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Leonard Woolf: A Biography

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Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning draws on her deep knowledge of the twentieth century literary scene, and on her meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write the first full biography of the extraordinary man who was the "dark star" at the center of the Bloomsbury set, and the definitive portrait of the Woolf marriage. A man of extremes, Leona Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning draws on her deep knowledge of the twentieth century literary scene, and on her meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write the first full biography of the extraordinary man who was the "dark star" at the center of the Bloomsbury set, and the definitive portrait of the Woolf marriage. A man of extremes, Leonard Woolf was ferocious and tender, violent and self-restrained, opinionated and nonjudgmental, always an outsider of sorts within the exceptionally intimate, fractious, and sometimes vicious society of brilliant but troubled friends and lovers. He has been portrayed either as Virginia's saintly caretaker or as her oppressor, the substantial range and influence of his own achievements overshadowed by Virginia's fame and the tragedy of her suicide. But Leonard was a pivotal figure of his age, whose fierce intelligence touched the key literary and political events that shaped the early decades of the twentieth century and would resonate into the post-World War II era. Glendinning beautifully evokes Woolf 's coming-of-age in turn-of-the-century London. The scholarship boy from a prosperous Jewish family would cut his own path through the world of the British public school, contending with the lingering anti-Semitism of Imperial Age Britain. Immediately upon entering Trinity College, Cambridge, Woolf became one of an intimate group of vivid personalities who would form the core of the Bloomsbury circle: the flamboyant Lytton Strachey; Toby Stephen, "the Goth," through whom Leonard would meet Stephen's sister Virginia; and Clive Bell. Glendinning brings to life their long nights of intense discussion of literature and the vicissitudes of sex, and charts Leonard's course as he becomes the lifelong friend of John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forster. She unearths the crucial influence of Woolf 's seven years as a headstrong administrator in colonial Ceylon, where he lost confidence in the imperial mission, deciding to abandon Ceylon in order to marry the psychologically troubled Virginia Stephen. Glendinning limns the true nature of Leonard's devotion to Virginia, revealing through vivid depiction of their unconventional marriage how Leonard supported Virginia through her breakdowns and in her writing. In co-founding with Virginia the Hogarth Press, he provided a secure publisher for Virginia's own boldly experimental works. As the éminence grise of the early Labour Party, working behind the scenes,Woolf became a leading critic of imperialism, and his passionate advocacy of collective security to prevent war underpinned the charter of the League of Nations. After Virginia's death, he continued to forge his own iconoclastic way, engaging in a long and happy relationship with a married woman. Victoria Glendinning's Leonard Woolf is a major achievement -- a shrewdly perceptive and lively portrait of a complex man of extremes and contradictions in whom passion fought with reason and whose far-reaching influence is long overdue for the full appreciation Glendinning offers in this important book.


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Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning draws on her deep knowledge of the twentieth century literary scene, and on her meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write the first full biography of the extraordinary man who was the "dark star" at the center of the Bloomsbury set, and the definitive portrait of the Woolf marriage. A man of extremes, Leona Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning draws on her deep knowledge of the twentieth century literary scene, and on her meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write the first full biography of the extraordinary man who was the "dark star" at the center of the Bloomsbury set, and the definitive portrait of the Woolf marriage. A man of extremes, Leonard Woolf was ferocious and tender, violent and self-restrained, opinionated and nonjudgmental, always an outsider of sorts within the exceptionally intimate, fractious, and sometimes vicious society of brilliant but troubled friends and lovers. He has been portrayed either as Virginia's saintly caretaker or as her oppressor, the substantial range and influence of his own achievements overshadowed by Virginia's fame and the tragedy of her suicide. But Leonard was a pivotal figure of his age, whose fierce intelligence touched the key literary and political events that shaped the early decades of the twentieth century and would resonate into the post-World War II era. Glendinning beautifully evokes Woolf 's coming-of-age in turn-of-the-century London. The scholarship boy from a prosperous Jewish family would cut his own path through the world of the British public school, contending with the lingering anti-Semitism of Imperial Age Britain. Immediately upon entering Trinity College, Cambridge, Woolf became one of an intimate group of vivid personalities who would form the core of the Bloomsbury circle: the flamboyant Lytton Strachey; Toby Stephen, "the Goth," through whom Leonard would meet Stephen's sister Virginia; and Clive Bell. Glendinning brings to life their long nights of intense discussion of literature and the vicissitudes of sex, and charts Leonard's course as he becomes the lifelong friend of John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forster. She unearths the crucial influence of Woolf 's seven years as a headstrong administrator in colonial Ceylon, where he lost confidence in the imperial mission, deciding to abandon Ceylon in order to marry the psychologically troubled Virginia Stephen. Glendinning limns the true nature of Leonard's devotion to Virginia, revealing through vivid depiction of their unconventional marriage how Leonard supported Virginia through her breakdowns and in her writing. In co-founding with Virginia the Hogarth Press, he provided a secure publisher for Virginia's own boldly experimental works. As the éminence grise of the early Labour Party, working behind the scenes,Woolf became a leading critic of imperialism, and his passionate advocacy of collective security to prevent war underpinned the charter of the League of Nations. After Virginia's death, he continued to forge his own iconoclastic way, engaging in a long and happy relationship with a married woman. Victoria Glendinning's Leonard Woolf is a major achievement -- a shrewdly perceptive and lively portrait of a complex man of extremes and contradictions in whom passion fought with reason and whose far-reaching influence is long overdue for the full appreciation Glendinning offers in this important book.

30 review for Leonard Woolf: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    I thought I was ready to offer a detailed critique on this one as it irritated me enough to spew out my disappointment to my friends; but when it came to actually reviewing it here it occurred to me it was mediocre enough to not bother wasting too much effort. There is too much in this biography, and yet not enough. While Glendinning offers a good biography of Leonard Woolf, I would have to say there is nothing in here that I didn't already know by reading Woolf's autobiography and his letters. I thought I was ready to offer a detailed critique on this one as it irritated me enough to spew out my disappointment to my friends; but when it came to actually reviewing it here it occurred to me it was mediocre enough to not bother wasting too much effort. There is too much in this biography, and yet not enough. While Glendinning offers a good biography of Leonard Woolf, I would have to say there is nothing in here that I didn't already know by reading Woolf's autobiography and his letters. So. What was the point of this book? It's not that she's a bad biographer, or a bad writer, but one expects a little more insight into a person's life if the writer is labelling herself a Woolf biographer. I don't want to rehash the same-old, same-old song about everything that has already been written or said (while getting a few facts wrong along the way). Glendinning inserts her opinion in this work a little too often for my liking. Alternately she is a fawning Woolfite, a bit of a literary snob, and a bit of a social stiff-neck. (I almost abandoned the book in fact, on page 6, when she enumerates Leonard's father's family, and adds, "...also Henry, who was an afterthought or a by-blow... with all the condescension of an ill-bred, ill-mannered socialite.) I cringed for her ungraciousness as she didn't seem to have the sense to do it herself. I did persevere, nonetheless, but found that I was mostly disappointed in the end by her standard, sometimes monotonous, biography of someone who was far from "regular", or boring.

  2. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    Because I've also read Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography of Vita Sackville-West, and now her life of Leonard Woolf, I think she knows these people well. Leonard was a person who certainly deserved the attention this book provides. Despite his own considerable achievements as writer and publisher, he's obviously important as the first critic and care-giver and "nurturer" (Glendinning's word) of Virginia Woolf. He played a very large role in making it possible for her to have the health a Because I've also read Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography of Vita Sackville-West, and now her life of Leonard Woolf, I think she knows these people well. Leonard was a person who certainly deserved the attention this book provides. Despite his own considerable achievements as writer and publisher, he's obviously important as the first critic and care-giver and "nurturer" (Glendinning's word) of Virginia Woolf. He played a very large role in making it possible for her to have the health and creative atmosphere in which to produce the literary milestones her novels are. And he carefully single-handedly preserved what he considered important in her personal writings that help form much of the critical basis and appreciation of her work, the diaries and letters. Glendinning doesn't break new ground in Virginia Woolf studies. She doesn't reveal any startling new facts or perspectives. But she shows that Leonard is interesting in his own right, and she allows him to stand outside Virginia's shadow so we can see him clearly. One thing did surprise me: the nagging symptoms and effects of Virginia's illness are here portrayed as overpowering and constantly threatening, always at crisis. Other books about Virginia and her circle aren't so dark on this point.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Patterson

    When I was a young graduate student in English, Leonard Woolf was a feminist punching bag-the oppressive middle-class husband of the brilliant, ethereal Virginia Woolf. No one seemed to consider that living with someone mentally ill before the age of anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medication could have been somewhat of a struggle or that a little stolidness might provide Mrs. Woolf with the stable environement she needed in order to write. Over the years Leonard has begun to get his due It w When I was a young graduate student in English, Leonard Woolf was a feminist punching bag-the oppressive middle-class husband of the brilliant, ethereal Virginia Woolf. No one seemed to consider that living with someone mentally ill before the age of anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medication could have been somewhat of a struggle or that a little stolidness might provide Mrs. Woolf with the stable environement she needed in order to write. Over the years Leonard has begun to get his due It was when reading William Zinsner's On Writing Well and Jon Hassler's "Simon's Night" that I discovered Woolf's evocative memoirs. Now Victoria Glendinning who has written incredibly readable biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Anthony Trollope has turned her attention to Leonard Woolf and written a fabulous book about how he managed to deal with a wife who was often ill and remain a force in both literature and politics. The chapter on how he fielded requests for interviews, doctoral candidates, and Edward Albee's request that "I be able to use your wife's name in a play I'm writing" as his wife's reputation grew is fascinating as well

  4. 4 out of 5

    Cindy Brown Ash

    I'm such a nerd. The man died before I was born, but when I got to the account of Leonard's death, I cried. OK, I'm a nerd, but the book is also that good. Glendinning writes vividly, accounting for Woolf's contradictions, his mannerisms, his friendships, his relations with all the many sorts of people whose lives he touched. She makes it clear that although he was a central part of Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury was not necessarily the center of his life. She provides a beautiful and moving account of I'm such a nerd. The man died before I was born, but when I got to the account of Leonard's death, I cried. OK, I'm a nerd, but the book is also that good. Glendinning writes vividly, accounting for Woolf's contradictions, his mannerisms, his friendships, his relations with all the many sorts of people whose lives he touched. She makes it clear that although he was a central part of Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury was not necessarily the center of his life. She provides a beautiful and moving account of his relationship with Virginia Woolf. And perhaps she fell as hard for him as did the many female correspondents she describes in his later life (and as I did). The book was very well-researched as well as enjoyable to read. I would recommend it to anyone who loves biography, and especially to anyone interested in Bloomsbury or England in the early twentieth century.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    An interesting read, but Glendinning is too much of an apologist for Woolf.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    How to make it through a time of great social and political change while a) being of a marginalized race, b) being the stabilizing influence for a very creative and bright but very unstable wife, c) influencing 20th century social and political thinking, d) starting an important press and e) living 89 productive years. Among many other things there would have been no Virginia Woolf had there been no Leonard Wolf. Well written, typically name ridden (it is a biography)—it's an empathetic look int How to make it through a time of great social and political change while a) being of a marginalized race, b) being the stabilizing influence for a very creative and bright but very unstable wife, c) influencing 20th century social and political thinking, d) starting an important press and e) living 89 productive years. Among many other things there would have been no Virginia Woolf had there been no Leonard Wolf. Well written, typically name ridden (it is a biography)—it's an empathetic look into a member of the damaged and damaging Bloomsbury group. The book makes LW out to be the one stable member. I would have liked to have known Leonard Woolf

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ilze

    What is it about elm trees – the good-tempered tree? Elms tolerate a great deal and this could be why cabinet-makers had an interest in them, but the Woolfs? … Glendinning has written a unique and beautiful biography of a man she clearly has a lot of respect for. Enough respect that we don’t only get to see what Leonard Woolf did in his life, in a curriculum vitae kind of way, but there are descriptions of the way people treated him and his wife (and later his “mistress”). The book contains descr What is it about elm trees – the good-tempered tree? Elms tolerate a great deal and this could be why cabinet-makers had an interest in them, but the Woolfs? … Glendinning has written a unique and beautiful biography of a man she clearly has a lot of respect for. Enough respect that we don’t only get to see what Leonard Woolf did in his life, in a curriculum vitae kind of way, but there are descriptions of the way people treated him and his wife (and later his “mistress”). The book contains descriptions of their dogs, the way the house really was (very mouldy!), what plants grew there, descriptions of their clothes: these are all personal details that make the people she describes real. As real as the two elm trees Trekkie Parsons was going to paint after Virginia’s death. Leonard had buried his wife’s ashes under one of the elm trees that grew in his garden in 1941– the elms were known as 'Leonard and Virginia': “A couple of days after [Trekkie] left, the elm beneath which Virginia’s ashes were buried crashed down in a gale” (Glendinning 2006: 381). Following Leonard’s death in 1969: “She [Trekkie] buried Leonard’s ashes under the surviving elm – which later, like its companion, blew down in a gale” (Glendinning 2006: 492). The mere fact that these trees couldn’t bear this precious load on their roots, was because they sensed the important lives that had been laid to rest there. Leonard Woolf lived a fairly ordinary life as an English gentleman until he returned from Ceylon (where he’d been working for the British government) because he’d decided to marry Virginia Woolf . This famous writer needs no introduction. On the contrary, as Glendinning makes it clear, we can thank Leonard for looking after this genius the way he did (Glendinning 2006: 369 & 466). Sadly the world merely knows him as “her husband”, but he was much more than that! He started the Hogarth Press together with Virginia and kept it going long after she’d committed suicide – this press, incidentally, was the first to publish Sigmund Freud’s work in English. Following World War I, Leonard’s work and his ideas were used at the Peace Conference in 1919 which was to lead to the birth of the League of Nations (2006: 232); just as significantly: “His work had contributed to the very existence of international relations as a university subject” (Glendinning 2006: 414). Isn’t ironic that a Jew’s ideas were employed in this way? While he was nearing the end of his life, he came to the devastating conclusion that: “I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing” (Glendinning 2006: 484). But for scholars of literature the world over, he achieved much: he was the ink in Virginia’s pen, he was the one that stayed with her through thick and thin (and absence of sex), he was the one that knew her best and how best to help her cope with her debilitating illness. The mantra for his life was “Nothing Matters”. This is how he coped with everything life threw at him. This is also how he consoled the people that flowed to him following his wife’s death. For some or other reason, they had decided he can help them with their problems – and his response? Nothing Matters. This is only looking at it from the eye of eternity. “In one’s personal life”, he wrote in his last book, “certain things are of immense importance: human relations, happiness, truth, beauty or art, justice and mercy” (Glendinning 2006: 486). Sage words indeed. Words that he not only wrote and spoke, but lived out personally. Like Ted Hughes, he took on the responsibility of nurturing his wife’s literary legacy in her absence, though, unlike Hughes, he didn’t feel any need to control what went into biography (this could have something to do with the fact that Plath and Hughes had had children, whereas the Woolfs had been childless). There are some who view elm trees as “noble-minded”. Leonard and Virginia were just that. Of course they gossiped and Virginia is known for her sharp tongue, but an appreciation for aesthetics was always there. Once on his own, Leonard fell in love with none other than an artist, who was prepared to take care of him right to the end. So even though he thought that nothing mattered to him, everything mattered, otherwise he would never have left such deep footsteps behind. Footsteps that made it much easier for biographers, literary critics and academia to follow the route of his life with Virginia. Janet Malcom makes the point that it is almost impossible to give any reader a real idea of what another person’s life was like years ago. Because the Woolfs (and Leonard in particular) kept copious notes of so many things, people today are more able to find out what their lives could’ve been like. Glendinning must’ve read through tons of letters, manuscripts and lists before embarking on this book. She managed, in a very professional way, to depict for us two durable elm trees. They were entwined for a while, but the gale of time and change caused them to come crashing down. A fate that will befall us all.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    This is a masterful biography of a most intriguing man. The book is a wonderfully detailed account of the long life of Leonard Woolf. Mr. Woolf was a rather enigmatic figure and Victoria Glendinning presents insights into his character and his outlook, all the while providing the many significant details necessary to support those insights. This is a fine account of a long life well-lived.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Williams

    Very well researched as you would expect from Victoria Glendinning but I found it difficult to get a real sense of the man underneath the mass of detail.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    As usual, I'm very happy with this biography, because Victoria Glendinning always produces wonderful biographies. Of course, my favorite chapters are those that recount his meeting Virginia Stephen, courting her, marrying her, and tell us about their life together as companions, writers, and friends. Because of Virginia's mental illness she was forbidden to have children, which makes me feel so badly for her. Having a baby might have saved her from the depression and the suicide that she ultimat As usual, I'm very happy with this biography, because Victoria Glendinning always produces wonderful biographies. Of course, my favorite chapters are those that recount his meeting Virginia Stephen, courting her, marrying her, and tell us about their life together as companions, writers, and friends. Because of Virginia's mental illness she was forbidden to have children, which makes me feel so badly for her. Having a baby might have saved her from the depression and the suicide that she ultimately had to commit; she felt that she was "going mad" again, and this time would not recover her sanity. So very sad. The least interesting sections of the book were about Leonard's Civil Service positions; I was somewhat bored as I plowed through those chapters, resisting the temptation to skip them. I felt that I needed to read the entire book in order to write a review that discussed Leonard's life in a comprehensive way. I'll be reading more biographies by Glendinning in the future - her books are well-written and generally keep me reading on.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kllrchrd

    Ravishing dustjacket ..... and a good read! Some of the writing is a bit choppy, a bit ... 'bitty'. But the man himself comes across well, tho i don't know how he suffered some of the (to me) intensely dull semi-political activities he got engaged in, he seemed selfless and capable of such extreme hard work. Its interesting to read of the Webbs and other characters..... oops I don't want to give too much away. From reading this Monks House which was his later residence shall always seem a warm a Ravishing dustjacket ..... and a good read! Some of the writing is a bit choppy, a bit ... 'bitty'. But the man himself comes across well, tho i don't know how he suffered some of the (to me) intensely dull semi-political activities he got engaged in, he seemed selfless and capable of such extreme hard work. Its interesting to read of the Webbs and other characters..... oops I don't want to give too much away. From reading this Monks House which was his later residence shall always seem a warm and sunny place to me. Yet i had no idea Virginias place of death was such a bleak watercourse, indicative of her bleak state of mind I assume. I must be getting older, I find Virginia incredibly attractive.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    I had been reading various sections of this whilst working on some writing, but as that comes to a close I thought I'd finish the book as a whole. I'm glad that i did because even as the Bloomsbury chapters of his life came to a close his life got no less interesting. The book is detailed but accessibly written. I spotted a couple of minor errors (paraphrasing sentences from his letters incorrectly in my opinion) in the earlier sections that I had to read closely. But this should not put you off I had been reading various sections of this whilst working on some writing, but as that comes to a close I thought I'd finish the book as a whole. I'm glad that i did because even as the Bloomsbury chapters of his life came to a close his life got no less interesting. The book is detailed but accessibly written. I spotted a couple of minor errors (paraphrasing sentences from his letters incorrectly in my opinion) in the earlier sections that I had to read closely. But this should not put you off, it was nothing serious and the author paints what I would consider a sympathetic and accurate picture Mr. Woolf.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    A well-written and engrossing biography that makes me want to delve deeper into Leonard Woolf's writings. While interested in reading about Leonard Woolf's life with Virginia Woolf, the chapters discussing his life following his wife's suicide held greater fascination for me. I realised, while reading, that I had not given much consideration to what Leonard Woolf's life must have been like in his later years. Victoria Glendinning paints a captivating picture of Leonard and includes many interest A well-written and engrossing biography that makes me want to delve deeper into Leonard Woolf's writings. While interested in reading about Leonard Woolf's life with Virginia Woolf, the chapters discussing his life following his wife's suicide held greater fascination for me. I realised, while reading, that I had not given much consideration to what Leonard Woolf's life must have been like in his later years. Victoria Glendinning paints a captivating picture of Leonard and includes many interesting anecdotes about his friendships, his garden and his eccentricities.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stefan

    Brilliant biography. A penetrating account of the various aspects of this fascinating individual's life. Interesting insights into Bloomsbury and the world of the British intelligentsia in the first half of the 20-th C.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Martha

    Having read so many bios of V Woolf, it's good to read about how those events in Leonard's life related to VW and also to learn more about him.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rob & Liz

    A book that took me a while to read because of the details involved. An amazing man who certainly deserved his own biography apart from his perhaps more famous wife. Liz

  17. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    after my Bloomsbury class am very intrigued (she's a very good biographer)

  18. 4 out of 5

    Steve Shilstone

    The noted British publisher, author, engaged thinker, tenderly kept his mentally fragile genius of a wife alive for 30 years of marriage.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Angela

  20. 4 out of 5

    Leanne

  21. 4 out of 5

    Libera

  22. 4 out of 5

    Faris Aboona

  23. 4 out of 5

    Annemie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Susanne Parsons

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

  26. 4 out of 5

    William

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  28. 5 out of 5

    Anne

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jennelyn Natividad

  30. 4 out of 5

    MR BARRY NOVIS

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