The Lonely Cadet and the Maiden: Leonard Woolf in Jaffna …..

Philip Sansoni
   In “Growing”, the second volume of his autobiography, Leonard Woolf tells us how he lost his virginity. According to him, he was riding down the main street of Jaffna, one evening in 1905, an apprentice representative of the British Empire, when he happened to look into a verandah and saw a burgher girl sitting there. It was a fleeting glance over some blinds but she smiled at him and he smiled at her. A short time later, with a “minute” boy who had chased after him acting as intermediary, she had arranged to sleep with him that night and she did. She is subsequently revealed to have been the mistress of a Jaffna lawyer and is convicted of using indecent and abusive language outside the lawyer’s house. As Woolf tells the story, Dutton, the police magistrate, naively took the young woman’s side and paid the fine, much to the amusement of the people of Jaffna.

When Woolf’s autobiography was reviewed, one of the reviewers said that Woolf should have said less about the incident or more. The comment was justified. The account which I rely on for the following story answers a lot of the questions that Woolf’s rather brief account raises. It also explains why Dutton, who in Woolf’s account behaved as a well-meaning simpleton, acted as he did. Woolf was, I am sure, being as honest as possible when telling the story, but the passage of time and a conscious effort to put the episode behind him had had an effect. In addition it was one of the few times that an event had threatened to get out of his control and he did not look back on it with fondness.

As to the accuracy of the story, all I can say is that it holds together, and it gives an alternative and more satisfying account of what occurred. More than a hundred years after the event we will have to make up our own minds as to what really occurred.

Leonard Woolf had seen the young girl more than once while returning to his house after tennis. She was good-looking and they had progressed from exchanging smiles to wishing each other a good evening. He felt some sympathy for her. She always sat alone and seemed rather bored. In that withdrawn town in which he had been stationed as a civil service cadet for only a few months, he could understand why. One day when he passed, she stood up and came slowly down to the street. While she lacked the elegance of the Tamil women who had fascinated so many of his countrymen, she walked with an easy grace and sway that contrasted with the stiff deportment of the white women whom he had met and grown to dislike, but with whom he was forced to associate. Out of the shade of the verandah, she appeared older than she had looked previously but even more attractive. Her expression was lively, even mischievous, and her light eyes shone against her dark skin. He stopped, they exchanged a few words and then she offered him a mango that she was holding. He smiled and accepted it, feeling her hand brush against his. She continued “My uncle, whose house this is, tells everyone that he has the best mango tree in Jaffna. Would you like me to bring you some more?”  He looked at the fruit, ripe and golden, “I would like that” he said. “Shall I come round tonight?” she asked boldly.

He thought for a moment, Southorn, whose house he shared, would be out on an inspection tour. “I would like that”, he replied. “I will come up the metal stairs”, she announced, “At eight o’clock”.

The house was on the Utrecht bastion of the Jaffna Fort, where the rampart broadened out and would have originally held a gun battery. He was rather taken by her assurance. “I shall see you at eight” he agreed and rode slowly on. Nobody seemed to be around, but in that land of closed blinds and cadjan fences you could never be sure. He decided to eat the mango and it was delicious, for all he knew her uncle could well have been telling the truth.

That evening he told the servants that he wanted to go to bed early and sat out on the verandah under a hanging oil lamp. Another stood beside him on a table and he had enough light to read by if he wanted to. For some reason he did not want to go to the 70 volumes of Voltaire that he had brought out from England and instead decided to go through some papers that he had brought home from the Kachcheri, stopping occasionally when he heard a noise coming from the road below.

He did not look at his pocket watch, but when he finally stopped, lay back in his chair and enjoyed the stillness of the night. He was wondering whether his visitor was going to arrive, when he heard footsteps on the metal steps that a thoughtful Public Works engineer had installed as a short cut to the outside world.

A little later, he heard a soft voice exclaim “Sir! Sir!.” He walked out into the garden and there at the sturdy colonial ox fence that marked its limits was the same minute boy he had seen earlier. “What is it?” he asked. “Can Miss Kitty come up, sir?” “Yes”.

The boy turned and scampered down the steps. He heard whispers and then the stairs creaked again. Kitty came up them, tripping lightly, her face clearly visible in the three-quarter moon. He opened the gate and she stepped through, handing him a basket. “Your mangoes” she announced.

She looked at him and they both knew that he could have thanked her for the mangoes and said good night, but that was not the purpose of the visit. She was totally at ease as she followed him across the rough grass under the giant branches of the banyan tree that took up most of the front garden. “Ah! The haunted tree”, she exclaimed, looking at the tree which was indeed reputed to be haunted, but did not appear to interest her particularly.. They climbed the verandah steps and she turned to look back over the ramparts and the way they had come. A little part of the surrounding blackness detached itself and disappeared down the steps. “He will fetch the rickshaw when I am ready” she said. He nodded. Turned down the wick of the hanging lamp and picked the other lamp off the table to light the way into the bedroom. In the bedroom another light hung from the ceiling, casting shadows across the room. She stopped and looked at him. He made some slight comment that he forgot as soon as it was uttered and went across to take he in his arms. Her eyes shone in the gloom as she looked at him. They kissed and his embrace grew more urgent as layers of inhibition melted away. He wondered briefly what his Bloomsbury friends would think if they saw him now and then lost himself in the moment. He surprised them both with his zeal.  “He really was quite enthusiastic”, she told a friend some years later. “I think he realised what had been missing from his life. Eve and the mango provided it. It’s all quite simple, but difficult”.

Unfortunately, when they finally rested and lay silent on the bed, Woolf’s supposed conscience and finer feelings began to reassert themselves. He began to wonder whether he should have yielded to temptation and ended up in bed with this exotic and foreign female. He turned to his bedside table and saw the refined and high-browed picture of Virginia Stephen that he had brought with him. He felt he had been unfaithful to her, though there had been no commitments exchanged. He thought he could detect a certain irony in the reserved smile she displayed. Her thoughtful eyes reminded him of the profundity of his feelings for her, all dashed as if he had dashed the clay pot that held the water he had drunk. He felt that he had been exploited by someone who was nothing but a temptress. He had been in a bad mood for weeks and it suddenly returned. Turning to Kitty, he abruptly asked if she would mind leaving now, and that it would be more discreet if she did so.

She recoiled and asked what was wrong. He said that there was nothing wrong but he would prefer it if she left. She saw the picture and appeared to understand. She shrugged and rose to her feet.

She went into the adjoining bathroom with her clothes and dressed. In a while she re-emerged and walked past him. He had dressed as well and stood in the doorway looking out at the garden. He felt her hurt but could think of no way of easing it. She reminded him of the money for the little boy and the rickshaw. He bluntly asked her if she wanted anything for the mangoes. She looked at him with distaste and said no. Taking the lamp from the bedroom she walked to the gate and shone it down the steps. Then she turned to him with a look that could not hide an appeal, “Will we meet again?” she asked. “I do not think that would be advisable”, he replied bluntly. She straightened her shoulders and looked towards the steps. He stood there as well and at last heard the sound of footsteps. She opened the gate and handed him his lamp. “I heard you were not a very nice person, Mr, Woolf”, she said. “Now I see that is true, just like those children’s stories. One day, I hope you are sorry for what you have done.” She disappeared into the night, leaving him holding the lamp up to light the first few steps.

The next few days made her prophecy come true. The mangoes lay uneaten and were eventually thrown away. He wrote to Strachey describing the episode as a bawdy escapade but he could not forget it. The tedium of a life in Jaffna spent among the small European community crushed him ever more heavily. Its restrictions seemed as narrow and artificial as the lines on the tennis courts, and the commonplace chatter of his fellow members seemed as stimulating as the crows who settled down every night in the branches of the trees around his house. In his heart he had to admit that he had behaved badly. If he had been told that a vengeful villager armed with a sharp knife or a long gun was hunting him that would have caused less worry than the thought of a wronged woman seeking retaliation. He knew that involvement with the wrong sort of woman could blight a man’s career and he had no doubt that that was what he had stepped into. The thought of buying her off had entered his mind but he was reluctant to do so because that would have been construed as an admission of guilt or at least a bad conscience, and he was reluctant to provide that evidence. In her present mood, the offer may even have provoked her to more extreme behaviour.

He saw the tiny fellow who was Kitty’s messenger from time to time, but was uncertain whether he was spying on him or waiting for a message. He decided eventually to ignore him. It was a relief when he was asked to move quarters in order to share with Dutton, the Police Magistrate. Why he was asked to do so was unclear but it meant that he no longer had to sleep in that bedroom. He also did not have to travel past Kitty’s uncle’s house, though he had not seen her after that night. Lewis , the Government Agent, had mentioned that it would be useful to discuss legal matters, but Dutton did not seem interested in what went on in his court and was more interested in talking philosophy or debating the meaning of life. Woolf found it boring but was happy to go to bed bored. However, perhaps if he had been alone, he may have summoned Kitty to keep him company. The Virginia Stephen photograph at times seemed an inadequate substitute.

Then one day it seemed that his worst nightmare was about to be realised, and that a public humiliation was on the way. He was playing tennis with the dissolute Jimmy Bowes, the Assistant Superintendent of Police, as his partner and was about to serve, when he say Kitty staring down at him from the adjoining rampart. It was an extraordinary stare compounded equally of malevolence and longing and it put him off his serve, which was a fault. He tried again and put the ball into the bottom of the net. “Double fault!” his opponents cried triumphantly. Bowes was the only other person who had spotted Kitty and he gave a little smile. “Steady on, Woolf” he muttered. Woolf steadied himself and went on to win the next point. None of the spectators, who included Mrs Lewis, had noticed anything, and when he glanced at the rampart, Kitty had disappeared.

What happened the next day showed that he probably had had a narrow escape from a public shaming.  Dutton came home in a thoughtful mood. “There is a tricky case coming up tomorrow,” He remarked, “There’s a young girl who lives down Main Street, Kitty Leyden is her name. You probably have seen her, and you would not forget her if you did. Anyway she had an argument with a prominent local lawyer and is accused of using insulting and abusive language, likely to cause a breach of the peace. I think the story is ridiculous myself, but he has got plenty of witnesses and some of them claim that she was his mistress. I think that is quite ridiculous as well and he may have attempted to suggest it to her and provoked her. Lewis has been onto me and wants the case dealt with quickly. No arguments and no witnesses called. Just impose a fine on her and move on to the next case. Arrangements will be made to pay it.”. He continued sadly, “She may well be a woman wronged. I understand that she has been wandering the streets for days, quite distracted. Are you off to bed already, Woolf? I may stay up for a while and decide how to best deal with the problem.”

The next day Woolf was not surprised to receive a note from Lewis asking him to come over to Sir William Twynam’s house. Sir William Twynam, KCMG, the previous GA, had worked in Jaffna for over 50 years and was always called on when something out of the ordinary came up. He and his predecessor Dyke had administered Jaffna for over 75 years and had set high standards for dedication and propriety. Woolf felt nervous and ready for the worst when he mounted his bicycle, at that time a modern means of conveyance, and set off down the Beach Road. Twynam lived in an old Dutch house overlooking the lagoon, across the water from it lay the gray shape of Fort Hammenhiel. Along the shore, back towards the Fort lay the jetty and the Customs House.

When he arrived Sir William and Lewis were seated in the shade of a large mahogany tree. Lower down, next to the beach was a double row of acacias that Sir William had planted many years ago. They provided a shady walk when a sea breeze was blowing as at present. The two men stood up and waited while he stood his bike in the shade of the tree. They made an interesting duo. Twynam was thin and tall with the sideways look of a bad tempered horse, as Woolf later described him. Lewis was short and fat, with a good-natured face. He was a placid man, but when he was upset he tended to rub his hand across his cheek. At the moment he was rubbing at a tremendous rate.

Twynam was the one who spoke. He had an old man’s voice, creaky but clear. “We may take a walk by the beach” he said and they headed towards the acacia trees. “I suppose you have heard of Miss Leyden’s case”, Lewis continued. “It is all rather embarrassing and sad. Her uncle is a respectable man and one of the best on our staff. It seems that she was involved with the lawyer she abused  and her family is quite humiliated. As you will be aware, the complainant is not to be taken lightly and has a capacity for making a great deal of trouble. I won’t beat about the bush, Woolf. We know that you have been involved with her as well and the situation could cause considerable embarrassment if things are allowed to get out of control”.

“It is our business to avoid temptation and, if we give in to it, to do so as tactfully as possible.”. Sir William added “You, Mr Woolf, have not done either of those things, and I believe that the way you treated this young woman has given rise to this situation”.

Lewis nodded but did not look as severe. Sir William had stopped the attack and was continuing his own train of thought. “Fifty years ago you could have married one of that family’s daughters and nobody would have given it a second thought. In fact fifty years ago an Assistant Government Agent did just that and she died in some godforsaken outstation on the East Coast. I remember her and she was a charming young lady. I believe you have described the grave site in your book Mr Lewis.”. Lewis nodded, his volume on grave sites and monuments had been published recently.

Twynam returned to the present “The situation has to end. Mr Lewis and I have come up with a plan that may just save your reputation and correct the injury you have caused. Please show more respect in the future to the inhabitants of this country and try to behave with more decorum. When I was a young man…” He stopped and did not continue. Woolf bade them goodbye and cycled away.

In time, Woolf learned of Twynam’s plan.  Kitty was to be moved away from Jaffna as soon as possible. She had an aunt living in Galle at the other end of the island. She could not afford to look after the girl, but with some financial assistance administered by the uncle that problem could be overcome. Lewis said to him “If you can help with the expenses, Woolf, we can have Kitty on the next steamer to Galle. I believe one is due next month.” Woolf noted without surprise that Lewis was referring to Kitty by her first name. She was obviously a person who could arouse sympathy. The amount required had already been agreed with her uncle, and Woolf agreed to provide part of it with some additional assistance from Sir William. In another week the arrangements had been finalised and passages had been booked for her and a chaperone on the Lady Blake, leaving Jaffna in 3 weeks. The lawyer, placated by the fining of his assailant and her departure, had decided to halt any further action.

The morning of the departure was a busy day for the port of Jaffna. Two dhonies bound for Travancore were loading their cargo of cured tobacco leaf. The Lady Blake was  lying at anchor in the lagoon with smoke drifting from her funnel. Two lighters alongside the jetty were being loaded with her cargo. As required by Lewis, Woolf was present supervising the traders and customs searchers. On board the Lady Blake the captain, mate and engineer were giving a party for some of their friends, people whose jobs involved the maintenance and operation of various mills and engines around Jaffna. Their private lives, according to a missionary of the time, did not bear close inspection, but their loud laughter echoed across the water. Woolf felt that a little more attention should be paid by the crew to the preparations for departure but decided to look the other way.

When Kitty arrived in a hackery with her luggage and a worried looking chaperone who obviously wondered what the trip would do to her reputation as well as Kitty’s, their arrival was almost unnoticed in the general turmoil. With their cases loaded for carriage to the steamer, the 2 women stood apart from the other passengers, but Sir William soon strolled down from his house, surveying his previous domain as he was accustomed to do. He walked across to where they stood and greeted them. Turning he caught Woolf’s eye and beckoned to him. Woolf had no option but to walk across, watched surreptitiously by the motley crowd. “Miss Leyden is leaving for Galle”, Sir William announced. Woolf bowed to them, “Jaffna will miss Miss Leyden” he responded gallantly, “Yes, but will Miss Leyden miss Jaffna?” Sir William asked. She smiled at him, “I will miss some people” she said, gazing past Woolf’s shoulder at the activity on the shore. Woolf felt by now that he had participated for long enough in this charade but knew that he could not leave until it was clearly appropriate to do so.

It was not long before he was given the opportunity. The passengers were soon summoned to their own launch and Sir William said his farewell. “Have a safe trip, Miss Leyden and I hope things are satisfactory in Galle. I look forward to receiving news of you from your uncle and give my regards to my grandnephew. He was referring to Thomas Twynam, the current Collector of Customs at Galle. The family had been in Galle for even longer than Sir Thomas had been in Jaffna. Sir Thomas lingered until the launch cast off and then wandered away down the beach. Woolf bade him farewell and returned to his work. He felt that he had devoted more of his time to this matter than was required. However as the launch reached the Lady Blake he saw a rush of party goers hurrying to help Kitty aboard.

And so it happened at Galle that the beautiful Kitty Leyden disembarked one morning, helped ashore by the first officer,  causing great excitement among the young men of that town in particular and society in general. The Collector of Customs was present and greeted them both. Some unpleasant rumours trickled down from Jaffna, but she behaved with great discretion and applied herself to establishing a reputation for moral rectitude. She was to be seen at church every Sunday seated with her aunt and other family members. To counter the unpleasant rumours, a story soon spread of an unhappy love affair with a young civil servant that had been cut short by the prejudices of the time. In a few months, long before Kitty’s resettlement fund had run out, a rich lawyer and land owner, recently widowed, proposed to Kitty and was accepted. Kitty’s problems appeared to be over.

Back in Jaffna, with her departure, talk of the scandal soon died down, though ASP Bowes regarded Woolf more amiably than he had been accustomed to. When the latter called on the policeman one evening, he was surprised to find that Kitty’s young messenger was now part of the household staff. “A bright young fellow that” Bowes said, as the boy left to fix him another drink, “he brings me all the news from the bazaar, which is very useful in nailing evil doers. He can also mix a very good whisky and soda and is very discreet when it comes to carrying messages”. Bowes took a large gulp of his drink and glanced at his companion who showed no reaction. If Bowes thought that he had found someone to share his confidences he was mistaken. Woolf looked at the boy incuriously “Well, if he helps keep crime down, he must be justifying his existence. I hope Superintendent Dowbiggin approves”.

Bowes was unabashed. He gazed at his glass appreciatively and continued “On another subject, I believe that Sir William is taking leave of his senses. It doesn’t do any good to leave a person in charge of a place for as long as he ran Jaffna. He comes to believe that he owns the place. Indeed the entire Twynam family has been in the Island for far too long. Their relationship with some of the local families goes beyond what is acceptable. Let’s hope that in a few years we will be able to govern this place using proper Civil Service procedures.”. He slurred the last few words slightly.

“You mean like the remote arrogant buggers that we are” suggested Woolf, holding his empty glass out for a refill, and from that moment on did his best to appear as he had described. Bowes continued “I must say that I am going to miss seeing young Kitty Leyden around, and I am sure that you will, you lucky devil”. And, from that moment, on, said nothing more on the subject.

In a while Lewis departed for Kandy, and in a while sent for Woolf to be his Office Assistant. By then there had been another incident involving a member of the Jaffna Bar which Woolf recounts in his autobiography. He was accused of having attempted to strike a Mr. Sandrasegera. This incident was soon cleared up but Woolf was happy to leave that part of the Island and its litigious inhabitants.

From that time on, he treated every young woman to whom he was introduced with extreme caution. Living a monkish existence he made a name for himself in the dry south-east of the country, not far from Galle which he visited rarely if at all. After a few years he left the Island on leave and then resigned when Virginia Stephen accepted his proposal of marriage. He said that if she had refused he would have returned to his district and married a Sinhalese. He had grown to love the remote area that he administered, perhaps seeing in it something that suited his temperament. One of the most striking passages in his letters is when he describes the large residency at Hambantota and the sea booming incessantly, almost at its gates. His behaviour on that moonlit night in Jaffna was pushed to the back of his mind as an aberration.

At the start of the sixties a very old Leonard Woolf returned to Ceylon researching his autobiography. When he visited Tangalla and Hambantota where he had been stationed, he made the New Oriental Hotel at Galle his headquarters. The owner Nesta Brohier was there at the time and was a friend of Kitty’s who was recently widowed. She visited the old lady and mentioned Woolf’s visit to her. The two of them were sitting in the drawing room with 2 of Kitty’s granddaughters, in their teens and almost as lively as she had been. Nesta mentioned her famous guest. “He has been holding court at the hotel” she announced, “surrounded by retired headmen, footmen, aratchies, retired lawyers and everybody else you could care to imagine. I left instructions to give them all tea and something to eat and came here to get some peace.”.

She looked at the young girls with her alert eyes, “He and your grandmother had a famous love affair” she announced “she may even have ended up as Mrs Woolf”.

“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Nesta”, Kitty said, ”Anyway he was very much in love with a famous writer in England, Virginia Woolf, who was much more suitable and very good looking in her way.”

“How do you know, Granny?”

“Well he kept a photograph of her on his bedside table”. “Granny!” the girls screamed and Nesta pretended to look shocked. “Not a word to anyone, “she warned, “Not even your mother. “Do you want to come into town and see him again?” asked Nesta. ”Not really” Kitty replied, “take the girls instead”.

So they visited the New Oriental and came back to announce that he looked much older than their grandmother. “He did look at us both”, they announced, and Nesta agreed that he had appeared curious when he saw the pair.

At last “Growing” came out, and the girls were indignant when they read what Woolf had written. The old lady was not too upset, she realised that colonial society and its scandals were ancient history.

“It was probably my fault that it happened” she said to her friend, ”I was not a very good girl in Jaffna, but it was all so dull and hopeless for me. But what happened helped me to get away and for that I am grateful to everyone involved, including him”. She went on  ”It is all very simple, Nesta. I only spoke to him because he looked so lonely, about as lonely as I felt. I did not realise what it all meant or that he would resent it as much as he did. Why was his position more important than meeting somebody else who was more than half alive?”

“What else would you expect in Jaffna or Galle in 1905?” Nesta replied, “In 1965 it may be different, in 2005 it probably will be, but at that time, it was certainly not allowed except with lots of discretion. And you, Kitty, had no idea”.

Note: It is interesting to read 2 letters written to Lytton Strachey which refer to this episode. In the first, written in October 1905, Woolf refers to Kitty in unflattering terms and he describes the encounter as squalid. In the second, in November, he is still unpleasant but would obviously not mind repeating the episode. To place it in context, most of his descriptions of the people he meets are unflattering in the extreme. In one letter which he wrote earlier in 1905, he says “the society of this place is absolutely inconceivable, it exists only upon the tennis court and in the GA’s house; the women are all whores, or hags or missionaries or all three; and the men are all, as I told you, sunk.” One of those men, Southorn, later married his sister Bella who came to the Island on a visit; and the intelligent and inquiring Lewis, who married an extrovert Australian, was certainly far from sunk, nor was the well-meaning Dutton. I believe much of what he wrote was a pose to exaggerate the extent of the white man’s burden and was intended to impress Strachey with the grimness of his existence. He was after all in his early twenties and in his first job…… Philip Sansoni

A NOTE from The EDITOR, Thuppahi, 3 June 2022:
In digital correspondence today, Philip indicated that readers should understand that “this is a story based on hearsay and showing old attitudes and a brief encounter, I am happy for it to be read on that basis; that is hopefully as a good story with actual occurrences as a foundation.”
PHILIP is being typically modest. There is a whole range of incidents that I was unaware of within his tale — unearthed via research and reading. As I have been interested in Woolf then and in more recent times, this is a complement. I also hail from Galle and had no idea that Leonard Woolf stayed at the NOH, a familair spot in my memories then and now, when he visited.  The hotel will be featured in an impending pictorial essay … but it has already received considerable detailed attention in Thuppahi — esepcially in Joe Simpson’s essay:


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2 responses to “The Lonely Cadet and the Maiden: Leonard Woolf in Jaffna …..

  1. Wonderfully evocative

  2. Love it! Fantastic storytelling!

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