Rescued From Oblivion

Many biographers and researchers of Virginia Woolf's life downplay the role of her husband, Leonard. This new book tries to set the record straight.

"Leonard Woolf: A Life" by Victoria Glendinning, Simon & Schuster, 498 pages, $36.99

When reading Leonard Woolf's biography one can't help but repeatedly wonder whether this book would ever have been written had its subject not been the husband of Virginia Woolf, the man who gave Woolf her surname and published her books. The author, Victoria Glendinning, is a talented writer whose books about Anthony Trollope, Edith Sitwell and Rebecca West have won her a distinguished place among literary biographers. Moreover, her book about Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf's lover, already demonstrated her familiarity with the "Bloomsbury phenomenon" and her ability to analyze it. Clearly, no one is better qualified than Glendinning to rescue from the depths of oblivion the man who until now has been known only as "the husband of."

To convince her readers that her task is a worthy one, Glendinning is careful to stress those elements of Woolf's biography that are not related to the life, writing and death of his famous wife. She reminds us that he was an author in his own right, a prominent member of the Bloomsbury circle and closely allied with its central figures, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster. He also helped lay the foundations for the study of international relations and was a leading intellectual of the Britain's Labor Party during its formative years.

Since her death, Virginia Woolf has become a conspicuous cultural hero. Attitudes toward her and her work have undergone many shifts and turns, and each generation that has examined Woolf, her life and her books has found signs and messages that were deemed worthy of foregrounding. The trends and landmarks of the way she has been publicly constructed have, of course, affected what small portion of the larger story has been devoted to her husband.

Virginia Woolf's first critics and biographers told her story when Leonard was still alive, and he served as a source of materials and advice for them (the most prominent was Quentin Bell, Woolf's first biographer and nephew, son of her beloved sister Vanessa). These writers tended to depict Mr. Woolf as a kind of nurse, the man who worshiped Virginia, cared for her with endless dedication and helped her through the difficult chapters of her life. According to them, had it not been for Leonard, it is doubtful Virginia would have survived as long as she did, and the world might not have received the works she left behind. This view holds that while Leonard may not have influenced his wife's work or contributed to it intellectually, he did provide the material, daily basis for the existence of the genius author.

Eventually, when Virginia Woolf turned into a hero for the new wave of feminism, she came to be perceived as a quintessential victim of an oppressive male society, and Leonard in turn was transformed into a tool of the oppressive male worldview. It was claimed that he not only failed to contribute to her happiness and development, but that he also added to her distress, hastening her death.

Glendinning urges her readers to abandon both of these polarized and extreme approaches. In their stead she offers a convoluted and complex life story, of which Virginia Woolf represents merely one chapter - a central and important chapter, no doubt, but not the only one. Leonard was not a rationalist, a tough proponent of discipline and order, as he has been described by his many female maligners. Referring to his books, writings and especially his memoirs, Glendinning outlines a sensitive and creative man with a complex and tormented inner life. Not only did he not oppress Virginia, but, according to the book, he was a full and productive partner in her dilemmas and in her own complicated inner life.

Stereotypical anti-Semitism

Leonard, according to Glendinning, was a rigid and formal Victorian only in his external conduct. The role of a dignified country gentleman concealed a turbulent inner life and a sensitive personality. However, in order to emphasize his sensitivity and vulnerability, Glendinning does not hesitate to expand on what Virginia Woolf's admiring biographies have only briefly mentioned. The book suggests that the celebrated author could be quite unbearable to those around her: capricious, childish and domineering. Leonard was often the direct and silent victim of unjustified emotional abuse. As an example, one can look at Virginia's attitude toward Leonard's family, whom she despised, insulted and belittled for no reason that they could understand, and she did not conceal this conduct from her husband. In so doing, Virginia Woolf allegedly shook off any inhibition of propriety and gave free expression to her deeply rooted, primitive and stereotypical anti-Semitic sentiments.

Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and therefore anomalous within his social milieu; he was a regular target for his friends' mockery and scorn. Glendinning does not leave out even one anti-Semitic remark made by Leonard's friends. They were not raging bigots, and yet they were no different from other members of their social stratum in English society.

The members of the Bloomsbury circle wanted to be unusual in everything: in their dress, in their beliefs regarding church and state, in their sexual lives - but not in their anti-Semitism. Nor does Glendinning conceal the fact that Leonard Woolf shared many of his friends' attitudes in this matter. He, too, was touched by anti-Semitic thinking, for better or worse - that is, even when he celebrated his own virtues (such as his dedication to his work, which he ascribed to his "Hebrew" roots).

Unlike many of Virginia Woolf's fans over the years, Glendinning does not avoid providing a fairly detailed exploration of the Woolfs' sex life. She does not hesitate to declare that Leonard may never have had full and satisfying sexual relations with his wife. She adds that this forced celibacy must have been a difficult and painful punishment for a man who always loved women and sought out their company.

Glendinning knows more than a little about Virginia Woolf's sex life. After all, she is the celebrated biographer of Vita Sackville-West, Virginia's lover and the heroine of her acclaimed novel "Orlando." It even seems as though Glendinning knows more about their relationship than Leonard ever did. She notes that only once, toward the end of his life, Leonard declared that his wife had been a lesbian; the statement, made in the context of a public debate about the need to legalize same-sex relationships, seemed to hint that he knew about her affair. And yet it seems as though he did not know that in her relations with Vita, Virginia had given what she withheld from him.

Decisive evidence supporting the claim that without Virginia, Leonard would not have won any fame or glory, can be found in the chapters describing the long, satisfying years that followed her suicide. Slowly Virginia Woolf's writing came to be recognized and celebrated, and Leonard was the only person on earth capable of offering authentic testimony about her life and work. Moreover, he possessed the material remnants of her legacy - her manuscripts, diaries and letters, as well as the house where she had lived and worked.

As the iconic image of Virginia Woolf solidified, the interest in her legacy increased, and Leonard did not hesitate to sell whatever was left. He sold the manuscripts and letters and helped scholars around the world to commemorate Virginia and interpret her work. The world around him changed rapidly, but he continued to live the life of a traditional Englishman, caring for his garden, entering the onions he grew in gardening competitions, and sending a steady stream of letters to every possible newspaper. Now, finally, his personal charm blossomed: Until his death he had a close and satisfying relationship with a married woman, to whom he left most of his fortune; nor did he turn away certain enchanted young women, who came to him with questions about Virginia and found themselves swept into his own life.

Finally, it is appropriate to revisit a central issue raised above: that of Leonard Woolf's Judaism. The subject is repeatedly raised and examined in the book, and as I have said, the author does not conceal the fact that Leonard supported his friends in their anti-Semitic treatment of him. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that he was ashamed of his family and its Jewish ways. They were an obstacle to his self-portrayal as being, first and foremost, an Englishman. He was strongly opposed to Zionism and, for example, rejected attempts by his friend, the historian Lewis Namier, to bring him closer to the Zionist cause by arranging a meeting between him and Chaim Weizmann.

And yet, it seems that even Leonard's attitude toward Zionism and his own Judaism changed considerably when Virginia was no longer in his life. Not a man given to extensive travel, he nonetheless visited Israel in 1956 and was quite entranced by what he saw. The state seemed to him like the embodiment of everything he considered "Jewish." He regarded Tel Aviv as a vibrant, busy city filled with noisy, energetic Jews who gestured a lot while speaking; the kibbutz appeared to him a magnificent creation and the peak of Jewish morality's message to the world. After the Holocaust, he also changed his mind somewhat about what he had previously considered the Zionist agenda's injustice toward the Arabs of Palestine. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, he was full of pride about the accomplishments of the Jewish state. Glendinning describes the importance of the "Jewish question" in Leonard Woolf's life, but she seems to lack the tools for analyzing this issue and understanding it in depth.