Leonard Woolf’s Attitudes to his Jewish Background and to Judaism

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Leonard Woolf is known principally simply for having been the husband of a genius, the famous experimental novelist, Virginia Woolf. The almost maternal solicitude he expended on her talent and personality and the stresses he endured due to her mental unbalance have made him a suitable candidate for humanist beatitude.

Cambridge at the turn of the century special? ised in men of an independent and gifted cast of mind, and with many of these Leonard formed lifelong bonds of friendship under the aegis of a secret intellectual society called the Apostles. Here Leonard enjoyed the mental and emotional stimulus of intercourse with men of such very varied minds as G. E. Moore, A. N. Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Maynard Keynes, the economist, Lytton Strachey, satirist of Victorian morals, E. M. Forster, the novelist, and others, many of whom later formed the nucleus of the Blooms bury Group, the famous elite which dominated cultural England during the 'twenties and 'thirties.

Fame in his own Right

Along with his association with Bloomsbury and with Virginia, by which he is chiefly known, Leonard has considerable claim to fame in his own right. Straight after Cambridge he had been forced to undergo a seven-year separation from his Apostolic brethren and had to make his way in the philistine environ? ment of the Ceylon Civil Service, where he found himself rudely thrust from the lofty realms of philosophic speculation and intimacy into really gruelling hard work. As Assistant Government Agent for Hambantota, he was in charge, in his twenties, of over one million natives, and in his position as Police Magis? trate had to assist at trials and executions. His seven years in Ceylon (1904-1911) instilled in him a business acumen and a genius for facts that he was later to apply to the working of the Hogarth Press and an interest in com? munal psychology and social justice which was to find various outlets throughout his life.

Paper delivered to the Jewish Historical Society of England, 21 November 1973.

Back in England, also under the inspiration of the Ceylon experience, Leonard fulfilled his ambition of becoming a creative writer which he had harboured secretly since Cambridge and produced a novel and several short stories with an Eastern setting. His 'Eastern' novel, though little recognised in England, argues an understanding of other ways of life apart from the Western liberal model which compares with Forster's Passage to India for compassion and breadth of horizon. Leonard's writings about his experience of the primitive gained him an entree to literary London, and his acceptance was sealed by his marriage. Leonard wrote one further novel set in England about his relationship with Virginia and somewhat critical of the permissive mores of Bloomsbury. Then, except for the publication in 1939 of an extremely undramatic play, The Hotel, allego? rising the countries and their policies on the eve of the Second World War, he gave up the writing of fiction.

Founding the Hogarth Press

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