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English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 50.2 (2007) 158-171

Leonard Woolf's "I":
Reading the Autobiographies
Judith Scherer Herz
Concordia University

"As soon … as a writer begins to use the pronoun 'I' and to talk about himself, he has to face [the] difficulty that his ego which appears to be infinitely important to himself will appear to be infinitely unimportant to everyone else. Whether an egotistical book is attractive or repulsive depends upon a very subtle relationship between the author and his ego.… What we cannot tolerate is that that minute, ridiculous speck in the centre of him which he calls 'I' should turn out to be a sham."1 In this 1927 essay, "The First Person Singular," Leonard Woolf combined two earlier review articles to probe the nature of the autobiographical subject. Of the autobiographies he was reviewing, the one that most appealed to him was Benjamin Franklin's because it achieved that "subtle relationship," as Franklin displayed "so vividly and so completely his own curious ego." Pepys offered another example, for despite his having "the greatest of all egos in print,… the relationship of Mr. Pepys to his ego in the Diary is without pose, pretence, or self-consciousness."2 How Woolf achieved this in his own first-person singular is what I want to investigate here.

To some degree autobiography inhabited Leonard Woolf's writing from the very beginning, even if obliquely, and one can argue, too, that the oblique, the indirect, characterizes the five volumes of the "real" autobiography as well. His early fiction derived in considerable measure from his experiences both in Ceylon and in the London he returned to in 1911. The 1914 The Wise Virgins is in part a sardonic examination of his own character, an evocation of his family, a roman à clef about his relations with the Stevens family, and "Three Jews," his half of the first Hogarth Press publication (Virginia's "The Mark on the Wall" was the other), offers a furious trifurcation of the self, its inescapable inheritance and its psychology both particular and social. As essayist and reviewer he habitually called upon his own experiences as the [End Page 158] reference point for his judgments. Nonetheless the decision in the early 1950s to write his autobiography, "to regard oneself as an entity carried along for a brief period in the stream of time,"3 involved a different kind of mining of the self. What was involved in that autobiographical moment, this confrontation with the past? What prompted it? How did he understand it? What indeed were the results?

And whose past? As I will argue Woolf's is the past of a century even more than his own, a compound of events and persons, his own role often as much observer/recorder as participant. It is his own to the degree that he "is" that century. Because "I am myself a tiny fraction of the Boer war, the Dreyfus case, the wars of 1914 and 1939[,] what I thought or felt about the Dreyfus case and liberty, about the Versailles treaty and the Nazis is part of the historical evidence.… I have to look into my own mind and heart and to remember what living people said and did in my presence at the time; for part of the data and evidence is there."4 One should recall the subtitle of each volume: An Autobiography of the Years 1880 to 1904, or 1904 to 1911 and so on. The subject is the years as much as the person, the years as the person, the person as the years.

But the act of writing an autobiography is itself part of that autobiography, increasing, indeed reversing, the relationship of past, present and future. In his reply to E. M. Forster's query about "what to do with my life … —that is to say from the literary point of view,"5 Woolf suggested that Forster write his autobiography, noting that "you would have to take a deep breath and really start ab...


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