Leonard Woolf’s father was a fine lawyer, but there’s nothing else in his background that would have led you to predict he’d be at the center of so much British artistic and intellectual life of the 20th century. He seems—as I’ve been reading in Victoria Glendinning’s delightful 2006 biography—to have lucked into a series of dazzling connections, and then by dint of strenuous hard work, passionate idealism, and undying loyalty to have made himself essential to everyone around him. First the Cambridge Apostles, then Bloomsbury, then the Fabian Socialists and the Labour Party in its mid-century prime: he was the consummate insider, though, as a Jew, he often felt more like an outsider, casting a wry eye on the snobbery around him.
It was certainly luck that landed him in Trinity College at Cambridge, where he became best friends with the intensely decadent Lytton Strachey. Their endless series of cliques and debates led them to the semi-secret Apostles club, where Woolf’s youthful political idealism was stoked higher by G.E. Moore’s high-minded Principia Ethica. His future wife Virginia Stephen first heard of him, through her brother Thoby, as a man who “trembled all over” because “he was so violent, so savage; he so despised the whole human race.” She later reported that “I was of course inspired with the deepest interest in that violent trembling misanthropic Jew.”
Leonard Woolf’s biography impresses so much in part because he seems to have made so many good intellectual choices. As a colonial administrator in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), he did his job to the best of his abilities, but later sided with the Ceylonese against British atrocities and wrote what is apparently the definitive novel of Ceylonese colonialism, The Village in the Jungle. During WWI, he was one of the first writers to consider the topic of international law, writing International Government as a special research project for the Fabian Society; the book was one of the inspirations for the League of Nations and an important foundation document for the discipline of international relations. He avoided both Zionism and Communism, arguing with Kingsley Martin on the board of the New Statesman (but this seems so obvious!) that liquidating dissident Chinese civilians was never justified, even in the interest of “progress.”
And then he happened to marry the most brilliant woman of his generation, a writer still read with pleasure today. He fell in love: she was his “Aspasia,” his Platonic highest good. And he never fell out of love, despite her affair with Vita Sackville-West and her fragile emotional state. When you read the story of their marriage, you’re no longer sure that he was quite so lucky. The marriage was chaste—doctors said she was too fragile for sex—and soon after their wedding in 1912 she plunged into a suicidal depression, a recurrence of her breakdowns in 1895 and 1904. From then on the relationship focused almost entirely around the flux of her moods, until the struggle finally came to an end with her suicide in 1941. Without Leonard’s support, one feels, the story might have ended earlier.
Leonard Woolf lived for 30 more years in excellent health, so I sort of wanted to know: were there other women after Virginia? There were! As a tragic widower, he attracted several caretaker types (with at least one of whom, the oddly named “Trekkie,” he was in love) and scores upon scores of crackpot lady correspondents, who seem to have figured out algebraically that “This man was married to an unstable lady who was a brilliant artist. I am also a needy unstable lady who feels like a brilliant artist. Therefore to him, only, can I tell the secrets of my heart.” Woolf seems to have been more than kind to this swarm of nutters, one of whom actually flew all the way from LA to Sussex to leave a potted plant, mysteriously, on his porch.
Woolf’s instincts seem to have balanced pretty neatly between ferocious idealism and a ferocious work ethic—and in the 20th century, this instinct for pure excellence could have gone so very wrong. Idealists are not always reasonable (and here, I confess, I’m thinking of a scene from this summer’s movie “The Internship” in which Will Ferrell’s character, a demented mattress salesman, reveals that his neck tattoo reads “MAKE REASONABLE CHOICES” in Sanskrit*). Yet Woolf seems to have avoided the intellectual traps laid thickly around him, from vicious Bloomsbury gossip to Stalinism, by following some inner code based on a Periclean vision of Athenian democracy. All the negative part of his crankiness was expended on the shops in his town, and in complaining about the new innovation of “junk mail.” May we all be so fortunate in figuring out the difference between cranky idealism that’s worth it (say, by marrying a brilliant artist who does, after all, love you) and cranky idealism that will be condemned by history like a bad neck tattoo.
*Shockingly, there is no picture of this neck tattoo on the internet.