In 1935 Leonard Woolf, a 55-year-old British Jew, drove through Germany to see Nazis for himself while accompanied by his brilliant, beautiful but frequently ill wife and a pet marmoset named Mitzy that liked to perch on his shoulder: Such was the willful, endearing defiance of a remarkable public intellectual who today is best known as Virginia Woolf’s husband.
Advertised as the “first-ever” life of Leonard Woolf–itself an astonishing fact–Victoria Glendinning’s splendid new book, Leonard Woolf: A Biography, quietly deplores the treatment (“pseudo-scholarly speculation based on partial knowledge”) Woolf typically receives at the hands of mechanical feminists or academics who, worshiping Virginia, glibly label her husband an enabler of her genius or, even more glibly, brand him as its persecutor. Glendinning, the accomplished author of biographies of such women as Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell and Elizabeth Bowen (as well as of three novels), intends to resurrect Leonard Woolf less as the wife of a genius (to borrow Gertrude Stein’s tag for Alice Toklas) than as a thoughtful skeptic, fierce competitor and campaigner for human rights, women’s rights, disarmament and international peace. As Glendinning reminds us, Woolf helped launch Britain’s Labour Party, became its adviser and in 1931 was a member of a Labour delegation that met with Gandhi. He also ran (unsuccessfully) for Parliament on a socialist platform and directed, with his adored wife, the small press that published both T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.
By keeping her eye firmly fixed on Leonard, Glendinning skillfully guides her reader through the Scylla of Virginia Woolf and the Charybdis of the incestuous Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals whose various pairings and points of view have themselves become a cottage industry. Leonard Woolf was cut from a different social cloth, and though he was the son of a prosperous lawyer, he did not grow up in the smart part of Kensington, near Knightsbridge, where Leslie Stephen, the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, lived with the daughters of his second marriage, Vanessa and Virginia. Born in 1880 into Britain’s Jewish middle class, Woolf put up with the accepted anti-Semitism of polite society and cloaked his sensitivities with what he called his “carapace,” denying to himself that the lifelong need for such a shell, as Glendinning observes, may have had everything to do with his being Jewish.
As a boy, Woolf suffered from a congenital tremor in his hands, from the early death of his father, from a mother addicted to respectability and from bouts of depression that led to another defensive posture: his skeptical mantra, “Nothing matters.” But this tough-boy existentialism also portends Woolf’s deeper recognition that, as he said in later life, “nothing matters, and everything matters.” A morally courageous man committed to reason, tolerance and social justice, Woolf devoted himself to ameliorating the problems of the world. In this, Glendinning sees the Dreyfus case as a watershed not only for Europe but for Woolf: It “jump-started in twentieth-century European politics the role of the public intellectual, and the philosophical stance of (in the French sense) engagement, which became central in the 1930s, and with which Leonard Woolf was to align himself.”