Book Reviews

Leonard Woolf: A Life

By Victoria Glendinning

Simon and Schuster £25

Review by Anne Sebba, Jewish Chronicle, 21 September 2006

review virginias jewISBN 0743220307

Imagine – a Jewish mother not invited to the wedding of her clever son and not minding?

“To be quite frank, yes, it has hurt me extremely that you did not make it a point to have me at your marriage,” Mrs Woolf replied to Leonard, who hoped she would not be hurt as they were having a quiet wedding with no party. But, as Victoria Glendinning points out in her absorbing biography of Leonard Woolf, his chief fault was cowardice. That of his new wife: snobbery.

Both combined on August 10, 1912 when Leonard married the beautiful but nervy Virginia Stephen at St Pancras Registry Office, thereby bestowing his surname as well as his love on the woman destined to become one of the most famous writers of the 20th century.

Leonard Woolf was one of nine children born into a cultured, middle class, Jewish family in West London. When his father, Sydney, a QC, died aged 47 in 1892, the family was forced to move out to Putney.

Leonard learnt Hebrew at home but went to St Paul’s School where he was tormented by boys who delighted in sticking down the lids of ‘Semitic school-desks’ with gelatine lozenges to “watch the way the lid would come up with unexpected force and strike a Semitic chin.”

One such boy, the novelist Compton Mackenzie who subsequently wrote a letter of contrition, based a character, Emil Stern, on the young Leonard. Stern was described as “not developed enough physically to be called a handsome boy… a gentile half as attractive would have won the glances of every ambitious amorist in the school but, being a Jew, he was disregarded.”

Later, when Leonard contemplated becoming a schoolteacher, he worried whether “people will allow their sons to be taught by Jews and Atheists.” Later still, when serving as Assistant Governor in Ceylon, a series of anonymous letters complaining about his actions dismissing a headman, described him as “a Jew brought up by an unconverted Jewess. He does not know the love of God. He has not been brought up to live the life that ennobles man.”

Leonard was never open about the setbacks he suffered through being Jewish in a way that his brother Philip, for example, was. Leonard got on with his life by surrounding himself with a tough and effective ‘carapace’ which enabled him to believe that nothing matters.

This belief shielded him from seeing the link between anti- Semitism and his need for a protective shell. Yet much of Leonard’s writing, such as The Wise Virgins or The Three Jews, dealt with being Jewish and Glendinning thinks that, had he written a novel he once discussed with Virginia, a revised version of The Wandering Jew, it might have been his masterpiece.

Almost no one in their circle could describe Leonard without commenting on his Jewishness, pace Vita Sackville West: “I know he is tiresome and wrongheaded and sometimes Jewish but really… he is irresistibly young and attractive.”

The deeply secular Leonard, while not denying the centrality of his cultural Jewishness, refused to let it alone define him. A non-Zionist, he visited Israel in 1957 and changed his mind about that country.

Virginia, aware of the social frisson her marriage would cause, delighted in referring to Leonard as “a penniless Jew” and in mocking his family, especially his mother. When the two women first met, Virginia mischievously wrote to a friend about the Putney sandwiches, which were not ham, but potted meat as “we don’t eat Ham or bacon or Shellfish in this house.”

Yet Leonard never wavered in his love for Virginia and respect for her creative genius.

Glendinning, in this profoundly sympathetic portrait of an important twentieth century figure, is especially perceptive about the way Leonard grew to depend on his wife’s dependence on him. She makes a convincing case for Leonard’s devoted support of his sick wife, rebutting those who criticised him for tyrannical over watchfulness or neglectful under watchfulness, making plain the perpetual tightrope he walked. Above all she shows that Leonard Woolf, writer, thinker, political activist and publisher who lived on until 1969, was much more than simply Virginia’s carer or, after her suicide in 1941, keeper of the flame.

It’s hard to imagine a better book that examines, with the same clear eye he employed for pen-portraits of his Cambridge friends, the relationship between intellectual, assimilated Jews and their counterparts in the host country in the first half of the twentieth century.