Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Leonard Woolf.

I really enjoy literary biographies, especially the works of Hermione Lee and Victoria Glendinning, so I turned the pages of Glendinning's Leonard Woolf: A Biography with special eagerness, as I thought he tended to be portrayed as an exploiter of his spouse, Virginia. Glendinning's work is a sad one, as she shows that Leonard believed (correctly, I think) that Virginia's genius was intrinsically tied to her mental instability, and one had to take one with the other. It was like playing with dynamite, as Leonard strove to cope with Virginia's breakdowns and create the most conducive environment for her writing. When Virginia did commit suicide in 1941, after Leonard had been in constant consultation with Virginia's doctor cousin, Octavia Wilberforce, as to the best way to treat Virginia's latest illness, Leonard blamed himself.

He was a writer of no mean ability himself, frequently called on by the Fabians and others to comment on political matters, especially those involving Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as Woolf had been a civil servant there for several years. The look at the workings of Hogarth Press is fascinating, especially learning that both Leonard and Virginia loved the physical process of making a book. Of course, the highly incestuous Bloomsbury group is covered. There are some other individuals mentioned where the reader wishes for some more detail; the brief coverage of American-born actress and suffrage figure Elizabeth Robins fails to mention her major suffrage novel The Convert (1907), which has been reprinted by Feminist Press.

A startling aspect of the biography is the revelation about the number of Leonard's siblings who committed suicide, suggesting, I think, that he may have had prior experience in dealing with mental illness before he met Virginia. Most of all, the book demonstrates that the Woolf marriage was a true partnership in which each partner deeply appreciated the other's qualities.


George said...

Mental illnesses, especially in Leonard Woolf's day, stress out the families and friends of the afflicted. Sometimes little can be done, yet the situation is fraught with frustration and depression. And, as you point out, sometimes these maladies run in families.

Roberto said...

Interesting post. Re the Hogarth Press, I recommend two gems: Sally Dennison's excellent and inspiring Alternative Literary Publishing, now sadly out of print but still obtainable used, and the Paris Press's fabulous 2002 edition of Virginia Woolf's On Being Ill, introduced by Hermione Lee and jacketed with Vanessa Bell's lovely cover art from the original Hogarth edition.