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Leonard Woolf: A Biography by Victoria Glendinning. Free Press, 2006, 512 pages, $30


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.


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, Grown Ups, and Electricity: A Novel. 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.


On the day I phoned Ms. Glendinning, she had spent an afternoon clearing away the dead stalks around the perennials in her garden. Leonard Woolf, an avid gardener, might have spent just such a drizzly day in the same way."How did you decide to pursue a biography of Leonard Woolf?"

"I'd already done Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and Rebecca West, all of whom knew the Woolfs. I had read all of Virginia Woolf's letters and diaries and so on, and I just began to feel, 'What about Leonard, then?'

"There was a very necessary new wave of feminism in the 1970s, without which none of us would be quite where we are today. But a by-product of that time was a kind of knee-jerk downgrading of all men, especially if they were husbands. It seemed to me that a lot of wonderful women had had their due and there were some wonderful men, for God's sake!

"I knew nothing about him, really, except that it was always 'Virginia and Leonard' or 'Leonard and Virginia.' Some people thought he was a saint and some people thought that he was not only the oppressor of genius, but maybe the conniver in the death of genius -- especially North American feminists.

"Luckily he had a huge personal archive in Sussex University here. He kept nearly everything, but everybody culls their own archives, and I found that there is almost nothing there about the really bad things that had happened in his own family. I had to find out about those somewhere else -- from his old nieces, for example -- things like the fact that two of his brothers committed suicide, a sister-in-law committed suicide, a sister made an attempt. These were all after his wife's death. It somehow puts Virginia's suicide in perspective."

"What explains the almost vitriolic attitude those North American feminists had toward Leonard?"

"I don't know. I just don't know.

"A lot of the people who revere Virginia Woolf airbrush a lot of Virginia Woolf out. They project onto Virginia what they want in a wonderful, artistic, sensitive, unfortunate woman. They forget her racism, her anti-Semitism, her complete lack of understanding of the non-intellectual non-upper classes. The working woman was not of great interest to her.

"It seems to me she has been sanctified as a beautiful object, which has sort of taken off like a rosy cloud from the actual Virginia who is completely fascinating and wonderful and a genius and beautiful and clever, but not really altogether a suitable subject for an icon."

I speculate to Ms. Glendinning that I've always thought that many of those persons who have turned Virginia Woolf into an icon would have been summarily dismissed by her had they ever met.

"That's what I think. She published a series of essays under the title, The Common Reader, but I don't think she ever envisaged quite so many common readers, or quite such common common readers. She wouldn't have had the time of day for some of her common readers."

"Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey seem an unlikely pair of friends, given their different temperaments. What do you think drew them to one another?"

"Lytton Strachey was homosexually inclined, always, and became floridly so at Cambridge as a student. Leonard was enthralled to Lytton. He was very funny and very clever. In one or two letters Lytton deplores the fact that Leonard doesn't follow his proclivities. I think for Lytton, Leonard was, if you like, his straight man -- his point of reference. They were very good for each other.

"They were best friends, but once Leonard married Virginia, it was Virginia and Lytton that became the close friends. They were much more like each other. They were gossipy and malicious and illusive. They both went in for a particular kind of witty malice that wasn't really Leonard's kind of thing at all."

"The relationship between Leonard and Vita Sackville-West seems, understandably, a bit strained at times."

"Vita? Well, in one way, it was all aboveboard and understood that Vita and Virginia had this special relationship. Because of Virginia's mental vulnerability, both husbands monitored it. I think, if anything, Leonard was irritated at having to spend so much time with the Nicolsons. But I don't think he ever quite knew the slightly ribald and randy idiom of the intimacy of Vita and Virginia. It's quite extraordinary, really. I don't know if he knew that Vita and Virginia had a physical love affair. And I think when he read all of Virginia's letters to Vita and Vita's letters to Virginia after she had died, it must have been slightly more than he had reckoned with."

"When Lady Ottoline Morrell had those lovely weekends at Garsington, did Leonard accompany Virginia?"

"Hardly ever. It wasn't really the sort of thing that he liked. He was austere in some ways. He didn't like high society. I think it was partly the outsider feeling. He would never have admitted that being a Jew made any difference, but it did.

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