A Life

Over at The Guardian there’s an extract from Victoria Glendinning’s new biography of the strangely underestimated Leonard Woolf.
The book’s been highly-praised so far, and rightly so, judging by this brief extract.
Eclipsed in fame – and, it must be said, in fiction writing ability – by his wife, perhaps one of Leonard’s most remarkable feats was the impact of his writing on the formation of the illustrious but disastrous League of Nations. It was the hope of many, including Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, in a time where hope was a rare thing, and the precursor in many ways to the UN. Leonard’s powerful words formed its ideological basis.
The poor man spent much of his later life defending himself and Virginia against a whole range of charges from feminist writers and literary critics who portrayed him as a weak and inferior being who never supported her; or some kind of unfeeling monster (perhaps he and Ted Hughes formed a little support group).
Why everyone picked on him so, I’ve never known, but I suspect behind all those accusations that he’d virtually driven her to suicide might have been a fundamental and deeply human jealousy that had nothing to do with politics or literary theory. Apparently some have since apologised.
I’ve never quite managed to plough through Leonard’s autobiographies. I swear I will, one day – along with Duff Cooper’s and Lees-Milne’s diaries and … But certainly his letters convey an intellect and creativity equal to any in Bloomsbury, and an ethical framework and wisdom on which many of the other fluttering things relied. Not to mention the fact that he was a “penniless Jew” amidst a pack of virulent anti-Semites – no matter how fond one might be of Lytton, Virginia, Vita and Harold, they really could be quite vicious. It comes through in their letters to each other, and their diaries, when they think they are unobserved.
He’s vindicated now, at any rate, by Glendinning’s book which is now officially (loved ones, take note) on my Christmas wishlist, along with Christopher Ondaatje’s Woolf in Ceylon.

“You cannot escape Fate,” Leonard Woolf wrote at the end of his life, “and Fate, I have always felt, is not in the future, but in the past.”

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