Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning

Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard Woolf has been widely anticipated and widely reviewed. I was excited to get it as a holiday gift and dive into it on my trip last week. An online companion, Ellen Moody, has written persuasively about the Woolf biography on her blog and I agree with many of her assessments. Glendinning does a marvelous job of synthesizing a great deal of information and recounts of Leonard Woolf. While I was reading the book, one of the things that interested me was the process the Glendinning must have used to assemble and write this biography as I am interested in writing a biography of my own at some point. Leonard Woolf wrote his own five volume biography and he was a voluminous letter writer. So there is an extraordinary amount of information to read and synthesize into a book.

What she does most deftly, however, is not found in the amount of information available to her, but in how she handles the information to write about the things that fascinate us about Leonard: his relationship with Virginian and particularly the sexuality component of their marriage. I found Glendinning’s analysis of the early part of the Woolf marriage very compelling and believable. In addition, I felt like she really captured the nature of their devotion to one another and the realities of long marriages and the impact of dailiness and consistency. So while there may have been others that fueled each of their emotional and passionate needs at different times there was a constancy to the two of them and their marriage, sexuality aside, that was significant to each person’s creativity and productivity. One of the things that charmed me about Leonard was his sense of productivity. Glendinning reports that he tracked everything - what money they spent, how many words each of them wrote per day, the household duties, the garden. I love this sort of reportage in daily life. It is in this vein, however, that I did find two areas that I wished Glendinning had written more about or probed further. Ellen and others have written about how clear sighted Glendinning is about Leonard’s sexuality activity in Ceylon and in debunking the myth that he was a virgin when he married Virginia and that they had a completely asexual marriage. Where I felt Glendinning didn’t bring the same clear-sightedness was to her assessments of the relationship between Leonard and Lytton Strachey. Now, a significant portion of their letters have apparently been lost, but Leonard and Lytton had an extraordinarily close relationship while at college and in their early adulthood. Lytton was rakish, and I mean that without any judgments simply with the meaning of indifferent to moral restraints, and it seems to me from the duration and intensity of their friendship that there was a sexual element. By that do I mean that they were lovers? I don’t know. It does seems to me though that there was a sexual chemistry that given their age and Lytton’s other experiences would have been explored in some ways, even if it resulted in Leonard saying, this isn’t for me. Glendinning comes close to saying that, but I felt while reading this part of the book that she refrained from saying it. I am not sure if the cultural homophobia prevented her from seeing it more clearly or if she felt like there was inadequate documentation or if it was something else, but her analysis of the relationship between Lytton and Leonard did not feel as clear-eyed and insightful as her analysis of the relationship between Leonard and Virginia.

In a similar vein, I was surprised by her accounts of the relationship between Vita and Virginia which I felt suffered from a similar motion of looking away from the sexuality and the sexual relationship between them. Glendinning has written a biography of Vita Sackville-West and I think I have it on my shelf somewhere. (Oh, how I wish I had the time and discipline to enter all of these books into LibraryThing!) I want to hunt it up and read it and see how she talks about the relationship in that biography as there is an argument to be made that the relationship between Vita and Virginia is somewhat tangential to the Leonard Woolf biography. Nonetheless, it is that area where I do feel Glendinning missed the mark slightly for me. I look forward to comparing it with the Vita biography when I am able to read that.

For now, however, I am wrapping up the first volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography, which is equally stunning but in very different ways. Leonard Woolf and Eleanor Roosevelt were contemporaries, however, and there are useful comparisons in reading the two sequentially.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just to thank you for the comments on my blog about the book.

I agree Glendinning does not begin to do justice to Woolf's relationship with Sackville-West. I am not sure there is more to the Strachey-Leonard Woolf relationship than Glendinning tells.