Leonard Woolf's marmoset adored him. Mitzy, a black-and-white, squirrel-size creature, originally belonged to a friend of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, but once she climbed onto Leonard's lap, it was love at first sight. She hated to leave him, riding around on his back and threatening to bite anyone who got too close. Kingsley Martin, Leonard's longtime friend and colleague at the New Statesman, observed that his "coat was permanently stained because the marmoset lived on his shoulder and performed [her] natural functions down his back." In 1935, when Leonard insisted on visiting Germany to see Nazism firsthand — defying the British government's warning that Jews should stay away — it was Mitzy, riding around in the Woolfs' car like a mascot, who charmed potentially hostile strangers.
The devotion that Leonard Woolf inspired in Mitzy — and in a long series of cats, dogs, and other animals — was shared by nearly all of the humans who knew him well. Turn to almost any page of Victoria Glendinning's entertaining and sensible new biography, "Leonard Woolf" (Free Press, 498 pages, $30), and you are likely to find an encomium to this intelligent, benevolent, hardworking, ill-remembered man.
The most disparate kinds of people united in admiring him: not just the arch-aesthete Lytton Strachey, Leonard's best friend at Cambridge, but also the provincial governor he worked for as a young civil servant in Ceylon, and the earnest left-wing activist Margaret Llewellyn Davies, his comrade in the Women's Co-operative movement. Angela Graham, the wife of a Virginia Woolf scholar who barely knew Leonard, kept his photograph on her desk, and confided,"I used to write to you when I felt particularly isolated and confused ... these weren't letters for mailing — just letters for healing."
The supreme tribute to Leonard Woolf the healer, of course, came in the suicide note that his wife left on March 28, 1941, just before she drowned herself in the river near their country house. Virginia's last wish before she died was to exonerate Leonard, in his own eyes and posterity's, of any guilt for her death. On the contrary, she wrote, it was only his steadfast care, over three decades of marriage, that kept her alive for so long: "You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be ... If anyone could have saved me it would have been you."
Leonard Woolf was Virginia's widower for almost as long as he had been her husband. He lived until 1969, long enough to see the Bloomsbury circle of his youth become an academic industry. Much of his last years were occupied with publishing his wife's papers, selling her letters to libraries, and meeting with or gently putting off biographers. By the time he died, at the age of 88, he knew that he would not be remembered for the decades he spent advising Labor Party committees, researching social problems for the Fabian Society, writing long books on international relations, or editing and writing for magazines.
What posterity thanks him for, instead, is his devotion to Virginia Woolf, to whom he sacrificed many of his career prospects and nearly all of his sexuality. If he had been more ambitious on his own behalf, he might have become the governor of a province or a minister in a Labor government. Instead, he lived for Virginia, creating the stable and loving environment she needed to elude her mental illness and give the world her masterpieces. What makes his case different from those of so many spouses to genius is simply the fact that he was the husband, not the wife, of a great writer. His last name is far more famous than his first.
As a subject, then, Leonard Woolf presents a double challenge to Ms. Glendinning, a prolific biographer whose previous subjects include Anthony Trollope and Edith Sitwell. First, she must prove that Leonard's life justifies a full-length biography — the first ever devoted strictly to him, as against the hundreds that deal with Virginia or Bloomsbury in general. Second, she must prevent all the tributes to Leonard's patience and goodness from turning him into a plaster saint, a 20th-century version of the angel in the house. Happily, in this wide-ranging but briskly paced study, she succeeds on both counts. Indeed, it is exactly by revealing the considerable darkness in Woolf's character, the anger and resentment that he kept rigidly in check, that Ms. Glendinning makes him a convincing protagonist of his own story.
Although the Hogarth Press that he and Virginia founded was responsible for bringing the work of Freud to English readers, Leonard had little patience with psychoanalysis. Ms. Glendinning, who takes great care to avoid sensationalizing her often scandalous material, tacitly follows his lead, advancing no master-theories of her subject's motivations or emotional life. Yet as she assembles her portrait of Leonard, the reader finds Freudian concepts like sublimation and repression leaping to mind.
All his life, Leonard Woolf was a defender of what he unapologetically called "civilization," the Enlightenment virtues of reason, tolerance, and decency. Unlike many on the English left between the wars, he defended this ideal against Soviet communism no less than against Fascism. Yet as Ms. Glendinning writes, he cherished rationality precisely because he had such intimate knowledge of the irrational: "Leonard's sanity was deep enough … to contain his insanity, most of the time, with inspired leaks and some messy spillages." Those spillages often took the form of a psychosomatic return of the repressed. Leonard had an incurable tremor and recurrent bouts of eczema, which can't help but seem like neurotic symptoms. He was prone to outbursts of temper at work, and late in life he became positively cranky when dealing with tradesmen, jamming the village mailbox with letters of complaint.
Yet these seem like mild enough revolts against the libidinal deprivation to which Leonard conscientiously condemned himself. As a young man in Ceylon, he demonstrated a strong sex drive, taking local girls as lovers in the traditional imperialist manner. But Virginia Woolf's fear and loathing of sex with men meant that his marriage remained virtually celibate. After her death, Leonard found solace in an unofficial quasi-marriage with a woman named Trekkie Parsons. This relationship lasted until the end of his life, but it too remained unconsummated, as Trekkie was legally married to someone else. It seems incredible that Leonard actually remained celibate for more than 60 years, as Ms. Glendinning appears to suggest. But even if he had unrecorded affairs, he must have repressed his erotic nature almost as thoroughly as a monk — an ironic discipline for a man who unapologetically loathed religion.
The other thing Leonard repressed, Ms. Glendinning shows, was all the ambivalence associated with being a Jew in snobbish Bloomsbury. His brilliant, privileged friends were not deeply anti-Semitic, or they would not have made him so intimate a part of their lives. But part of the Bloomsbury style was a heartless snobbery that often took the form of anti-Semitism (along with other kinds of racism). A typical instance came when Vita Sackville-West complained that Leonard could be "tiresome and wrongheaded and sometimes Jewish." Virginia Woolf herself never for an instant forgot her husband's Jewishness, and she could be disgustingly nasty about his family, from whom she effectively isolated him.
Yet Leonard very seldom talked or wrote about himself as a Jew. His principled secularism and leftism, along with his rarefied social position, made it imperative for him to ignore this whole side of his identity. No wonder Ms. Glendinning concludes that "his inner dissonances ... were demonically intense." Perhaps the most valuable service Ms. Glendinning performs in her biography is to restore those dissonances to our understanding of Leonard Woolf's all-too-dutiful life.