In a reversal of traditional gender roles, Leonard Woolf (1880–1969) is mostly remembered as the husband of a great writer: Virginia Woolf. His own writing wasn’t well received in his time and took a while to recover from the silence it was greeted with by his peers in the Bloomsbury literary circle of early twentieth-century London. Literary scholar Anindyo Roy wonders why.
Part of the reason, Roy suggests, might be “an inability on the part of the Bloomsbury circle and its critics to comprehend the…undercurrents” of Leonard Woolf’s stories. In Roy’s view, Woolf seemed to “challenge…the deeply entrenched orientalist impulse within Bloomsbury to objectify” imperial colonies and the “natives” who lived in them “as the realm of the ‘other.’”
Roy concentrates on Woolf’s “A Tale Told by Moonlight” in the Stories from the East collection. Taking an already clichéd literary form—colonialist abandons “native” woman, who then pines away to her death—Woolf brings “up the larger economic and political questions involved in the traffic of colonial desire.” The colonial man’s “own assertion of freedom and choice may be the very conditions for denying the life of the colonized.”
Woolf was a colonial bureaucrat in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1904 to 1911. His experience abroad—in his own words, as a “policeman, magistrate, judge & publican”—was not a happy one. The philosophy of the “good” he had learned at Cambridge University didn’t sit well, for instance, with a botched hanging that turned into a bloody beheading.
Upon returning to England, Woolf resigned from the colonial service. He married Virginia Stephens in 1912. They had met a few years previously through Cambridge connections, which included such future Bloomsbury luminaries as Strachey and E.M. Foster. Together, the Woolfs ran the Hogarth Press. Virginia would go on to write some of the landmarks of modern literature. Leonard entered the world of liberal left politics, running unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in the 1922 parliamentary election. He was more influential as an editor at several journals of opinion and author of books on imperialism and international relations.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, writes Roy, that Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913) was recognized by scholars from South Asia “as a significant social document about colonial Ceylon.” (Back in the day, Woolf’s friend Lytton Strachey disliked the novel for having “too many blacks in it.”) His collection “Stories from the East” has taken an even longer time to be heard since its initial self-publication.
Roy wonders if Woolf “targeted his own Bloomsbury audience for being complicit in painting these power relations while professing to be emancipated left liberals[.]” Power relations that Woolf called “brutal” after being up and close and personal on their front line.
Woolf articulated “a troubling vision about the fundamental impossibility of holding on to a truly emancipatory politics while continuing to defend” the reality of empire. It may not, therefore, be all that surprising that Woolf’s crowd would rather not have heard that.
Leonard Woolf lived long enough to see Ceylon proclaim its independence from British rule in 1948. He didn’t quite make it to the year, 1972, when the islanders’ new constitution formally renamed the island Sri Lanka.