No Leonard No Virginia

Hugh Thompson remembers Leonard Woolf one of Putney’s most literary sons


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Friday (14th August) was the anniversary of the death of Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) one of Putney’s most literary sons. His family lived at from 1894-1914 in Colinette Road. Although from 1900 onwards Leonard spent much of his time at Cambridge and the then colony of Ceylon(now Sri Lanka) this was his family home until he married Virginia Stephens in 1912. Today although feminism, literature and Virginia are all one breath few ever talk of Leonard.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Dalingridge Place, 1912

His family moved from Hyde Park to down market Putney after the premature death of his father an eminent QC. Scholarships at St Paul's and Trinity College were required and gained. Being as Virginia described a “penniless Jew” the steady income of the colonial service beckoned. In Sri Lanka he is revered as a fair magistrate ,a great novelist and an active anti colonialist.

Virginia was much sort after, Lytton Strachey recommended and Leonard proposed three times before he was accepted in 1912. By then Virginia has already had several suicide attempts and breakdowns. A combination of her personality, being sexually assaulted and family bereavements meant she was permanently vulnerable. She wrote to her fiancé that although she had no physical attraction and kissing him was like kissing a rock, ”his caring for her overwhelmed me”.

So a long sexless marriage was played out. Breakdowns, novels, convalescence and a lesbian love affair followed. As did other suicide attempts. Leonard knew the signs and often cut the rising tension by making Virginia stay in bed and eat. He set up the Hogarth Press so that her novels would not go through the emotional turmoil of alien editors. As she wrote in 1929 “ I should have shot myself long ago if it wasn’t for him.” As one biographer wrote “Without his vigilant love,her books would never have been written, he was her reader, her editor,her publisher”.

On her final suicide note in 1941 Virginia, wrote “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we were.” Leonard went on to enjoy a ménage a trois with the artist Trekie Parsons. He wrote eighteen books,his Hogarth Press was a publishing sensation and he was a leading light in the Fabian Society. Worth remembering.

Hugh Thompson

August 17, 2020

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