Leonard Woolf's Journey

by Peter Stansky
by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, $5.95
Leonard Woolf had no belief in the “afterlife” or personal immortality, but he left an impressive memorial in this autobiography he started to write as he was turning eighty,"and the fifth and final volume of which he completed just before his death last August at the age of eighty-eight. Each volume has had the characteristic charm and power of his prose and personality; a rigorous discursiveness that gives the work its special quality—of free association, or better yet, of free conversation, combined with an extraordinary tough-mindedness. But the “wandering effect” is deceptive, for almost every word, every incident, is made to count in the extraordinary unfolding of an extraordinary life.
Given his fascination with figures—how many copies of Virginia Woolf’s novels have been sold, how many hours he has worked for political causes—one can imagine Woolf himself adding up his words as he came to the end of each brief volume. Few words have been wasted in rhetorical flourishes or self-dramatization, and that is characteristic of him too. The sense of adding up accounts, which he enjoyed doing as a colonial officer in Ceylon after he came down from Cambridge, and which he enjoyed doing as a founder and owner and jack-of-all-trades of the Hogarth Press, is pervasive here. He is rendering an account of his own life, and to some extent of the lives of others. A humane man whom experience has purged of illusions, he can be hard in his judgments on others, but no harder than he is on himself. Woolf was the author of twenty-four books, none quite of the first rank, and the publisher of many that were—among them the collected works of his wife, Virginia Woolf, and the collected works of Sigmund Freud. He was the editor of the Political Quarterly, a director of the New Statesman, an intellectual force in the Labour Party between the wars, and an active worker for the establishment of the League of Nations. Yet without discounting his varied accomplishments, I would argue that it is the character of the man himself— as the husband and, one is tempted to say, the curator of a woman of undoubted genius, and in his own right as a representative of an aspect of English life that has vanished into history—that commands our interest and promises to endure.
Now that he and Bertrand Russell have gone, there remains only E.M. Forster of the brilliant group that Woolf first met when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the early years of the century. Russell and Forster were somewhat older than he; Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes were his contemporaries; so too was the ill-fated Thoby Stephen, who died soon after leaving Cambridge, and whose sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, were presently to become Mrs. Clive Bell and Mrs. Leonard Woolf. Of all these figures (and scores more) he offers memorable glimpses, scattered through the five volumes, not at all “official" views, but the more valuable therefore as literary and historical testimony.
It can be said of Woolf and his friends that they were the last generation of the English Enlightenment. Humane and civilized themselves, they believed in the values of civilization. For them, barbarism and its values—more properly, its nonvalues—were the enemy. Too skeptical to be Utopians, they were believers in the idea of human betterment, the possibility that a more humane and decent society might come into being. History, or barbarism, willed otherwise. Speaking of the political and historical climate of 1939, Woolf comments,
The world had reverted to regarding human beings not as individuals but as pawns or pegs or puppets in the nasty process of silencing their own fears or satisfying their own hates. It was impossible even for that most savage of all animals, man, to torture and kill on a large scale peasants, fellow-socialists, capitalists, Jews, gypsies, Poles, etc. if they were regarded as individuals; they had to be regarded as members of an evil and malignant class—peasants, deviating socialists, capitalists, Jews, gypsies, Poles. The world was reverting to, or had reverted to barbarism.
This emphasis upon the individual—that is, the human being as opposed to the unit, the mass, the class, so convenient for incineration or saturation bombing—this emphasis is the mark of civilization, and of the philosophy that Woolf imbibed at Cambridge. It was a philosophy derived chiefly from G.E. Moore, and it placed the greatest importance upon personal relations, but wholly without the distortions of sentimentality. Individuals were to be truly valued, which meant that they were to be seen without preconceptions and as closely as possible to what they were: not necessarily an edifying sight. At the same time one was to subject oneself to equally candid and unsparing scrutiny. Fortunately, this proved in the working-out less portentous than it sounds. For there was always, as there is in England, a saving grace of comedy. The seriousness of the enterprise must never be taken too seriously; and English pragmatism would never allow for the idiocy, not to say the barbarism, of the Teutonic “blood-brotherhood” which was presently to darken the world. It was a philosophy that valued the personal, and also, when it was transported by Woolf and his Cambridge friends to Bloomsbury, admirably designed to deflate pomposity and pretension. There is nothing quite so effective in that regard as to be asked, “What exactly do you mean?”
Certainly the self-portrait drawn in his autobiography conforms to the man I met in the summer of 1962. William Abrahams and I were just beginning our study of Woolf’s nephew, Julian Bell, for our book Journey to the Frontier, We went to see him in his minute, cold office, a cubicle off a passage at Chatto & Windus, the publishing house with which the Hogarth Press had become affiliated after the war. He himself, with his white hair and skin, conveyed a sense of colorlessness increased by the fact that the room was skylighted, and all was bathed with a certain Arctic light on a cold June day in London. His attitude toward Julian, his wife’s beloved nephew who had been killed in the Spanish Civil War, was characteristic. Clearly he cared for him, but he was not about to abandon his critical sense. His view of Julian’s virtues and defects, although premised on the affection due to a nephew, was truthful and hardheaded. For the very reason that individuals were so important, the perception of them was not to be clouded by any false sentimentality. In its effect, his conversation was like his autobiography: it gave the appearance of being discursive, but as it went on, each touch added up to a picture of Julian as he remembered him. The comments were put in what seemed to be an erratic way, such as a painter might daub on his colors, but it was the best way for him to create a portrait. Having begun by saying he had little to tell us, he ended by telling us a good deal.
We were never to meet again, but we corresponded. His letters were succinct and to the point, and always sent in used envelopes, in what I imagined to be a sign of Gladstonian parsimony, but may actually have come from the habit of saving paper during the Second World War. In these exchanges he revealed a keen editorial sense, along with the shrewdness of a man of business. We had wanted to use extensive quotations from Virginia Woolf’s unpublished memoir of Julian: he allowed us to use only about half of what we had originally asked for. He was right, editorially, for he forced us to rely on our own words, and not on another’s, to gain the effect we wanted. Also, by limiting the amount of hitherto unpublished material by his wife to appear in print, he was, as he pointed out, protecting the economic value of her words. (In this final volume he offers a candid and highly illuminating account of his own and Virginia’s earnings.) After our book was published, he sent a warm but brief note of praise, and listed a few errors. That too was characteristic.
He was eighty-two years old at the time of our meeting, but he was still coming up to London from the country each week to work as a publisher, and there was no question of his “retiring.” His pleasure in his many activities continued to the day of his death: he writes of his garden, his dogs, his travels, his involvement in village life. But this concluding volume is, at a deeper level, a stoic’s ruminations about death, a counterpart to A Calendar of Consolation: A Comforting Thought for Every Day in the Year (1967) , which stands out oddly among the list of his publications. One would not have anticipated that subtitle, with its air of the vicarage. But Leonard Woolf never felt obligated to do what was expected of him, and in any event, many of the quotations are cold comfort indeed. (On the very first page, one is brought up short with Swift’s “A nice man is a man of nasty ideas.”) As E.M. Forster has reminded us. Death kills, but the idea of death gives life. And Woolf accepted all along that it must end in the grave, or, more precisely, as ashes buried at the base of two intertwined elms called Leonard and Virginia in the garden of his home, Monk’s House, in Rodmell. (But one of the trees—he does not tell us which—was blown down during the Second World War.) The idea of death gives a punctuation and a power to one’s years, particularly when they have been so considerable that one can write an autobiography that begins in 1880 and ends in 1969.
When he was a small boy, he had to drown three newborn puppies, and the blind, tiny creatures struggling for life in the bucket conveyed to him a vivid sense that in everything there is an “I” which deserves respect. Every animal, and every person, has, he believed, a “magnetic field” which gives it the impression that it is important and that what it is doing is important in the world. This must be respected, even if ultimately the world is a folly and any attempt to improve it almost inevitably futile—as he judged his own 200,000 hours of work for the Labour Party and affiliated causes to have been. His attitude, a compound of realism and stoicism, encouraged him to cope with whatever came his way. He behaved as though he were “invincible, indefatigable, and imperishable,” and he knew that he would continue to have his eggs and bacon for breakfast, no matter what happened, even as he was getting hold of poison so that he and Virginia could kill themselves if the Germans invaded England in 1940. (Not as paranoid a notion as it may seem. After the war it was learned that he and his wife had been on the Gestapo blacklist.)
But the last impression, I believe, that Leonard Woolf would want to give was that such an attitude was easy, or unearned. His own death came to him in good time, and he rather enjoyed the prestige that mere survival gives to one. But in March, 1941, his wife chose to drown herself to escape the onset of madness such as she had suffered from during the First World War, and whose recurrence she feared might prove permanent. Although he was able to cope with the event, the most tragic of his life, in his own style—and writes of it with a directness and austerity that are deeply affecting—there is no doubt that it was a lasting blow to his head and heart.
His long approach to death thereafter—which, essentially, the rest of this final volume is about—owed much to Bloomsbury, and to the Enlightenment out of which it had sprung. But paradoxically, though he was at the heart of Bloomsbury, he was not of it heart and soul: his own strength came, he felt, from what he considered the Judaic tradition, his father quoting Micah: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Like George Eliot he rejected God, but grasped justice and mercy. And he felt a kinship, too, with Montaigne, from whom he took the title for his concluding volume, sharing with him a hatred of selfishness, and a belief in the “I” as it sets out on its journey through life. In his own case it was a journey marked with regret for what the world had become after 1914, for what the world had arrived at after 1939: “Downhill All the Way,” as he titled his next-to-last volume of autobiography. And yet, significantly, it is the Journey not the Arrival that matters.