Reminiscences of Leonard Woolf (November 25, 1880- August 14, 1969) More than just Virginia’s Husband!
Happy Birthday to Leonard Woolf who was born on this day in 1880. Not knowing much about Mr. Woolf, beyond his marrying Virginia Woolf; I did a bit of research when I stumbled upon his autobiography! Imagine my surprise!! So, here are some excerpt quotes by the man himself describing some of his legendary friends...
Leonard Woolf joined the Fabian Society writing two reports for them in 1916 serving the basis of the League of Nations. From 1919-1945 he also served as secretary to the Labor Party’s advisory committees on international and imperial questions. He and Virginia established what became known as the Hogarth Press in 1917. Woolf suffered a stroke and died on 14 August 1969 at Monk’s House which Virginia bought in 1919.
The wedding photograph of Leonard Woolf and Virginia (Stephen) Woolf taken on their wedding day August 10, 1912, NY Times archives
“I emerged from nothingness was the early morning of November 25th, 1880, though in fact I did not personally become aware of my existence until some two or three years later. I have lived my life on the assumption that sooner or later I shall pass by annihilation into the same state of nothingness from which I suddenly emerged that winter morning in West Cromwell Road, Kensington, so many years ago.” Leonard Woolf, Sowing: an autobiography of the years 1880-1904
‘Sowing: an autobiography of the years 1880-1904’ is a wonderful autobiography written by the man known as the ‘husband’ of Virginia Woolf but who was he really? He gives his opinions and observations about his birth, childhood experiences that stand out in his memory for specific reasons including those he met between the years of his life 1880-1904.
The one negative aspect of an autobiography is perhaps the fact that it is one sided, sometimes grandiose in thought and belief with definitely jaded moments of life experiences. I recommend it as a look into who he thought he was.
Leonard Woolf as a schoolboy. Image source from Sowing: an autobiography of the years 1880-1904 by Leonard Woolf, 1960 edition
Leonard Woolf studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. He became friends with Saxon Sydney-Turner, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, and Thoby Stephen. They became known as the ‘Apostles’ and the beginnings of the Bloomsbury Group began.
Leonard Woolf was a member of the Colonial Civil Service in Ceylon for two reasons: once he became disillusioned with Imperialism he left and he fell in love with Virginia Stephen. When Leonard married Virginia in 1912 she became Virginia Woolf! After her death in 1941 it was Leonard who took charge of publishing her uncollected essays and diary selections.
On his friendships with Stephen and Strachey
Father of Toby Stephen and Virginia Stephen, Sir Leslie Stephen Leonard Woolf's parents and siblings
“By the time I left Cambridge I had become very intimate with Thoby Stephen and Lytton Strachey and knew their families, and so the foundations of what became known as Bloomsbury were laid. Thoby’s family seemed to a young man like me formidable and even alarming. When his father, Sir Leslie Stephen, came up to stay a weekend with him, Lytton and I were had in to meet him. He was one of those bearded and beautiful Victorian old gentlemen of exquisite gentility and physical and mental distinction on whose face the sorrows of all the world had traced the indelible lines of suffering nobility. He was immensely distinguished as a historian of ideas, literary critic, biographer, and the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. When I found myself, a nervous undergraduate, sitting opposite to this very tall and distinguished old gentleman in Thoby’s rooms in Trinity Great Court and expected to make conversation with him-not helped in any way by Thoby-it seemed to me, as I said, formidable and alarming. He was stone deaf and that one had to sit quite near to him and shout everything one said to him down an ear-trumpet. This awkwardness and terror were gradually dissipated by him. He had immense charm and he obviously liked to meet the young and Thoby’s friends. He could see through our awkwardness and even grubbiness to our intelligence, and was pleased by our respect and appreciation. In the end we were all talking and laughing naturally (so far as this is possible down an ear-trumpet) and enjoying one another’s company. This must have been about three years before Leslie Stephen died.”
Toby Stephen and the Shakespeare Society Cambrige,Trinity top.Duncan Grant below. Virginia and Vanessa Stephen in 1902
“I also met Thoby’s two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, when they came up to see him. The young ladies-Vanessa was twenty-one or twenty-two, Virginia eighteen or nineteen-were just as formidable and alarming as their father, perhaps even more so. I first saw them one summer afternoon in Thoby’s rooms; in white dresses and large hats, with parasols in their hands. Their beauty literally took one’s breath away, for suddenly seeing them one stopped astonished and everything including one’s breathing for one second also stopped, as it does when in a picture gallery you suddenly come face to face with a great Rembrandt or Velazquez or in Sicily rounding a bend in the road you see across the fields the lovely temple of Segesta. They were at that time, at least upon the surface, the most Victorian of Victorian young ladies, and today what that meant it is almost impossible to believe or even remember. Sitting with them in their brother’s room was their cousin Miss Katherine Stephen, Principal of Newnham, with whom they were staying. But Miss Stephen was in her cousin’s room for a tea-party, not in her capacity of cousin, but in her capacity of chaperone, for in 1901 a respectable female sister was not allowed to see her male brother in his rooms in a male college except in the presence of a chaperone. I liked Miss Stephen very much, but it could not be denied that she was a distinguished, formidable, and rather alarming chaperone. All male Stephens-and many of the females-whom I have known have had one marked characteristic which I always think of as Stephenesque, and one can trace it in stories about or the writings of Stephens of a past generation whom one never knew. It consisted in a way of thinking and even more in a way of expressing their thoughts which one associates pre-eminently with Dr. Johnson. There was something monolithic about them and their opinions, and something marmoreal or lapidary about their way of expressing those opinions, reminding one of the Ten Commandments engraved upon the tables of stone, even when they were only telling you that in their opinion it would rain tomorrow. “
The Strachey Family by Graystone Bird, albumen print on the photographer's printed mount, circa 1893, NPG.
“I stayed with Lytton three years running in the summer in large country houses which his parents rented, once in Surrey, once in Essex, and once near Bedford. In this way I got to know his father and mother and all his brothers and sisters. They stand out in my memory as much the most remarkable family I have ever known, an extinct social phenomenon which has passed away and will never be known again. In 1902 the Strachey Family consisted of five sons and five daughters, female and male alternating down in the family thus: Elinor (Mrs. Rendel) Dick, in the Indian Army, Dorothy (later Madame Simon Bussy) Ralph, married, in the East Indian Railway, Pippa, later secretary of the Fawcett Society, Oliver, married, in the East Indian Railway, Pernel, later Principal of Newnham, Lytton, Marjorie, James. The level of intelligence in each son and daughter and in the father and mother was incredibly, fantastically high. They were all, like their mother, passionately intellectual, most of them with very quick minds and lively imaginations. “
Leonard Woolf’s time in Ceylon
“I applied for Ceylon which was the senior Crown Colony, and I was high enough up on the list to get what I asked for. I found myself to my astonishment and, it must be admitted, dismay in the Ceylon Civil Service.
Looking back I can see that the dismay was natural, but unnecessary, I am glad that I did not go into the Home Civil and did go into the Ceylon Civil Service. My seven years in Ceylon were good for me, and, though they gave me a good deal of pain, they gave me also a good deal of pleasure-and a great deal of pleasure and memory of things past. But I am glad too that I lived the kind of life at Trinity which was mainly the reason why I did not do well in the examinations. It was, I think, a civilized life both intellectually and emotionally. My intellect was kept at full stretch, which is very good for the young, by books and the way I read them and by friends and their incessant and uncompromising conversation. “
I couldn't help but associate Leonard with Virginia Woolf and the entire time would think of her. Sadly, his autobiography did not cover his years with his wife but I kept hearing one song in my head the entire time...Train's Meet Virginia. I think the lyrics actually relate to her!