Nothing Matters Everything Matters'

Book cover
Leonard Woolfby Victoria Glendinning

Free Press. 498p $30

In his essay Reflections on Gandhi (1949), George Orwell declared, Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. By that standard, Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) needs to undergo severe scrutiny, since Beatrice Webb called him a saint with very considerable intelligence, a man without vanity or guile, wholly public-spiritedand many of his contemporaries agreed. Victoria Glendinning, who won the Whitbread biography award twice, for her books on Anthony Trollope and Vita Sackville-West, gives Woolf that scrutiny in this splendid new life; by the time she is finished, even the congenitally suspicious Orwell (who was by no means always fair to Woolf), would have to admit that Webb was right.

Woolf, of course, has been thought of, for the most part, as the remarkably patient and nurturing husband of Virginia. A few irresponsible critics have argued that he was controlling and manipulative with Virginia, and that he somehow stifled her. But there is a mountain of evidence against that, not least her suicide note to her Dearest (You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good).

Leonard had protected, praised and supported in every way his fragile, hypersensitive, neurasthenic (the pre-Freudian term of choice) wife, nursed her through a thousand illnesses, mental and physical, real and imagined, loved her unconditionally, endured her anti-Semitism and their sexless marriage (despite his urgent erotic nature). He was, in fact, a more or less perfect husband; and if he couldn’t stop his wife from drowning herself, he did keep her alive and functioning for as long as humanly possible (which did not alleviate the crushing grief over his final failure).

But Leonard Woolf was far more than the indispensable consort of a genius. He was a member of perhaps the most distinguished undergraduate society on earth, the Cambridge Apostleswhose members included Tennyson, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and E. M Forster. He put in over seven years of near-heroic service (1904-11) as an administrator in Ceylon (he was fluent in Sinhalese), even while attacking the crimes of colonialism. He was a capable novelist (The Village in the Jungle, The Wise Virgins). He wrote important books on politics (his International Government helped inspire the League of Nations). A joint editor of Political Quarterly (1931-59), he was one of the most insightful, conscientious and fair-minded of all English leftists, instantly condemning the bloody excesses of Lenin and Stalin, as he would later do with Mao, even as most Communists and fellow-travelers bit their tongues or even cheered. He wrote a memorable five-volume autobiography, Sowing, Growing, Beginning Again, Downhill All the Way and The Journey, Not the Arrival Matters). Together with Virginia, he founded the influential Hogarth Press. An indefatigable editor and book reviewer, he helped shape the literary consciousness of more than one generation. No bloodless don or languorous esthete, he played and enjoyed all sorts of sports and games. He was an avid, prize-winning horticulturalist, and he had great affection for zoos and animalsnot just the usual horses, dogs and cats, but a marmoset named Mitz whom he kept alive longer than any keeper at the London Zoo had managed to do with those tropical American monkeys. A precocious teenage apprentice at the Hogarth Press, Richard Kennedy, once described him, with an inevitable but apt pun, as very like a wolf in human formbut an extremely intellectual wolf, a kindly wolfa very Socrates of wolves.

One of the most gripping, and generally sad, features of Glendinning’s story is Leonard’s lifelong agon with Jewishness, both within himself and in the large assimilated family he came from, and in the English social circles he inhabited. Woolf strongly identified with his father, a distinguished jurist who liked to quote Micah 6:8 to his children: What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? The last part of the verse fell by the wayside, but Leonard kept the rest as one of his mantras. Unfortunately, Sidney Woolf died when his son was only 11; and Leonard never got along well with his highly conventional mother, Marie, or with some of his eight siblings.

The artists and thinkers in Bloomsbury were often, for all their desperate sexual and social daring, only too ready to despise Jews. Virginia’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, was trying to be positive when she wrote about Leonard, I know he is tiresome and wrong-headed and Jewish, but.... Virginia, who may have married Leonard partly as an act of rebellion, could remark in a letter: Tonight I slip on a magnificent dress of purple velvet and old lace and dine with 22 Jews and Jewesses to celebrate my mother in laws [sic] 84th birthday. And it’ll be as hot as a monkey house. And tomorrow I shall have a headache and shan’t be able to write. (The poor dearat least she never denied her snobbishness or her occasional cruelty.)

People did not say such things to Leonard’s face; so for most of his life the Jewish question was safely buried beneath, and subsumed into, his impeccably cosmopolitan liberalism. Was there a trace of self-hatred in this? At any rate, he was shattered by the Holocaust, though he could foresee the troubles coming from the surge in Jewish exiles returning to Zion. He finally visited Israel in 1957. Ardently secular as ever, he was repelled by those unshaven, long-haired orthodox Jews, young men whose self-conscious, self-righteous hair and orthodoxy fill me with despair. But in fact he loved Israel. He came away with a keen sense of its vulnerability and, belatedly, of just how Jewish he himself was.

For many reasons, starting with his immersion in the bloody horrors of modernity as visited upon the Jews, Leonard was, in some ways, the starkest of pessimists. He never stopped repeating his argument-stopping motto, Nothing Matters, to anyone who would listen. By that he meant that the human race was a meaningless, momentary blip in an accidental cosmos. Putting it more personally, he wrote near the end of his life, I achieved practically nothing. That is, the world he was leaving would be exactly the same if I had played Ping-Pong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. So, he calculated, some 150,000-200,000 hours of perfectly useless work had gone down the drain.

But such futility was not the whole picture. He admitted to his friend Virginia Browne-Wilkinson that nothing matters, and everything matters. Apart from his tireless campaigning for justice and mercy, Leonard lived life with zestful intensity. Among other things, he and Virginia were passionate motorists, and in his middle age he motored fearlessly through France, Italy and even Germany. After Virginia died (she knew her death would ultimately be a liberation for him), he began an intense Platonic love affair with Trekkie Ritchie that lasted 25 years. He once listed his chief pleasures as eating and drinking, reading, walking and riding, cultivating a garden, games of every kind, animals of every kind, conversations, pictures, music, friendship, love, people. In his post-Virginia years, surrounded by old friends and constantly making new ones (women especially were attracted to him), he was venerated as the pillar of the community of Rodmell, a village on the Ouse. Not bad for a pessimist. Even Orwell, that relentless skeptic, might have been talked into extending to Leonard Woolf the puritanic seal of approval he conferred on Gandhi in the last line of his essay: How clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.

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