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.”

But above all, Woolf wanted to be a writer. He devoured Henry James and Ibsen, Tolstoy and Flaubert, particularly at Trinity College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1899. There he immediately met three other undergraduates, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Thoby Stephen, each “inexhaustibly interested in themselves and each other,” as Glendinning wryly notes. (They called Woolf the Rabbi.) Stephen’s sister Vanessa would marry Bell, Virginia would marry Woolf and together they formed the nub of the Bloomsbury group along with several members of the holiest of Cambridge societies, the secret Apostles. Woolf was a member, as were Strachey and Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, critic Desmond MacCarthy and novelist E.M. Forster, all of them largely influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903), with its affirmation of human consciousness, or “human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects,” as the basis of a life worth living.

Family finances put a crimp in the good life: Since his mother and siblings (nine in all) were dependent on the eldest sons, Woolf accepted a position as a colonial administrator in Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972). He packed seventy volumes of Voltaire in a crate, bore the White Man’s Burden, acquired the Tamil and Sinhalese languages, studied Buddhism, oversaw floggings and superintended the Pearl Fishery off the coast of the Gulf of Mannar. At first he seemed to himself an “unconscious imperialist,” then “politically schizophrenic, an anti-imperialist who enjoyed the fleshpots of imperialism.” Glendinning, who felicitously evaluates all of Woolf’s writing, regards his story “Pearls and Swine,” composed about ten years after he returned to England, as a Conradian exploration into the heart of appalling imperial darkness.

Wavering in his allegiance to the colonial bureaucracy, Woolf, at the prodding of Strachey, fell unconditionally in love with Virginia Stephen during a furlough home and quit the civil service for good in 1912. The couple, an unlikely pair, married in the summer of that year. Mentally unstable, Virginia had already suffered two breakdowns; she was frighteningly sharp, terribly fragile, vain, self-critical, mischievous, hugely talented and anti-Semitic; and though she was not physically attracted to Leonard, as she told him point-blank, she loved him. “Their marriage was consummated,” writes Glendinning, “not infrequently, but incompletely.” Wisely, she lets the matter more or less drop–there’s enough speculation about the Woolfs in the bedroom, she remarks with just a touch of aspersion–and yet she just as wisely admits “it is legitimate to wonder how he accommodated his strong sexuality.”

There may have been infidelities on the part of Leonard, to be sure, but no one quite knows, particularly since his devotion to his wife was such that he would do nothing to upset her, and presumably he took responsibility for their painful decision not to have children, a decision Glendinning calls courageous. For a deep-dyed skeptic, he was a mighty romantic. As for Virginia’s affair with Vita Sackville-West, Leonard turned a blind eye. Not until he read her letters in his last years did he fully confront that relationship and, during an editorial meeting at The New Statesman, suddenly blurt out, “My wife was a lesbian.”

Tactfully handling the Woolf marriage as well as the delicate matter of Virginia’s health, Glendinning just as deftly treats the development of Virginia Woolf’s literary career, never letting it or her marvelous writing diminish Leonard, his intelligence or the friends and family Virginia considered tedious. His career as a novelist is another matter. In 1913 Virginia and Leonard both completed their first novels: Hers was The Voyage Out, his The Village in the Jungle (never out ofprint in Sri Lanka), a remarkable book in the tradition of novels about the empire that Glendinning considers superior to works in the same genre by Kipling, Forster and Orwell. But after the couple jointly published Two Stories, one tale by each Woolf, on their newly acquired printing press, Lytton Strachey wrote praising Virginia’s story as a work of genius, without saying a word about Leonard’s. Leonard then lost his appetite for writing fiction and turned to the world of politics. He edited the International Review, co-edited the Political Quarterly, assumed the literary editorship of Britain’s The Nation and Athenaeum, and published such acclaimed books as International Government (1916), Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920) and Quack, Quack (1935), a denunciation of Hitler and Mussolini published the month after he and Virginia returned from their terrifying journey through Nazi Germany.

In Glendinning’s sympathetic telling, Woolf’s story is also a fable of the undone: the posts he did not hold, the books he did not write, particularly, in the latter case, a cultural history of, or a novel about, the Wandering Jew, which Glendinning notes would have been the perfect subject for him: “It might have been his masterpiece,” she comments matter-of-factly. Invited to run for Parliament again, he declined, and despite his work for Beatrice and Sidney Webb, he did not pursue a connection with the London School of Economics, which they had founded; he also turned down most every honor offered him. Largely, he tailored his movement and his ambitions to the health of his wife, whom he could not leave alone for long. At the same time, his self-limitation had deep roots, as Glendinning aptly reminds us, in the feelings of inferiority, gloom and anger he feared in himself long before he met Virginia.

After her suicide in 1941, which Glendinning devastatingly recounts, Leonard fell back on his unfailing rationality, which at once reinforced his despair (“she is dead and utterly destroyed,” he heartbreakingly said) and provided a strange balm: After his wife’s cremation, he had his hair cut. Isolated, he took to his beloved garden–those irises, as he’d told Virginia, that would bloom long after Hitler had gone–and in the remaining twenty-eight years of his life, touchingly re-created by Glendinning in her book’s absorbing last chapters, he fell in love with the artist Marjorie “Trekkie” Parsons, a married woman with whom he evidently carried on another chaste relationship. At the same time, he preserved and published his wife’s diaries, responded to the cadres of researchers clamoring for information about her, kept up his journalism, condemned the Vietnam War, spoke out against violence, carried trays of fruit to the village school, grew prizewinning vegetables and composed a quintet of his own autobiographies. These are minor masterpieces: direct, honest, decent, breathtakingly modest. “I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing,” he wrote at the age of 89 in 1969. The world today “would be exactly the same if I had played ping-pong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda.” There is truth in what he says: Nothing matters. Then again, he was also right: Everything matters, especially him.