Leonard Woolf, The Anti-Imperialist

Thiru Arumugam, Courtesy of The Ceylankan: Journal of the Ceylon Society of Australia, journal 76, Vol. XIX, 4 November 2016

aawoolf-dogWoolf and his dog “Charles” in Jaffna

Introduction: The Ceylankan has carried three articles about Leonard Woolf. In the May 2004 issue Vama Vamadevan wrote an article titled Leonard Woolf  which mainly covered Woolf’s years in Ceylon (1904-1910). In the November 2004 issue Yasmine Gooneratne wrote an article titled Lone Woolf in which she presents a scholarly analysis of Woolf’s book Village in the Jungle and describes a forthcoming new edition of the book with misprints in the first (1913) edition corrected and excised passages restored. Yasmine’s article mentions Leonards “patient devotion with which he had nursed Virginia Woolf through her spells of mental illness, thereby guaranteeing to the world the emergence of its foremost female literary genius”.  Finally, in the February 2009 issue Philip Sansoni wrote an article titled Leonard Woolf – The Lonely Cadet and the Maiden in which he describes in great detail Woolf’s affair in Jaffna with Kitty Leyden. Woolf in the second volume of his autobiography1 says briefly that it was only a one-night stand where he lost his virginity, which had survived his days at Cambridge. However, in a letter to his good friend Lytton Strachey in England dated 12 November 1905written from Jaffna, Woolf said something more “… what do you think of my new one alone with a burgher concubine in a long whitewashed bungalow overlooking a lagoon, where time is only divided between reading Voltaire on the immense verandah and copulating in the vast and empty rooms …”


In view of the publication of these three articles, is a fourth one justified? Perhaps, yes, because the writer visited England recently and collected information about Woolf ‘s life in England where he lived for another 58 years after he returned from Ceylon, and visited the National Trust owned literary shrine of Monk’s House in the East Sussex village of Rodmell and took many photographs. This house was owned by Woolf for 50 years and both his wife Virginia and Leonard wrote many of their books while living in this house and both also died here.

Leonard Woolf has documented his life in great detail in his autobiography which is in five volumes totalling over 1100 pages. The first volume Sowing (1960) covers his childhood and years at Cambridge. The second volume Growing (1961) covers his life in Ceylon as a member of the Ceylon Civil Service from 1904 to 1911. The third volume Beginning Again (1964) covers the period 1911 to 1918 including his marriage to Virginia Stephen and his life during the first World War. The fourth volume Downhill all the way (1967) covers the inter-war years from 1919 to 1939, the word ‘downhill’ referring not to his literary reputation or health but the decline of Europe due to the rise in power of Hitler. The final volume The Journey not the arrival matters covers the death of Virginia by suicide in 1941and the rest of his life to 1969. He completed proof reading this book before he died but it was only published two months after he died in 1969. This book mentions his second short visit to Ceylon in 1960. It is significant to note that all five books were written after he was eighty years old. Christopher Ondaatje retraced Woolf’s workplaces and travels in Ceylon and interestingly recounted them in his book Woolf in Ceylon: an Imperial Journey in the shadow of Leonard Woolf 1904-1911 (2005). The 326 page book is copiously illustrated with period and modern photographs.

School days: Leonard Woolf was born in London on 25 November 1880, the third surviving child of the nine children of Sidney Woolf and Marie de Jongh, who were both Jews, but at the age of eighteen Leonard became an atheist, much to the disappointment of his mother. Sidney was a QC with an excellent practice as a Barrister. When Leonard was eleven years old his father died suddenly after a brief illness and the family were reduced from an upper middle class household with eight servants to near penury.

When his father died Leonard was boarded at Arlington House, a Preparatory School in Brighton. He was able to continue studying there because the Headmaster generously reduced the school fees because he was a bright student and was being prepared for admission to St Paul’s School in London. St Paul’s was, and still is today, among the schools in England with highest number of annual admissions to Oxbridge Universities.

At the age of thirteen he won scholarship admission to St Paul’s where he studied for the next five years. As a scholarship student the main subjects he studied at St Paul’s were Latin and Greek and he was coached for admission to Balliol College in Oxford or Trinity College in Cambridge. In March 1899 his teachers sent him to sit for the scholarship examination at Trinity, this particular examination was mainly meant for first year students already at Trinity and Leonard found that he was the only schoolboy sitting for the examination. Such was his school teachers faith in his ability. When the examination results were announced, he was delighted to learn that he was awarded an Exhibition and admission to Trinity College.3

Cambridge University: Leonard started his undergraduate career in Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1899, where he was to study for the next five years. Among his friends in Cambridge were: Lytton Strachey with whom he corresponded regularly when Leonard was in Ceylon, and became a life-long friend; G H Hardy a brilliant mathematician, later to become Savillian Professor of Mathematics and ‘discoverer’ of the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramunajam; Thoby Stephen whose sisters were the beautiful and talented Virginia and Vanessa – Leonard’s reaction when he first saw them was that ‘their beauty literally took one’s breath away, for suddenly seeing them one stopped astonished, and everything, including one’s breathing for one second, also stopped …’,4 their father, Sir Leslie Stephen was the Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and was awarded honorary degrees by Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard; Clive Bell who later married Vanessa Stephen sister of Virginia; E M Forster who later wrote A Passage to India; John Maynard Keynes, later to become Britain’s most famous 20th century Economist; and G E Moore later to become Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and whose book Principia Ethica had a profound influence on Leonard ‘revealing for the first time for us, so it seemed, the nature of truth and reality, of good and evil and character and conduct, substituting for religious and philosophical nightmares,…’5.

In 1902 Leonard was elected a member of the Cambridge Apostles. This was a semi-secret Society founded in 1820, membership was by invitation. The Apostles met once a week and a member gave a talk which was followed by a discussion. There were no limitations on the topics discussed. Members of the Apostles of that period included Bertrand Russell, G E Moore, J M Keynes, E M Forster, Lytton Strachey and Rupert Brooke. Many of the subsequent Bloomsbury Group were Apostles. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher is believed to be a current member.

Leonard entered Cambridge hoping to become a Barrister like his father, but this had to be abandoned because he would earn very little in the first few years and he had a financial obligation to support his siblings. Instead he decided to apply for a job in the Civil Service. In his third year at Cambridge he got a first class in Part 1 of the Classical Tripos, but in the third division. In his fourth year he got a second class in Part 2 of the Classical Tripos, Greek Philosophy. He spent the fifth year preparing for the Civil Service Examination studying the additional subjects of political economy, political science and logic. He did not do particularly well in the examination and was 69th in order of merit.7 He did not qualify for a post in the Home Civil Service, so he applied for an Eastern Cadetship and was selected for appointment to the Ceylon Civil Service.6

Woolf in Ceylon: In November 1904 Leonard set sail for Colombo in the P&O Liner Syria. His luggage included his personal effects and seventy bound volumes of the eighteenth century edition of the works of Voltaire (1694-1778), who wrote plays, poems, novels, about 2000 pamphlets and books and about 20,000 letters. The Complete Works of Voltaire published by Oxford University runs to about 200 volumes. Leonard also took with him his wire-haired fox-terrier ‘Charles’. P&O policy did not allow dogs to be taken on their passenger liners, so Charles travelled separately in a Bibby Liner where the ship’s butcher overfed him and he arrived in Colombo fat as a pig.

Leonard was surprised that there was on the ship a ‘caste’ system among British colonials and the four groups were civil servants, army officers, planters and business men. The latter were called ‘shoppies’. Woolf disembarked in Colombo on 16 December 1904 and reported for duty to the Colonial Secretary, A M Ashmore, and was given his first posting as a Cadet in the Jaffna Kachcheri on a salary of 300 Pounds a year. He left for Jaffna on 02 January 1905. At that time the railway operated only up to Anuradhapura and from Elephant Pass to Jaffna, so the 36 hour journey from Anuradhapura to Elephant Pass was in an unsprung bullock cart, reclining on mail bags.

Life in Jaffna: Leonard  arrived in Jaffna on 05 January 1905 and reported for duty to the Government Agent (GA), J P Lewis, who later wrote the book List of inscriptions and monuments in Ceylon. Fig 1 is a photo of Leonard and his dog ‘Charles’ taken in Jaffna. The European population of Jaffna at that time consisted of about a dozen Government Officers and about ten Missionaries, their wives and children, and Leonard says that ‘I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story’.8

The GA was responsible for all revenue and expenditure in the Province, except for major roads and major irrigation works. He was assisted in this work by the Office Assistant (OA) who in turn was assisted by the Cadet. Leonard’s duties initially consisted of signing licences and routine letters. It was not long before Leonard got bored with this routine work and asked the OA to give him more responsibility, to which the latter agreed. He was appointed Assistant Police Magistrate and had to start studying Law.

After he had been a year in Jaffna, the GA asked him whether he would take on the responsibility of assisting in supervising the pearl fishery just south of Mannar. Leonard agreed and set off by boat on 15 February 1906 to the Fishery. Up to thirty thousand people came from all over Asia for the Fishery. To house them many cadjan huts had to be built. The divers included about 4000 Arabs and 4000 South Indians with a total of 473 boats. The divers, with nose clips, would dive and fill large baskets with oysters. At the end of the day’s fishing the oysters were brought to the shore and the oysters from each boat were divided into three equal portions. Two of the portions were for the Government and the third portion was for the divers. The Government portions were then sold by auction to the highest bidder. Leonard says that as the fishery went on ‘… the whole camp became full of thousands of putrid and putrescent oysters, a horrible smell hung over it and us night and day and myriads of flies swarmed over everything …’.The Fishery ended in April 1906.

Leonard’s experience in the Fishery forms the core of a short story which he wrote subsequently titled Pearls and Swine which is included in his book of short stories Stories of the East (1921). The Daily Mail stated that Pearls and Swine ‘… will rank with the great stories of the world’.10  Leonard describes the death of an Arab diver ‘… I heard continually the word Khallas – all is over, finished. I watched the figures outlined against the grey sky – the long lean outline of the corpse with the toes sticking up so straight and stark, the crouching huddled figure of the weeping man and the tall upright sheik standing by his side. They were motionless, sombre, mysterious, part of the grey sea, of the grey sky’.11

  When he returned to Jaffna he found that the GA Lewis had been transferred to Kandy and Ferdinando Hamlyn Price had been appointed GA Jaffna. Lewis must have appreciated Leonard’s hard work and capability because in August 1907 Leonard received transfer orders after two and a half years in Jaffna, to proceed to Kandy as Office Assistant to GA Lewis.

Woolf in Kandy: Leonard reported for work in Kandy on 19 August 1907. He found life in Kandy quite different from Jaffna. There were many Europeans here and many planters in the surrounding areas. He was a regular visitor to the Kandy Club in the evenings where his main activities were to have a drink, play bridge, dine and play billiards, in that order. He had already passed the examination in Tamil and he now started learning Sinhala. His tutor was the Buddhist priest Gunaratna who was the Librarian in the Oriental Library in the Maligawa. It was not long before Leonard was able to read, write and speak Sinhala. Also in the Kachcheri he instituted a system whereby, as far as possible, all letters were replied to on the day of receipt.

One day in March 1908 when the GA was out of town, Leonard received a telegram from the Colonial Secretary in Colombo to say that the 81 year old Empress Eugenie de Montijo of France was visiting Kandy the following day as the guest of the Government and was to be properly looked after during her stay in Kandy. She was the wife of Napoleon III, Emperor of France from 1852 to 1870, he died in 1873.

Leonard met the Empress at the Kandy railway station and took her in a carriage to King’s Pavilion, the Kandy residence of the Governor of Ceylon, at that time Henry Edward McCallum. The Empress asked Leonard whether there was any possibility of viewing the Buddha’s sacred tooth relic. The relic was kept in a locked inner shrine in the Dalada Maligawa and could be shown only with the consent of both the Diyawadana Nilame and the GA, both of whom had the keys and both had to be present to unlock the shrine. The necessary arrangements were made and Empress Eugenie, Sir Hugh Clifford the Colonial Secretary and Leonard were able to view the sacred relic.

Sir Clifford was so impressed by Leonard’s efficient handling of Empress Eugenie’s visit that a few months later, after only a year in Kandy, Leonard was transferred as Assistant Government Agent (AGA) Hambantota. This was an extraordinarily rapid promotion after less than four years of service. He was promoted over the heads of many other civil servants and he was the youngest AGA, three years younger than the next youngest AGA.

Woolf in Hambantota: Leonard started work as AGA Hambantota on 28 August 1908 and worked there for nearly three years until he left on 20 May 1911. At Hambantota he was solely responsible for administering a narrow but long coastal strip with an area of about 1000 square miles and a population of around 110,000 persons. There only five Europeans in the district but none of them lived in Hambantota and he had no social life. By now he had already decided that the colonial civil service would not be his permanent career ‘I did not want to be a successful imperialist, to become a Colonial Secretary or a Governor, His Excellency Sir Leonard Woolf, KCMG’.12

As AGA, Leonard was responsible for carrying out the Census in his District for the fourth National Census on 10 March 1911. He trained the enumerators and organised a system of bicycle relays to get the returns to the Kachcheri. The returns were checked and on 13 March Leonard telegraphed the total figures to the Superintendent of Census in Colombo, who replied to say that his were the first District returns to be received.

Leonard was also responsible for collecting salt from the salterns in the District. This was stored in the Government Salt Stores in Hambantota and Kirinda and then sold to wholesale buyers. Leonard streamlined the process so that in 1910 the total amount of salt collected was over 11,000 tons, a new record for the District.

In 1909 there was an outbreak of rinderpest and Leonard had to struggle for a year to bring the disease under control. It affects both cattle and buffaloes and is highly infectious and invariably fatal. The only way of controlling the outbreak was to isolate infected animals immediately and tether or impound uninfected animals. Leonard had to personally shoot several infected animals where half their faces had been eaten away by maggots.

One evening in 1910 when Leonard was touring his district trying to control the rinderpest outbreak, he had arranged to meet the Muhandiram of the area to discuss this matter. After dusk they saw Halley’s comet (next due in 2061) with the head just above the horizon and the tail extending almost overhead. Leonard asked the Muhandiram what he thought about the comet, planets and stars, and Muhandiram’s reply was that ‘Our lives and characters, he said, were determined by the position of the constellations at the moment of our birth… He told me that at a female child’s birth the horoscope predicted the year, day, and hour at which her menstruation would begin’.13

Leonard was depressed by the reply because of the Muhandiram’s belief that ‘… the planets in their courses, the spiral nebulae, the infinite galaxies flaming away into space, had been created and kept going through billions and billions of years in order that a grubby little man in the Hambantota bazaar could calculate the exact day and hour at which the Muhandiram’s infant daughter would have her first menstrual period’.13

Leonard has, however, added a footnote on the same page of his book that ‘Of course, one must admit that he may be right, and that that is the object of the universe’.13  Ernest Macintyre has commented on the above quotations in the May 2010 issue of this Journal when reviewing the book Nineteenth century American Medical Missionaries in Jaffna, Ceylon where he says ‘Now the usual reaction of the Western colonisers of Asia to such beliefs was that the cultures, theirs and the native people’s were too far apart for meaningful communication … it shows the sneering attitude of some ‘clever’ Westerners and to register how in comparison the medical missionaries in Jaffna showed a respect for and understanding of how other cultures evolved’. It must be noted that hardly ever in all his writings has Leonard reflected on the ancient civilisation of Ceylon.

The Village in the Jungle:  Henry H Engelbrecht was among the 5126 Boer prisoners-of-war incarcerated in Ceylon around 1900, mainly in Diyatalawa. When the Boer war ended in 1902, the Boers were sent back to South Africa provided they swore an oath of allegiance to the King of England and his successors. Engelbrecht refused the oath saying that the present King was alright but he cannot vouch for his future successors! He was held in a prison in Hambantota until 1906 when he was released and appointed a Game Ranger at Yala National Park. He was a good tracker and shikari and Leonard learned a lot about the jungle from him. It was this knowledge that Leonard put to good use in his novel The Village in the Jungle which was published in 1913 after Leonard returned to England. The book is about a chena cultivator named Silindu in the fictitious jungle village of Beddagama, and his struggles against poverty, disease, superstition, the jungle, drought, the corrupt Village Headman and the rapacious money lender.

The publisher, Edward Arnold, predicted poor sales for the book, but ‘It was in fact translated into Tamil, Sinhalese and several other languages. When the first year sales required not only a reprint but also a second edition, Arnold wrote that he heard “nothing but enthusiastic praise from everyone who read it” and asked when he might expect another book from this talented author’.14  The book was unique because unlike other books by European colonials, it was not written from their standpoint but from the view of the world of a native villager. Leonard was able to enter into the mind of the villager because of his fluent knowledge of Sinhala, and he was able to converse directly and empathise with them.

E F C Ludowyk, the first Professor of English in the University of Ceylon wrote in the Introduction in a 1981 reprint of the book ‘The lucidity of the prose, the writer’s ear for the locutions and rhythms of the villager’s speech, the irony and imagery which often sharpens the point of a situation, reflect the controlling intelligence at work behind the story’.15

In 1980 Lester James Peries, who is now 97 years old, directed the Sinhala film  Baddegama Adaraneeya Kathawak which was based on the book The Village in the Jungle. The film stars Joe Abeywickrama and Malini Fonseka. Sir Arthur C Clarke plays a minor role as a Magistrate. The film was well received and was awarded a Diploma at the Cannes Film Festival (1981). A still from the film can be seen in Fig 2.

llwoolf-2 Fig 2 – A still from the 1980 Lester James Peries’ film Baddegama which is based on Village in the Jungle

llwoolf-3 Fig 3 = Scene from the 1994 play Govvernment of Baddegama by Ernest Macintyre

CSA Member and playwright, Ernest Macintyre effectively captured the essence of The Village in the Jungle in a play written by him titled Government of Beddagama. He did introduce some minor changes in the story line. He directed the play in performances in Sydney and Canberra and the play was well received in crowded houses. A still from the drama can be seen in Fig 3.

On 24 May 1911, Leonard Woolf set sail from Colombo on the Staffordshire for Marseille and England on a well deserved furlough after six and a half years in Ceylon. Fig 4 is Monk’s House in the remote little village of Rodmell, East Sussex, which he bought in 1919 and lived in, on and off, until he died in 1969 and Fig 5 is his writing desk.

Virginia Stephen; Virginia and Vanessa were daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen who was the Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Leslie’s son Thoby was a friend of Leonard at Cambridge and Leonard had met Thoby’s sisters when they visited Cambridge. Leonard described Virginia as astonishingly beautiful. In all, Leonard met Virginia three times before he left for Ceylon.

Lytton Strachey was a close friend of Leonard at Cambridge. During his stay in Ceylon, Leonard corresponded regularly with Lytton in England. In a letter to Leonard dated about September 1908, Lytton described Virginia and Vanessa as ‘The two most beautiful and wittiest women in England’1. In a letter written about December 1908 Lytton suggested to Leonard that he should propose to Virginia. In his reply dated 01 February 1909 Leonard wrote ‘Do you think Virginia would have me? Wire to me if she accepts. I’ll take the next boat home’2.

It appears from Lytton’s reply dated 19 February 1909 that he did not convey the proposal to Virginia but had told her sister Vanessa to pass on the proposal. It is not clear whether Vanessa did so. In his letter to Lytton dated 14 September 1909 Leonard wrote that the one thing to do would be to marry Virginia, but he seemed to be frightened off the thought of marriage and wrote that ‘Really if it were not for that and the question of money I actually would telegraph’3. Ultimately, Leonard decided to put off matters until he returned to England on leave. He was due for a year’s leave commencing in December 1910 but due to the Government’s difficulty in finding a successor, he sailed for England only on 24 May 1911, arriving in London on 11 June 1911.

Courtship and marriage:  Leonard decided to spend the first few months of his twelve month holiday enjoying himself. He travelled widely in England and the Continent, met old friends, dined with them and went to the theatre. He renewed his acquaintance with Virginia and spent a lot of time with her. In late August 1911 he started writing his first novel  A Village in the Jungle. The Ceylon jungles and the people living in them fascinated and almost obsessed him, and he says about the book that ‘It was also, in some curious way, a symbol of the anti-imperialism which had been growing upon me more and more in my last years in Ceylon … the dreary pomp and circumstance of imperial government, filled me with misgiving and disgust’4. Frederic Spotts says that the book ‘had an authenticity that was unequalled even in works by Conrad and Forster. Their focus was on the Westerner; his was on the native villager and peasant and the forces of nature – above all, the jungle – that controlled their lives’5..

In December 1911, Virginia and her brother Adrian obtained a lease of a four storey town house at 38 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, London. Since the house was too big for their needs, they sub-let the ground floor to their friend, the economist Maynard Keynes and the top floor was taken by Leonard. Other friends who lived around Bloomsbury included Vanessa and her husband Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, E M Forster and the painter Roger Fry, they all formed the nucleus of what was called the Bloomsbury Set. The Set were an influential group of intellectuals, mostly ex-Cambridge (Trinity and Kings), who were ‘united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts’.  The plaque on a building in Bloomsbury can be seen in Fig 1.

From then, Leonard used to meet Virginia regularly as they often had meals together, and Leonard began to fall completely in love with Virginia. If either of them was out of London they would correspond regularly. Frederic Spotts says that Leonard’s letters were ‘objectively cataloguing what he found most attractive: her mind and character, her beauty, her wit and candour, and the fact that she was not inferior or submissive’6.


In mid-January 1912 Leonard finally took the plunge and proposed to Virginia. He says that her reply was that ‘ … she did not know and must have time – indefinite time – to see more of me before she could make up her mind’7. Virginia had many suitors before Leonard whom she had turned down. It is possible that her reluctance to get married was due to her history of mental health problems and that she thought it unfair by the partner to get married. She was also very busy writing her first novel, A Voyage Out.

Virginia’s request for ‘indefinite time’ placed Leonard in a quandary. If she accepted his proposal and they got married there was no question of returning to Ceylon because Virginia would never agree to go to Ceylon. Leonard would have to earn a living as a writer. If she turned him down then he would have to return to Ceylon when his leave ends in May, but would Virginia decide by this date? To play safe on 14 February 1912 Leonard wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies asking for an extension of his leave for four months on the grounds of ‘private affairs’. He received a prompt reply asking him the nature of private affairs to which he had referred. He replied that he could not state the nature of his private affairs. He was then informed that his application for leave extension could not be granted. Leonard replied that ‘as I am unable to assume duties on May 20th I regret that I must resign my post under the Ceylon Government from that date’8.

Leonard received an unprecedented reply from the Colonial Office. It was a handwritten letter, written and signed by R E Stubbs, later to become Governor of Ceylon, in which he said that if he did not wish to disclose his private affairs in a letter, he could come and tell him in person and he would consider the application for extension of leave. The letter reflected the esteem in which Leonard was held. Leonard’s thoughts on this were ‘I did not feel that I could explain to Mr Harcourt [Secretary of State for the Colonies] or Mr Stubbs that I had come to dislike imperialism, that I did not want to become a Governor, that I wanted to marry Virginia Stephen …’9. Instead, Leonard sent a brief reply to Stubbs stating that his resignation must stand. Thus ended Leonard Woolf’s career in the Ceylon Civil Service.

On 29 May 1912 Virginia and Leonard were having lunch together when Virginia suddenly said that she loved Leonard and wished to marry him. Leonard was overcome with joy and informed all his friends about the engagement. Virginia wrote to her close friend and confidant Violet Dickinson that she was going to marry ‘a penniless Jew’10. This was correct because with his resignation from the Ceylon post he had no income. His savings amounted to 600 Pounds which he had won from the Calcutta Gymkhana Club sweepstake on the results of the Melbourne Cup horse race (the race that stops a nation), whereas Virginia had inherited assets from her late father of 9000 Pounds. This was a considerable sum of money as at that time as a nice house with garden would have cost about 2000 Pounds.

Arrangements were made for the wedding which was at the St Pancras Register Office on 10 August 1912. On Virginia’s insistence, Leonard’s mother Marie was not invited for the wedding even though she had virtually brought up Leonard as a single parent. Marie, in a letter to her son Leonard expressed her sadness ‘It would have compensated me for the very great hardships I have endured in bringing you all up by myself, if you had expressed the desire that you wished me before anyone else, to be witness to your happiness’11. After the wedding the couple left for a long honeymoon of six weeks in the Continent.

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester:During the last English summer, the writer went on a holiday to England. A few days were spent in Cambridge, staying in the suburb of Trumpington. It turned out that the neighbouring suburb was Grantchester and this immediately evoked school day memories of the poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke. A visit to the Old Vicarage became mandatory. It turned out that the Old Vicarage, where Rupert Brooke had lived, was private property and not open to the public. The present owner is the colourful character Jeffrey Archer, ex-politician and author whose books have sold over 300 million copies. His wife Mary lectured at Cambridge, her field of expertise was solar power.

We then repaired to the adjacent Orchard Tea-Room and the surprising discovery was the plaque on the building, see Fig 2. It would appear that members of the Bloomsbury set, including Virginia, met here as well as in Bloomsbury. This is logical since most of the set were from Trinity or Kings. On the inside walls there were many photos, some over hundred years old. The photos included that of Virginia and no doubt Leonard would be in the group photos as he was a close friend of Rupert Brooke.

High Tea was ordered and it included scones, butter, cream, jam and a tablet of honey. Inclusion of the last item was puzzling because it would have added significantly to the cost of the tea. It was also noticed that there was an old non-working clock on the wall with the hands pointing to 02:50. Why display a non-working clock and why serve honey – these two items were puzzling until the penny finally dropped, not with a cling but with a clang, with a recollection of the closing lines of the poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester:

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? … oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

The poem was written by Rupert Brooke in the Café des Westens, Berlin in May 1912 when he was homesick for Grantchester. The ‘deep meadows’ referred to was probably the orchard outside the Tea-Room in Fig 3. When World War I broke out in 1914 he signed up and was commissioned as an Officer in the Royal Navy. He set sail in February 1915 in the Grantully Castle bound for Gallipoli to join up with the ANZAC contingent. During the voyage he developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite and died on 23 April 1915. He was buried in the Greek island of Skyros and was only 27 years old. Winston Churchill wrote in The Times newspaper on 26 April ‘The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and the memory remain; but they will linger’. The echoes certainly linger.

Virginia’s Novels: Virginia had started writing her first novel The Voyage Out before the wedding. The book was a satire of Edwardian life. It was published in 1915 by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth through his firm of Publishers, Duckworth & Co., the firm still exists. Although the book shows her undoubted talent and the reviews were favourable, in the next ten years only 479 copies were sold, yielding royalties to Virginia of 26 Pounds at 15% of the published price.

Her second novel was Night and Day which was published in 1919. This novel deals with issues concerning women’s suffrage. It was slightly more successful, selling 2238 copies in the first nine years, but still a loss for the Publisher. Her next novel was Jacob’s Room (1922) in which Virginia tried out an experimental style, describing Jacob’s character through the views of other characters. The book sold better than the earlier books, selling over 1000 copies in the first year.

It was perhaps Mrs Dalloway (1925) that firmly established Virginia as a novelist of repute. The story is about a day in the life of a socialite. Virginia had already read the manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses and perhaps adopted the ‘stream of consciousness’ style from it and it is the most ‘highbrow’ of her novels. To the Lighthouse (1927) was set in St Ives, Cornwall and she continued her stream of consciousness technique. It was a best seller and sold 4000 copies in the first year. Between 1928 and 1964 it sold a quarter of a million copies world-wide. Orlando (1928) was based on the family history of her close friend, the novelist Vita Sackville-West. It was the turning point in her career and sold 20,000 copies in the first six months.

In The Waves (1931), Virginia tried the experiment of soliloquies by the six main characters and called it a ‘playpoem’. This book also sold 20,000 copies in the first six months. Marguerite Yourcenar who translated it into French described Virginia as ‘among the four or five great virtuosos of the English language’. The Years (1937) traces the history of the Pargiter family from 1880 onwards. It was the best-seller of all her books, particularly in USA, and sold 40,000 copies in the first six months. Her last novel was Between the Acts (1941) and describes the setting of a play just before World War II. It was completed by her, but was published just after she died, aged 59 years, in 1941. Fig 4 is a picture of Virginia’s study where she wrote most of her novels. It is in an out-house in the garden of Monk’s House. She wrote for four hours in the morning and typed out what she wrote in the evening, averaging 500 words per day.

Leonard’s assessment of Virginia’s novels was ‘Orlando, Flush and The Years were immeasurably more successful than any of Virginia’s other novels. The Years, much the most successful of them all, was, in my opinion, the worst book she ever wrote – at any rate, it cannot compare, as a work of art or as a work of genius, with The Waves, To the Lighthouse, or Between the Acts. Orlando is a highly original and amusing book and has some beautiful things in it, and so is Flush, a work of even lighter weight; these two books again cannot be seriously compared with her major novels’12.

Hogarth Press: Virginia often wrote many drafts of her novels until she was satisfied with the final version. She was hypersensitive to criticism and used to get very annoyed when the Publisher’s editors sent back her manuscripts with suggested changes. Leonard decided that the best way of avoiding all this hassle would be to do their own printing and publishing. Also, Virginia was getting stressed out with the hustle and bustle of life in Central London and towards the end of 1914 they looked out for a suitable house in the suburbs and found Hogarth House in Paradise Road, Richmond. It was a large country house with a good sized garden and they moved in early 1915.

One day in 1917 when walking down Farringdon Street in London they saw a little hand press in the shopwindow of the Excelsior Printing Supply Co. It could print two crown octavo pages at a time. They went inside and the salesman said that it came with a detailed instruction book and no prior experience was required to start printing with it. They purchased the press together with type and accessories for 19 Pounds. They took it home and installed it on the dining table and Hogarth Press was born, see Fig 5. They could have never imagined that Hogarth Press is still in business today, almost 100 years later. It is now an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, part of Random House Inc.

The first book printed and published by Hogarth Press was Two Stories, a 32 page booklet with two short stories, one each by Virginia and Leonard. It took them a month to hand print and bind 150 copies and it was sold out in about a month. The second book was Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude, a 68 page long short story. The print run was 300 copies, and the Press was now well established. Virginia used to assemble the typeface and Leonard operated the hand press and did the trimming, binding and stitching.

Leonard was involved in the running of the press for the next fifty years, and it ran at a profit every year. He defined the policy of Hogarth Press as follows: it was a part time ‘hobby’ not a commercial enterprise; it was an outlet for unknown and unorthodox authors unacceptable to other Publishers; it sponsored experimental fiction and poetry; it educated the public on politics and history; and it introduced foreign authors to the English language world through original translations. During the period 1917 to 1941 Hogarth published over 400 titles. There was, however, a manuscript they had to turn down. In 1918 the manuscript of Ulysses by James Joyce was submitted to Hogarth. Leonard and Virginia both read it and decided that it would be inviting prosecution if they published it. In the event, it was decades before it could be published in UK.

Some of the notable titles published by the Hogarth Press were: the very first edition of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land (1923) which became famous, Eliot and Leonard became life- long friends and Leonard sponsored his application for British citizenship; many books by Virginia such as Kew Gardens, Monday or Tuesday, Jacob’s Room, and The Waves; original English translations of Russian authors like Maxim Gorky, Chekov, Bunin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; and the 24 volume original English translation of The Standard Edition of the complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1956-1974).

Five of the authors published by Hogarth Press went on to win Nobel Prizes. They were the Russian, Ivan Bunin (1933), T S Eliot (1948), Bertrand Russell (1950), Philip Noel-Baker (1959) and the Frenchman, Jean-Paul Satre (1964).

In 1946 The Hogarth Press became a limited liability Company, jointly owned by Leonard and the Publishing Company, Chatto and Windus Ltd. Leonard maintained his connection with The Hogarth Press for a total of fifty years until 1967.

Virginia’s mental health problems:Virginia had hereditary mental health problems and suffered throughout her life. She had nervous disorders at the age of thirteen years when her mother died and then again at the age of twenty-two years when her father died. On the latter occasion she attempted suicide by jumping through an upper floor window. In 1913 soon after they were married she complained of severe headaches, insomnia, hatred of eating and anxiety. Some months later soon after finally completing The Voyage Out she became deeply depressed and had to enter a nursing home. As she was hypersensitive to criticism she always had problems when she completed a book because of the worry of what the critics would say. After leaving the nursing home she again attempted suicide by taking an overdose of Veronal.

At that time the medical science of Psychiatry was in its infancy. She was seen by several Harley Street Consultants and they diagnosed her problem as neurasthenia and said that there was no cure and that the treatment was bed rest and to eat well and drink two or three glasses of milk a day. When she had her bouts of depression, Leonard refused to have her committed and said that he would look after at home with the help of day and night nurses, at considerable expense.

In 1915 she had an attack of delusional madness. She became violent, spoke gibberish, complained of severe headaches, would not eat and said that the birds outside her window were talking to her in Greek. By 1916 she had recovered and for the next twenty-five years she was reasonably well. This was entirely because the moment Leonard spotted the onset of depression he made her stop all her writing, enforced strict bed rest, forced her to eat well and drink plenty of milk. Leonard was of the view that her problem was manic depression and he wrote ‘The creative imagination in her novels, her ability to “leave the ground” in conversation, and the voluble delusions of breakdowns all came from the same place in her mind – she “stumbled after her own voice” and followed “the voices that fly ahead”. And that in itself was the crux of her life, the tragedy of genius’13.

In early 1941 when she completed her last novel Between the Acts she again had an onset of depression. On 28 March 1941, she filled her overcoat pockets with heavy stones and walked into the River Ouse near the bottom end of their Monk’s House Garden. Her body was found only 21 days later. She was cremated and the ashes were buried beneath two giant elm trees in her garden. She was 59 years old. Later Leonard’s ashes were also buried here. The elm trees no longer exist but their location can be seen in Fig 6. She left behind a farewell note to Leonard which said in part ‘I feel certain that I am going mad again … And I shan’t recover this time … You have given me the greatest possible happiness … I can’t fight any longer … What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you … If anybody could have saved me it would have been you … I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’14.

Leonard’s career in England: Leonard was always a glutton for work and the remaining 58 years of his life in England after his return from Ceylon were spent very actively. This included: writing and publishing about 20 books, mainly on political matters plus his five volume autobiography running to over 1100 pages, written when he was over eighty years old;  actively participating in political campaigns and being an adviser to the Labour Party; for fifty years being involved in the running of the Hogarth Press; writing articles and editing many political journals; nurturing and supporting Virginia in her career so that she became one of the leading female novelists of the twentieth century; caring for Virginia during her spells of mental sickness without getting her committed; and finally, not neglecting his hobby of gardening.

A few months after he returned from Ceylon he started writing the novel The Village in the Jungle. This was published in February 1913 and was a moderate success. His second novel was The Wise Virgins. It was published in October 1914 and was a failure because the characters could be easily identified with real people. He then decided in future to write mainly on political matters and leave fiction writing to Virginia, though he did publish in 1921 a book of short stories titled Stories of the East. The three stories in the book are about two Brahmins in Jaffna, the love life of a British expatriate in Colombo and an incident in the Mannar Pearl Fishery.

On July1913 he started writing articles for the New Statesman. This Journal was founded a few months earlier by members of the Fabian Society and still exists. Politically it is left of centre. His relationship with this Journal extended for over thirty years including being its editor.

July 1916 saw the publication of his most influential book, International Government. The book proposed an international authority to provide the machinery and moral impetus to settle disputes between nations. His book was used extensively by the government committee which produced the British proposals for a League of Nations. In fact, the preface to the British Government proposals stated that ‘The facts contained in Part 1 are taken almost entirely from International Government by L S Woolf (1916)’15.

In 1915 there were communal riots in Ceylon. The Governor, Sir Robert Chalmers over-reacted thinking that the events were directed against the Government, and declared martial law. Courts Martial were set up and many were charged with treason. 83 persons were sentenced to death and 60 sentenced to life imprisonment. Don Baron Jayatilaka, later to become Leader of the House in the State Council, and Advocate E W Perera set off for London carrying a petition drafted by Sir James Peiris, addressed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, pleading for the establishment of a Royal Commission of Enquiry. The two delegates generated publicity for their cause in the press and asked Leonard to head their delegation to meet the British Government. At the meeting, Leonard made an impassioned plea, stating that the acts of the accused were not seditious, and that no European was molested or their property attacked. The British Government turned down the request for a Royal Commission. Leonard wrote that ‘Governments nearly always treat these kinds of deputation irritably and contemptuously, ignoring the evidence, particularly when the Government knows that it is in the wrong’16. However, Governor Sir Robert Chalmers was relieved of his post.

llwoolf-4 Monk’s House Rodnell, East Sussex where Woolf lived for 50 years llwoolf-5 Woolf’s desk at Monk’s House where mots of his work was done

In July 1919, Leonard purchased the house called Monk’s House in the quiet little village of Rodmell, population about 500, in East Sussex near the south coast of England. Initially they lived in London and used Monk’s House as a weekend and holiday retreat. When World War Two started and their house in London was bombed, they moved permanently to Monk’s House. They lived there till they both died and their ashes are buried in the garden. As they had no children, in his will Leonard bequeathed the house to the good friend of his closing years, Trekkie Parsons. She turned it over to Sussex University. It was subsequently acquired by the National Trust who have made it a literary shrine.

Leonard was a contributor and/or editor of several left oriented political journals at various times. Apart from New Statesman he was involved with War and Peace, International Review which was financed by the Quaker chocolate kings, Rowntrees, Contemporary Review also financed by the Rowntrees, the Nation and Political Quarterly. He helped found the latter with Prof W A Robson and it is still being published after 86 years, presently by Wiley Blackwell.

Leonard was an active member of the Labour Party. During the inter-war years most of the Labour Party Members of Parliament were rank and file trade unionists and their knowledge of international affairs was necessarily limited. Two Advisory Committees were set up by the Labour Party, one on International Affairs and the other on Imperial Questions. Leonard was Secretary of both Committees for two decades. The function of the Committees was to ‘educate’ the Labour MPs on these matters by submitting memoranda.

In a memo to Parliamentary Labour Party dated 08 November 1918, advocating self-government for Ceylon, Leonard wrote ‘Now the Crown Colony of Ceylon is from the point of view of self-government in almost precisely the same position as India. There is first the same demand for responsible Government …’17. In 1926 he wrote a memo to the TUC and Labour Party in which he wrote ‘The measure of self-government demanded by the inhabitants of these territories e.g. Ceylon, should be granted immediately’18. In November 1938 in a memo to the Labour Party he suggested the Swiss form of Government for Ceylon ‘The Swiss federal canton system has proved extra-ordinarily successful under circumstances very similar to those in Ceylon’18. The Labour Party could not, however, consider implementing his suggestions because in the inter-war years they were only briefly in power as a minority government under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-31.

In the 1920 Parliamentary Elections there were two seats for the Combined English University Constituency i.e. the red brick Universities, other than Oxford and Cambridge. Leonard was nominated as the Labour Party candidate and reluctantly agreed to contest. Item 4 of his election manifesto stated ‘It is essential that the promises of self-government made to India and Ceylon, and of independence to Egypt, should be immediately carried out with scrupulous honesty’19. The two seats were won by the Conservative and Liberal Party candidates and he came third.

When Pandit Nehru, then President of the All India Congress Party visited London in 1936 he invited Leonard to come and meet him. They had a one-to-one discussion in Artillery Mansions for one and a half hours on the problems of independence for India and Ceylon. After the meeting, they walked together to the Houses of Parliament.

The American playwright, Edward Albee in 1962 sent Leonard the manuscript of a new play that he had written and asked Leonard’s permission to give it the title Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? The story line had nothing to do with Virginia Woolf. Leonard replied that he had no objection and received tickets for the London premiere of the play. The play was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama but it was not awarded due to objections to the use of profanity in the play. The film of the play, made in 1966, earned a best actress Oscar for Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1966 Leonard received a letter from the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, stating that he had it in mind ‘to submit your name to the Queen with a recommendation that Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour’20. Leonard politely declined the offer stating that he had always been opposed to the giving and receiving of such (imperial) honours.

The last volume of his autobiography describes his return visit to Ceylon in February 1960, when he was eighty years old, nearly fifty years after he left Ceylon. Shelton Fernando, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs invited Leonard, through Prime Minister W Dahanayake, to visit Ceylon. He accepted the invitation and spent three weeks in Ceylon visiting the towns where he had lived. He was cordially received and given a copy of his official diaries written when he was at Hambantota and was told that it would be printed.

All went well until just before his departure from Galle Face Hotel when he was told that an old man from Hambantota wished to see him. It turned out to be 86 year old Mudaliyar E R Wijesinghe. He reminded him of an incident which occurred during the rinderpest outbreak. Leonard received information that there was a severely rinderpest infected buffalo wandering about in a village twenty miles away. He rode out and met the Mudaliyar and Village Headman and the buffalo was shot dead. It turned out that the owner of the buffalo was the Village Headman and Leonard promptly fined him ten rupees as Police Magistrate for not destroying an infected buffalo. Then as Assistant Government Agent he fined him another ten rupees as Village Headman for not reporting an infected buffalo.

The Mudaliyar said that the Village Headman paid the first fine but as he did not have any more money, the Mudaliyar paid the second fine. The Mudaliyar asked ‘Was it just, I say – was it just, I ask you, Sir?’ and Leonard replied ‘Yes, it was just. He had committed two entirely different offences, one as the owner of the buffalo and one as a village headman, and I punished him for the one as a Police Magistrate and for the other as Assistant Government Agent. Yes, Mudaliyar, it was just’21. On reflection, Leonard thought that one of the reasons for his resignation was that he was not prepared to do justice to people who thought that his justice was injustice. Thinking about his original stay in Ceylon he had realised imperialism was doomed ‘The social and economic squalor in which thousands of Sinhalese and Tamil villagers lived horrified me: I saw close at hand the evils of imperialism and foresaw some of the difficulties and dangers which its inevitable liquidation would involve’22. This was borne out by the million or so people who died in the partition of India.

Leonard died peacefully in Monk’s House on 14 August 1969 and his ashes were buried in the garden beside Virginia’s ashes. Fig 7 is a bust of Leonard in the garden of Monk’s House. The inscription below the statue reads as follows:

LEONARD  WOOLF………….Born  November 25, 1880…………..Died  August 14, 1969

“I believe profoundly in two rules. Justice and mercy – They seem to me the foundation of all civilized life and society, if you include under mercy, toleration.”.     


  1. Leonard Woolf, Growing (1961) pp 67-68. The second volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography which covers his life in Ceylon (1904-1910).
  2. Edited by Frederic Spotts, Letters of Leonard Woolf (1990), pp 106-7.
  3. Leonard Woolf, Sowing (1960) pp 78-80. The first volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography covers his childhood and years at Cambridge.
  4. Ibid, p 158.
  5. Ibid, p 126.
  6. Ibid, p 167-9.
  7. George Spater and Ian Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds (1977), p 44.
  8. Growing, p 46.
  9. Ibid, p 90.
  10. Leonard Woolf, Downhill all the way (1967) p 88. The fourth volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography which covers the years 1919-1939.
  11. Leonard Woolf, Stories of the East (1921) p 57, Hogarth Press, Richmond, England.
  12. Growing, p 180.
  13. Ibid, p 193-4.
  14. Letters of Leonard Woolf, p 180.
  15. Leonard Woolf, The Village in the Jungle (1981) p x-xi, Oxford University Press. The book was first published by Edward Arnold, London, in 1913.

16. Edited by Frederic Spotts, Letters of Leonard Woolf (1990), p 139.

17. p 145.

18. p 150.

19.Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again (1964) pp 47-48. The third volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography covers the years 1911 to 1918.

20. Letters of Leonard Woolf, p 61.

21. p 156.

22.Beginning again, p 53.

23. Leonard Woolf, Growing (1961) p 250.

24. p 251.

25. George Spater and Ian Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds (1977), p 66.

26. Letters of Leonard Woolf, p 178.

27. Leonard Woolf, Downhill all the way (1967) pp 145-6. This is the fourth volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography and covers the years 1919 to 1939.

28. Beginning again, p 80.

29. Leonard Woolf, The Journey not the arrival matters (1969) pp 93-94. This is the fifth and final volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography and covers the years from 1939 to 1969.

30. Beginning again, p 189.

31. p 230-231.

32. Letters of Leonard Woolf, p 388.

33. p 393.

34. Downhill all the way, p 39.

35. A Marriage of True Minds, p 187.

36. The Journey not the arrival matters, p 207.

37. p 153


Filed under British imperialism, caste issues, cultural transmission, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “Leonard Woolf, The Anti-Imperialist

  1. Priyath Liyanage

    I learnt some new information about Woolf. thank you. Do you know how i can get hold of “Leonard Woolf – The Lonely Cadet and the Maiden” by Philip Sansoni from the Ceylankan February 2009 issue? Would be immensely grateful if you could help.

    Thank You

  2. Thank you so much for this incredible contibution to my investigation regarding Mr. Woolf.

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