THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP - the English group of artists, authors and intellectuals that included Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, and their associates - must be the most minutely dissected cultural group in recent history. Most of the facts concerning their work, their legacy, and their private lives have already been thoroughly scrutinized by scholars and biographers - and recently amended by the publication of initial volumes of Virginia Woolf's letters and unexpurgated diary. The occasion for still another book on Bloomsbury-related matters is the harvest of Leonard Woolf's 60,000-item archive (left after his death in 1969 to the University of Sussex) and the nearly 100 letters exchanged between Woolf and Lytton Strachey (now housed at the New York Public LIbrary). From this new material plus the formidable bulk of existing information, George Spater and Ian Parsons have written a highly readable condensation of the literary and domestic lives of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.
The authors trace the family origins and intellectual influences that shaped both of their subjects, including the fact that each lost a parent before adolescence (Virginia's mother, Leonard's father). Leonard's young adulthood was spent as a serious but not highly motivated undergraduate and member of the intellectual club called the Apostles at Cambridge. While "Bloomsbury" formed around Virginia and her friends, Leonard spent seven lonely but effective years as a civil servant in Ceylon. From the Woolf-Starchey correspondence, we learn that Leonard initially may have been more attracted to Vanessa, Virginia's sister; but that (Vanessa having already married Clive Bell) Strachey urged him to propose to Virginia, who was "young, wild, inquisitive, discontented, and longing to be in love." When Woolf returned for home leave, he courted and married Virginia, leaving the civil service to take up an unforeseen kind of service to the world of letters.
The authors suggest that in many respects Virginia never developed emotionally beyond the state Strachey described, but remained a child all her life: though grateful for Leonard's affection, she was far less able to give love than to receive it. Prior inferences concerning her frigidity are made explicit in the author's frank revelation that early in the Woolfs' marriage the couple began to sleep in separate bedrooms; because of Virginia's irreversible distaste for sex, the two remained "chaste" spouses thereafter. Moreover, Virginia's strong need for mother figures shaped a series of friendships with women, the most important with Vita Sackville-West. Yet, as unconventional as their marriage seemed, the Woolfs sustained great mutual affection and respect.
Intimate revelations aside, Spater and Parsons detail equally fascinating aspects of the pair's characters and careers, including the lively formative years of the Hogarth Press, which first published works by T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and other then-unknown writers. Virginia's artistic and financial success was well-established by 1929, with the publication of five novels (including To the Lighthouse, her most popular novel even now). Leonard also wrote two novels, as well as several volumes of political philosophy. Moreover, his five-volume autobiography - from which many details of this study are drawn - remains his most impressive literary achievement.
Though perhaps overshadowed by his wife's fame, Leonard was an equally complex person: intelligent, obstinate, witty - and capable of maintaining his own intellectual ambitions while actively advancing Virginia's greater talent.His strong character, shaped partly by his own ideal of civilized life, was a synthesis of the Herbraic values of justice, mercy, and tolerance (though he discounted the influence of his Jewish background) and the classical values of liberty and beauty. A compulsive record-keeper, and frugal almost to a fault, he accounted for every penny earned and dispersed. (When I met him a year before his death, he still maintained the practice, acquired during the paper shortage of the war years, reusing envelopes for return correspondence.)
Parsons and Spater answer affirmatively the question of whether the Woolfs' 28-year marriage was, despite its unorthodoxy, a "happy" one. They conclude not only that Leonard gave Virginia the most productive years of her life by jealously guarding her social life and diet on behalf of her mental health, but that he himself was happy in the relationship. Tipping the historical balance in defense of his strong hand on Virginia's activities (lately challenged by feminist critics), the authors praise his difficult and admirable position as his wife's "doctor, nurse, parent, semi-husband, and chief literary advisor." One feels the strength of his affection in the poignant note Leonard wrote to himself on the day of his wife's suicide:
"I know that V. will not come across the garden from the lodge, and yet I look in that direction for her. I know that she is drowned and yet I listen for her to come in at the door. I know that it is the last page and yet I turn it over. There is no limit to one's own stupidity and selfishness."
For those already familiar with the many available works by and about the Woolfs, this book offers a quilt of information stitched from existing cloth (with occasional restorations of expunged or erroneous facts), interesting new information from Leonard's own memorabilia, and a number of exceptional photographs not previously published. For the general reader it offers a concise introduction to the pair, providing for the first time a perspective in which they emerge as equal partners in a marriage - quite literally - of true minds.