The Political Agenda behind Woolf’s Village in the Jungle

Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, in The Island, 26

Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) is an important figure in international relations and imperial history but he was also a writer. The literary genius of his wife Virginia (neé Stephen) overshadowed him. This is partly due to lack of recognition of Woolf’s own novel, The Village in the Jungle which is shaped around a marginalised group of jungle dwellers in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. The Village in the Jungle (1913) ranks on par with E M Forster’s Passage to India and George Orwell’s Burmese Days but predates both these works; eleven years before Passage to India (1924) and twenty years before Burmese Days (1934).



The novel was not received enthusiastically by those nearest to Woolf. Lytton Strachey, his friend from Cambridge undergraduate days, said the novel was “about nothing but the blacks”. Virginia rated The Village in the Jungle lower than Woolf’s second novel, The Wise Virgins. But The Village in the Jungle is unique among early twentieth century novels as an attempt to depict rural coloniality. Unsurprisingly, the novel also found a place in the study of English Literature in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala translation Beddegama was for a time, a prescribed text for GCE (Ordinary level) exams. Beddegama was popularised through the Sri Lankan cinema in 1964 by her internationally recognised director, Lester James Pieris. The cast included well known stars such as Joe Abeywickrema, Malini Fonseka, Trilicia Gunawardena, Tony Ranasinghe, D R Nanayakkara and Henry Jayasena. The 140-minute long film, was screened on Channel 4 (UK) and at the Cannes Film Festival (France) where a reviewer compared it to Satyajit Ray’s Indian classic film, Pather Panchali.

There are a number of issues to be tackled if we are to give Woolf his due. The first, is his achievement as a colonial officer in penetrating the minds of those he administered. Associated with this is the task of disentangling Woolf’s life and position within the Bloomsbury set, a group of well known writers and other intellectuals such as John Maynard Keynes, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey. Second, is his work as a product of Modernity. Third, are the dimensions of the novel which go beyond the “literary”.

Vernon Mendis, a senior diplomat, regrets that none of the British Governors and Civil Servants were “Ceylonphiles” (‘lovers of Ceylon’) excepting for Leonard Woolf and John Still who wrote Jungle Tide. He asserts that The Village in the Jungle simply resulted from Woolf’s creative imagination, whereas Still’s book is the result of a jungle-lover who saw history and romance in the jungle.

After graduating from the University of Cambridge (Trinity College), aged twenty four, Leonard Woolf served as a colonial administrator in Sri Lanka until 24 May 1911. The British empire was at its zenith when Woolf arrived in Sri Lanka on 16 December 1904. Leonard Woolf’s seven years in Sri Lanka (Jaffna, Kandy, Hambantota) had a lasting impact on his career. He acquired a distaste for power and turned his back on the imperial enterprise becoming ambivalent about the absurdity of one civilisation imposing itself upon another. The Village in the Jungle was written at a crucial time in Woolf’s life, shortly after he had married Virginia Stephen on 10 August 1912, and was therefore part of the process in which he was changing direction. Woolf decided that he did not want to be a successful imperialist, to become a Colonial Secretary or a Governor, His Excellency Sir Leonard Woolf, KCMG.

The Village in the Jungle intertwines fiction and lived experience. A reading of Leonard Woolf’s Autobiography in conjunction with the novel is recommended. The novel was written after Woolf returned to England in 1912 and resigned from the Civil Service, drawing on his memories of the Ceylon that he had left behind; he situates himself in the novel adding to its realism. To do justice to Woolf, and to correct the imbalance that The Village in the Jungle has only been partially understood, an exploration of Woolf’s use of Sinhala is necessary. A P Gunaratna localised the novel further in his translation – Beddagama (1947) – through the jungle villager’s idiom. Woolf’s mastery of the Sinhala idiom and nuances is exemplified in the phrases, utterances and exclamations in the narratives. Woolf’s adherence to Sinhala speech patterns facilitated Gunaratna’s translation.

Though Woolf was a Classicist, imbued with the Greek and Latin languages, their history and literature, his horizons expanded in Sri Lanka. In the Southern Province, Woolf’s interest in Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka took over as he distanced himself from his intellectual Cambridge English past. Woolf served in Hambantota, as Assistant Government Agent (AGA), the chief administrative and judicial officer, from 28 August 1908 to 20 May 1911. The novel displays Woolf’s grasp of Buddhist philosophical thought, folk beliefs, horoscopes and omens. Language and culture are interwoven with the political. Woolf had a complex task in portraying both the plight of the oppressed and the power of the colonial rulers. In the early twentieth century, Britain was not contemplating to abandon the empire. Woolf could not advocate decolonization in 1911. Though masked in a piece of literary genius, The Village in the Jungle may be read as a code for decolonisation. The subject matter of the novel is ‘colonial’ but it focuses on marginalised jungle dwellers and it is difficult to pin down Woolf’s sentiments. Woolf’s vivid ethnographic observations and awareness of the ecological balance in the jungle are apparent in the novel. The depiction of the local power structures, which operate independently of British rule, mark the novel as unique and give depth to a cryptic anti-colonial code. The depth of hostility to imperialism is perhaps surprising as one might doubt whether anyone operating within the colonial framework could have such sentiments. Not surprisingly, the novel does not easily fit into an anti-colonial or a colonial mould.

Judith Scherer Herz, Professor of English, says that “The Village in the Jungle is a profoundly anti-imperialist text. In point of fact, anti-imperial/liberal as well as imperial/racist elements co-exist in The Village in the Jungle, both elements contribute to produce a memorable narrative.”

Woolf’s Jewish origins made him an “insider-outsider” in the English milieu. In Sri Lanka, he was an “outsider-insider”. Anti-semitism prevalent in Britain during the early part of the twentieth century seems to have left its mark on the young Woolf. His ‘otherness’ coloured his attitudes to colonialism and subjugation.

Woolf’s political colourings became apparent in the years after the novel was written through his involvement in the Fabian Society and Labour Party. Did Leonard Woolf influence his friend and fellow Bloomsbury group member, Sydney Webb (who became Lord Passfield), the Labour/Liberal Party Coalition Government Minister of Colonial Affairs, to send radical-thinking Donoughmore Commissioners to Ceylon in 1931? The Commission awarded universal franchise to Ceylon in 1931, setting in train the process for democracy to be introduced throughout the British empire, which inevitably led to decolonisation and eventual independence for many countries in the former empire.

Though the main plot of the novel concerns an impoverished family in a jungle village, the wider, deeper and cryptic message might signal that the British were governing a people possessing an old civilisation and culture who were capable of self-government with their own set of rules and philosophies. Decolonisation, giving people agency in their own affairs and self-government, was not envisaged when Woolf served in Ceylon. The right of peoples to govern themselves was internationally accepted only after Woodrow Wilson’s affirmation of self-determination at the end of World War I.

The Village in the Jungle could be viewed as a piece of creative writing which emerged in the Modernist Period of English Literature where experimentation and individualism were virtuous. Through Silindu, Woolf successfully created an Asian character, out doing Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli in the Jungle Books. No western novelist had successfully created an Asian character and novelist Alec Waugh told Woolf that he had accomplished a feat considered not possible for a Westerner; Woolf got inside the mind and heart of the Far East. Unsurprisingly, when Woolf returned to Sri Lanka in 1960, he was given an official welcome by the Prime Minister (W Dahanayake) and the Governor-General of Ceylon (Sir Oliver Goonatilleke).

 SHIHAN DE SILVA Shihan de Silva JayasuriyaThe Portuguese in the East with Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya





Filed under British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, governance, heritage, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, religiosity, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, vengeance, wild life, world affairs

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