjamin also set up strict conditions for access to the inheritance of two of his sons, Henry and -- in a codicil -- Daniel. Sidney, unmarried at the time, was not mentioned in the will at all, probably because he gave no cause for concern.

Sidney, Leonard's father, remained in the fold through his marriage to Marie (de Jongh) Goldstücker. But after his father died, he transferred his allegiance to the fashionable Reform Synagogue at Upper Berkeley Street. The de Jongh influence may have been a factor; Sidney's sister Clara and Benjamin de Jongh had been married at the Upper Berkeley Street synagogue. Sidney's membership was more than nominal; he became a warden-a lay official assisting the rabbi with administration -- in 1880, the year Leonard was born. The social and professional confidence of British Jews was at its zenith.

Then the demographics changed. In 1881 there was an outbreak of persecution of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, which continued until the fall of the last czar. In one generation, a quarter of a million Jews fled or were displaced.

In London alone, between 1883 and 1905 -- when the first Aliens Immigration Act stemmed the free flow -- the Jewish population increased to around 150,000. Colonizing and expanding the traditional East End districts, earning their livings as old-clothes dealers and tailors like the immigrants of a century before, they had the critical mass to sustain their way of life and their common language, Yiddish. George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, informed by her romantic perception of Oriental Jews and the aspirations of Zionism, was published in 1876. It was the exodus of Jews from Russia and other points east which gave weight to those nascent aspirations. "If the Jews of Russia had not existed, neither the case for, nor the possibility of realising, Zionism could have arisen in any serious form." Many established middle-class Jews were not happy about the conspicuous influx of "foreign Jews," and made haste to become naturalized British, as Leonard's aging de Jongh grandparents did in 1889.

A novel called Reuben Sachs by a spirited young woman, Amy Levy, published in London in 1888,14 describes a family in Maida Vale very like the Woolfs. The novel stressed how eager middle-class Jewish people were to "claim the successful among their number," and the "scant love" they had for the unfortunate ones. The "modern" members of this fictional family, like Leonard's family, attended the synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street. "In the Community, with its innumerable trivial class differences, its sets within sets, its fine-drawn distinctions of caste, utterly incomprehensible to an outsider," the Sachs family "held a good, but not the best, position." The women shop at Whiteley's department store in Queensway, a socially neutral zone where "Bayswater nodded to Maida Vale, and South Kensington took Bayswater by the hand . . ."

Lexham Gardens, the home of Sidney and Marie Woolf, was not in the smart part of Kensington. That was nearer Knightsbridge, in the eighteenth-century streets and squares opposite Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens -- with more recent and grandiose houses in streets close by such as Hyde Park Gate, where Leslie Stephen, man of letters and founding editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, was living at number 22. The two young daughters of his second marriage were named Vanessa and Virginia. Sidney Lee, a Jewish professor of English at East London College and Leslie Stephen's collaborator and successor on the monumental DNB, lived near the Woolfs in Lexham Gardens. (The geographical distance between Hyde Park Gate and Lexham Gardens is about a kilometer.) Leonard as a child thought Lee was "a bit stuffy." Next door to the Woolfs at number 103 Lexham Gardens lived Sir John Strachey, finance minister to successive viceroys of India. Sir John was the uncle of a boy eight months younger than Leonard named Lytton Strachey, living with his large family not far away in Lancaster Gate, north of Kensington Gardens. Leonard's Uncle David and Aunt Louisa had lived in Lancaster Gate, but the Woolfs did not know the Stracheys, any more than they knew the Stephens. Their social circles did not intersect.

Lexham Gardens is off Earl's Court Road, which is off the far end of Kensington High Street. It is the last turning before Earl's Court Road crosses busy Cromwell Road and plunges south into the less genteel animation of Earl's Court itself. Leonard was born at 72 West Cromwell Road, just around the corner. Lexham Gardens and the surrounding streets were still being built; his parents were buying into a brand-new development.

Their new house, 101 Lexham Gardens, was on the south side, a big stucco terraced house with steps up to a pillared front door, near the corner with Earl's Court Road. It was made even bigger by a flat-roofed, single-story addition which the Woolfs built on to the back of the house, used for children's parties and dancing classes.

Children's parties and dancing classes were the kind of thing that Marie Woolf liked. She was an energetic and hospitable mother. After the dancing classes, with all the mothers looking on, everyone was ushered by Mrs. Woolf into the big dining room "for a wonderful tea of cakes and all good things," remembered into extreme old age by a little girl named Hilda. Mrs. Woolf, short and plump, was the sort of woman who is adored. Even the most distant or difficult of the relations wanted to keep in touch with her. Leonard's cousin Sybil, daughter of Uncle David and Aunt Louisa Woolf, wrote to tell Leonard: "I was very fond of your Mother . . . She was such a Personality." When Sibyl's widowed mother married Arthur Tritton and cut herself off from the family, "all us girls kept up with your Mother which [sic] we were all very fond of."

Leonard's best and fullest account of the Lexham Gardens household is not in his autobiography, but in Principia Politica (1953). He presented it as an example of a typical, well-to-do, late Victorian way of life, underpinned by an unquestioned social hierarchy and set of values.

The household, when he was nine or ten, consisted of his parents, the nine children, a governess (Miss Amy), a nurse and under-nurse, a footman, a cook with attendant scullery maid, a parlormaid, two or three housemaids, a dog, a cat, several canaries, two white rats, and a fluctuating population of piebald mice. The coachman, and a horse and two carriages -- a brougham and a victoria -- were housed in the mews around the corner. Mr. Woolf was driven to the temple every morning and collected in the evening, and Mrs. Woolf was taken shopping and for drives in Hyde Park. A tutor came in to instruct the little boys. Three times a week Fraülein Berger came to teach them French and German; a German countess taught Bella to play the piano. "I have a dim recollection of some of us being taught 'elocution,'" and for a period the boys had carpentry classes on a bench set up in the basement. There was a man to clean the boots. Mr. Tomkins came every morning to shave Mr. Woolf in his dressing room. Mr. Davies came every Friday to wind and regulate the clocks. Since in Principia Politica Leonard was describing a typical well-to-do English household, he did not include the fact that the Woolf children were also, rather ineffectively, taught Hebrew.

If he had analyzed the situation, Leonard would have said that he, like his father, was "a gentleman," and "that there were a large number of people, including servants and unemployed and plumbers and carpenters, who were not. Gentlemen were superior . . ."

Mr. Woolf was a gentleman in character; he lived in the style of a gentleman; he had the professional status of a gentleman. In the microcosm of 101 Lexham Gardens it was not admitted to consciousness that the phrase "a Jewish gentleman" was, like the phrase "an Oriental gentleman," for many conservative English gentlemen at best ironic, and at worst an oxymoron. For sure, the Woolfs had been English -- always, in any case, a mongrel race -- for more than a hundred years. But their acceptability was hardly tested. Though Leonard's parents were acquainted with many Gentiles, they had few close friends among them.

In Reuben Sachs the grown-ups do not disapprove of their young-adult sons mixing with Gentiles. (Girls were less adventurous and more protected.) They never imagine it might lead to the disaster of their "marrying out." What the novel demonstrates is the new self-consciousness, anxiety and self-questioning of young Jewish men as they moved halfway out of the cocoon of the community. Leonard was only eight when this novel was published. He and his brothers and sisters, as young adults, were to move out of the cocoon definitively, and get some benefits -- even as they felt, and denied or ignored, the chill.

Leonard, in a later account of the household in Sowing, did not endorse the rigid hierarchical structure that underpinned 101 Lexham Gardens: "it is because I condemn its economic basis and its economic effect upon other classes that I have been a socialist for most of my life." He perceived the "snugness and smugness, snobbery, its complacent exploitation of economic, sexual and racial classes." Nevertheless, "the actual relations between the human beings living in these large households . . . were, on the whole, in my remembrance extraordinarily human and humane."

This is borne out by the evidence. Leonard, who kept everything, preserved "The Leonard Paper," a family newspaper he produced at the age of eight. Here is the issue for 4 August 1889:


At the begining of the day Mrs. Woolf had a bad head ack.

Sad dis-appointment

In the Woolfs den

A gentleman was expected to dinner but did not come.

He was writing letters, in capitals, when he was four or five, to his brothers and sisters and parents when they were away. He signs himself sometimes "Lennie," sometimes "Leonard," and is always demonstratively and confidently affectionate: "My darling Papa," "My darling Parents," "My darling Mother," and ending with "lots of love and kisses," "many many kisses," "xxxxxxx." Maybe the children were not all as blithe as Leonard. His elder brother Herbert wrote to his parents, when he was six: "I am a good boy and don't want any cold water." Harold too was always assuring them that he was "a good boy."

Leonard never referred to his goodness or badness. He said he had an acute sense of disgrace, but no sense of sin. He credited his father's personal ethos for this. Sidney Woolf told his children that a complete rule of conduct for a man's life had been laid down definitively by the prophet Micah: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Leonard had a strong sense of evil, and black epiphanies. The first was when he rushed excitedly out into the small back garden on the family's return from a summer holiday. He loved the garden, and had his own small patch of sooty border, to sow and grow flowers.

The autumnal garden was bounded by walls draped in grimy ivy, and the ivy was covered in spiders' webs. In the center of each web was a spider. The little boy looked at the spiders, smelled the sour earth and the ivy, "and suddenly my whole mind and body seemed to be overwhelmed in melancholy." He was experiencing for the first time "cosmic unhappiness," without knowing what it was.

He knew disgust and terror too, evoked by glimpses of the chaos, violence and poverty beyond the security of the home world: the ragged, cursing, drunken man who tried to "help" with the family's luggage, before being frog-marched away by a policeman; or, on a walk with his nurse, seeing a "raging and raving woman" being dragged along by policemen, her hat rolling into the gutter; the shrieks of a demented woman passing along the Cromwell Road behind their house in the night, heard from his bed. Stories of Jack the Ripper, and of a little old woman in black who on foggy nights stabbed Kensington gentlemen with a long knife, penetrated the children's world.

The parents wrote home every day when they were away, and sent flowers and sweets, and left little notes and gifts for the nurse to put under the children's pillows. Leonard told "My darling Papa" in May 1890, when he was nine, the news of the day: a cat got into the garden under the wire; an overloaded four-wheeler lost its load turning into Kensington High Street, "a very funny sight"; and a butterfly settled on the grass in the garden and was pounced on by a sparrow "who took it away leaving one wing on the grass." There are frequent assurances that "all the birds and animals are all right."

That summer the children went on holiday to Whitby in Yorkshire with their mother and Miss Amy, their governess, staying at West Cliff Villa. Papa was not there because he was ill. Papa was often ill, which was why he and Mother went away to south coast resorts so frequently.

In Whitby, Leonard had another experience of despair. Just after their arrival he was supremely happy, watching two large newts basking in the sun on the rampart above the sparkling sea. Suddenly afraid, he looked up and saw a big black cloud blotting out the sun. It was in itself frightening; and it elicited again "that sense of profound, passive, cosmic despair, the melancholy of a human being, eager for happiness and beauty, powerless in the face of a hostile universe."

There is a bunch of his letters from March 1891, when the parents, with Bella, were in Torquay. While they were away, the de Jongh grandparents took the remaining children to synagogue, where there was, according to ten-year-old Leonard, "a beautiful sermon." Aunt Bloom came round, and brought "a nice cake for tea." Leonard enclosed a piece of Easter egg in one of his letters. "I hope it won't get squashed by the time it gets to you." They were going to the Bethnal Green Museum with their tutor, Mr. Floyd. They had been to the Indian Museum with Miss Berger. And, over and over: "I hope Papa is better."

The children's nurse was Mary Vickary, from a farm family in Somerset, and she was central to Leonard's security and comfort. She brought up all nine children. (There was always a young nursemaid to help her, and a temporary "monthly nurse" to care for the newborns.) She had little education, but lots of imagination. She was a Christiana -- strict Baptist -- and Leonard shared her entranced reading about the iniquities of the great world in the Baptist Times. Similar thrills were provided by her other reading matter, which was, quite fortuitously, de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which she read aloud with difficulty and some mispronunciations in her warm West Country accent. Leonard wrote in old age: "I can still feel myself physically enfolded in the warmth and safety of the great nursery on the third floor of the house in Lexham Gardens, the fire blazing behind the tall guard, the kettle singing away, and nurse, with her straight black hair parted in the center, and her smooth, oval peasant face, reading The Baptist Times or the visions of the opium eater."

Leonard read extracts from Sowing on BBC radio in the year before publication, which Bella heard. "By the way there were many inaccuracies in that broadcast such as the date of our Father's birth." She thought most of it was excellent: "I only cavil at your saying Nurse had a 'peasant face.' You have forgotten her. She had a very aquiline profile -- very beautiful in her day."

Leonard did not change the passage about Nurse Vickary in his book, and no matter how faulty his grasp of historical truth, the emotional truth remains. The curtains would be drawn across the nursery windows, and all they heard was the clip-clop of horses drawing vehicles in the street outside. "The nursery remains for me the Platonic idea laid up in heaven of security and peace and civilisation." The nursery world represented the antithesis of the spiders in the garden, the raving, degraded street women, and the ominous mob of the unemployed whom he saw shambling along muddy Kensington High Street in the November fog to a rally in Trafalgar Square, when he was seven. "Those long lines of marching men, drab and dingy but lowering and grim . . . came into my life from another, unknown world . . ." The nurses hurried the Woolf children away home. There was a note of anxiety in the talk of his parents and their friends.

Leaving the nursery -- still occupied by Harold, Edgar, Clara, Flora, Cecil and Philip -- Leonard moved into the schoolroom. The first teaching he ever had, at the age of five, was in the kindergarten of the small private girls' school which Bella attended in Trebovir Road, south of the Cromwell Road in a "wasteland of Victorian middle-class dreariness." The headmistress, Mrs. Cole, was a short dumpy woman in a black bonnet, possessed of terrific energy. All he learned there was to take an interest in small girls. In class, under the table, he held the hand of a yellow-haired one, and in the hall he kissed a black-haired one. The kiss caused "an open scandal" and Leonard was removed. He resumed lessons at home, with his elder brother Herbert and the tutor, Mr. Floyd.

Mr. Floyd was so weird-looking that street-boys used to hoot at him when Herbert and Leonard met him at Kensington High Street underground station after breakfast each weekday morning. Leonard's tame canary, Johnnie, liked to perch on Mr. Floyd's head during lessons; Mr. Floyd wiped away Johnnie's messes with blotting paper. Mr. Floyd believed in a spell of silence before beginning on the Latin and arithmetic, and wrote "TACE" (Latin for "Be silent") in a tiny notebook of Leonard's. He also wrote "something in Hebrew, which is odd, because I am sure he was not a Jew." That teasing "something in Hebrew" which Leonard could never read meant "A fool cannot understand this."

Like most Jewish families, the Woolfs and the de Jonghs had relations scattered over the world. There were de Jongh cousins in Costa Rica, who came to stay when Leonard was about ten, and whose father subsequently sent each of the Woolf children a gold sovereign at Christmas. (The Woolfs celebrated both Jewish and Christian festivals, without prejudice.) A cousin, Florence Abrahamson of the Scandinavian branch, reminisced about what a relief it had been, when staying with the de Jongh grandparents, "to escape from the tedium of Addison Gardens into the cheery, cosy atmosphere of Lexham Gardens. Of course, I loved your mother, but I was afraid of your father." Hilda, the little girl who enjoyed the teas, remembered Bella taking her upstairs to "a large and very dark library" to meet Mr. Woolf. "He was sitting in a large armchair and looked ill and tired, but he patted me on the head and hoped that I had done well in the dancing lessons."

During the week, 101 Lexham Gardens was a matriarchal universe. Marie Woolf liked jokes and she was nice-looking, "we all liked to see her let down her hair, for it reached well below her knees and was extraordinarily thick." The best time of day for the children was between tea and Father's return from the Temple, when they played with her in the library.

They saw little of their father. It was fun to be with him, because it was a rare treat, and because he was an exciting father, quick-minded and full of energy. Leonard treasured the memory of the time when he, alone of the family, stayed up in London for a night when the rest had started out for the annual summer holiday. He was six, and felt "terribly proud and important" driving to the Temple with his father, and sitting near him in court while a case was being tried. The opposing counsels -- with Leonard -- went off and lunched together at the Rainbow Tavern, and Leonard was astonished to find them the best of friends when they had been arguing so heatedly in court. That evening, he dined alone with his father, having received a playfully formal invitation: "Mr. Sidney Woolf requests the pleasure of Master Leonard Sidney Woolf's company to dinner this evening, at 7.30." For the first time he felt close to his father "in a grown-up way."

Leonard inherited his slight physique and modest stature from his father, and was not a robust child. He had scarlet fever and pneumonia when he was three; the queen's doctor, Sir William Jenner, was called in. (As a reward for taking his medicine, Leonard was offered by Sir William anything he would like. "I should like to pull your nose," said Leonard.) What he lacked in height and weight, he made up for in determination. On his seventh or eighth birthday he was given a tricycle. He, Herbert and their father, all of them on tricycles, one large and two small, set out on a ride together to Richmond Park. It was a long way for a small boy, and Leonard's tricycle had something wrong with it. He had to work doubly hard just to get the wheels to go around at all. Instead of fun, it was agony. He said no word of complaint to his father, but was so distressed and exhausted when they got home that he collapsed in the hall and had to be put straight to bed.

"I presume that like every other male, I was in love with my mother and hated my father" -- but he found no residual trace in himself either of the "in love" feeling for his mother, nor of hate for his father. "I admired him greatly and certainly thought I was fond of him, and I think that he was both fond and proud of me, because as a small boy I was intelligent, reserved, and had a violent temper, and so in fact resembled him."

Leonard all his life suffered from a tremor in his hands, which grew more pronounced when he was nervous. It may have been a type of inherited early-onset dystonia (classified today as DYTI), which mainly, but not only, affects Ashkenazi Jews. He said that his father had it: "I remember how, as a small child, I noticed that, when he sat in the library reading The Times after breakfast, the paper and his hands perpetually trembled a little." The curious thing is that the generation after Leonard's remembered their Grandmother Woolf as having the tremor, and spraying tea all over the tray as she filled the teacups.

Either both Leonard's parents had the tremor, or his mother developed one in the process of aging, or Leonard preferred to inherit his tremor from his father, feeling as he did so much more his father's son than his mother's. A letter from Mr. Woolf to "My darling little Leonard," when Leonard was seven, suggests great mutual affection: "I was delighted with your letter and sketch of the dovecote, and thank you very much for them also for the pansy." Mr. Woolf was in Hove to watch a county cricket match, and told Leonard how he had seen the great W. G. Grace go out "with the large score of 215 [runs]"; "I send you today's Card which may please you. Give my best love to your darling Mother, Herbert, and your dear little brothers and sisters, and accept a hearty embrace from, Your fond father Sidney Woolf."

Mr. Woolf was tolerant intellectually, but temperamentally irascible, and enraged by stupidity. On Sundays, the atmosphere shifted from matriarchal to patriarchal. Sunday lunch, in true British fashion, was a ritual event. By the late 1880s all the children except the three youngest sat around the table. A cousin named Bennie, who lived alone, had a standing invitation. "The Jew," to quote Reuben Sachs, "is morbidly sensitive as regards the social standing of the compatriot whom he admits to his hospitality." It was not Bennie's social status that was the problem so much as his self-presentation, and his stupidity. Leonard recalled him, three-quarters of a century later, with an undiminished vehemence which reflected his father's: "He was almost, to look at, the comic Jew of the caricature, and he was that curious, but not very uncommon, phenomenon, the silly Jew who seems deliberately to exaggerate and exploit his silliness. He was the Jew so accurately described by one of the Marx brothers: 'He looks like a fool and talks like a fool, but don't let him deceive you -- he is a fool.'"

Bennie never failed to produce, and to insist upon sustaining, some inane generalization which drove his Uncle Sidney completely wild and brought a torrent of vocal exasperation down on his innocent head. "I can still see the scene, all of us children sitting round the Sunday lunch table, the great sirloin appearing from under the enormous silver cover, my father with his serious, sensitive face with his carving knife poised over the sirloin as he quoted the prophet Micah, and the rather surprised and sheepish face of my cousin Bennie who was not wont to walk or talk humbly with his God or anyone else."

The picture of Leonard's first eleven years is of a rich, argumentative, noisy, loving, fully occupied and happy childhood, packed with lessons, pets, walks, visits, excursions, parties, and regular summer holidays, enlivened by constant contact with the extended family.

Leonard already had a deep feeling for birds, beasts and flowers. He had an acute and complex perception of the opposite sex -- whether as comfort, or as allure, or as nightmare. His sense of security was shaken by glimpses of the ugliness, violence and poverty outside the home world. He was to hate and fear drunkenness all his life, and the threat posed by any gross disturbance, disorder and loss of control. He was a sensitive boy, "eager for happiness and beauty," assailed by moments of black melancholy and terror. The significant bad moments he records all have to do with the blighting of expectations: running out into the home garden after absence; the first moments of a longed-for seaside holiday; the new tricycle.

The family's expectations were blighted definitively. Sidney Woolf had always overworked, and had poor health. In its issue of 29 January 1892, The Law Gazette published, with a full-page photograph, a flattering biographical sketch of 'Mr. Sidney Woolf, Q.C." in their series "Our Portrait Gallery," with the evident purpose of highlighting his next career move. He was a candidate for the post of Recorder of London, and the anonymous author of the article included a quotation from his address to the aldermen: "I have not, up to the present time, sought a seat in Parliament, but if, in your opinion, the interests of the Corporation are best served by the Recorder being a member of the House of Commons, I should be willing, when an opportunity offers, to seek election to that position."

Sidney Woolf never became Recorder of London or a Member of Parliament. He must have known how ill he was. He signed his will on 10 January 1892, shortly before the appearance of the article in The Law Gazette. On 12 March 1892 he died, at home. He was forty-seven. The death certificate gave as the cause of death "Tubercular disease of both Lungs chronic 2 years. Sudden infiltration of tubercles in both Lungs with great Dyspnoea [breathlessness] & extreme heart weakness 6 days." He was buried in what Leonard called the "grim and grimy" cemetery in the Balls Pond Road, which served the Berkeley Street synagogue, and the quotation from the prophet Micah was engraved on his tombstone: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Sidney Woolf earned around £5,000 a year at the Bar, and his income died with him. The gross value of his estate was £6,120. 16s. 1d. The house in Lexham Gardens was held on a lease, not owned. For Leonard, who was eleven, and for his whole family, the world changed overnight.

Copyright © 2006 by Victoria Glendinning

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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