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  • A Biography:Leonard Woolf
  • Judith Scherer Herz
Victoria Glendinning. Leonard Woolf: A Biography. New York: Free Press; Simon & Schuster, 2006. 498 pp. $30.00

The main accomplishments of this biography, and they are important, are making Leonard Woolf matter by conjuring up a distinctive human being and placing him in a dense network of persons, places, events, ideas, and making the reader want to return to his varied and always interesting writing, not least his marvelous autobiographies. Glendinning has a deep affection for and yet necessary distance from her subject and a deep familiarity with the milieu (she has also written a biography of Vita Sackville-West). As a book for the Bloomsbury curious and to a certain degree for the Virginia Woolf scholar who would benefit from seeing her life embedded so deeply in Leonard's, [End Page 209] it succeeds very well. For the Leonard Woolf scholar, however, who already knows many of the materials drawn upon here, although s/he may not have gone through as many of the boxes and papers in the Sussex archives and elsewhere as Glendinning has, the verdict is more mixed.

It is not simply a question of being ready to pounce upon an error here, an omission there, but a sense that too many fragments have been stitched together to support a construct that may be more the biographer's than the subject she is writing about. A small example: there are pages cut out of Trekkie Parsons's diary for 11 and 12 April 1958 (the relationship between Leonard and Trekkie lasted from the early 1940s until Leonard's death in 1969). It suits Glendinning's narrative to suggest that it was Norah Smallwood's relationship with Ian Parsons that was the reason for the excision. But no evidence is offered—even the date those pages were removed, information that would have, had she checked it out, not supported that cause and effect. Too much here and elsewhere depends on "private information." Overall the notes are insufficient; others' writings on Woolf's life and work on which much of her analysis depends are not adequately acknowledged. And there are some striking omissions: among others, Natania Rosenfeld's Outsiders Together and J. H. Willis's Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers. Of course, that problem is in part a function of the degree to which this study is uneasily (delicately?) poised on the boundary between the popular and the academic.

It is also not simply a literary, or intellectual, or political biography. As a compound of all of these, it focuses on a single individual, but one who can only be adequately grasped in relation to a huge cast of others and in relation to complex political, social, philosophical as well as literary issues. Many of these are carefully set out, although the wealth of detail, as each individual introduced brings a biography and context that requires an accounting for, sometimes overwhelms the main story line. When it doesn't—as in the skillful interweaving of the Well of Loneliness trial, the Vita/Virginia relationship, Leonard's role there, the writing of Orlando and A Room of One's Own, which all contribute to an important point about Leonard's feminism that she argues was "manifest in practice, not only in regard to his marriage and his friendships, but in his respect for unconsidered women in the work place"—the reader is grateful for the amount learned and the elegance with which it is presented. His own writing (and he wrote an enormous amount) is noted and placed in its time and circumstance, but [End Page 210] sometimes too quickly or superficially. Still there are frequently splendid and succinct judgments. Referring to Forster's advice about Woolf's story "Pearls and Swine" that he should present the scene as a blur, Glendinning accurately remarks: he "could do a lot with language, but he could not do 'blur.'" Or her judgment of The Wise Virgins as "like a book by a gifted adolescent in revolt," prompted by "a desire to hurt, whether he knew it or not."

Most crucially both as a source of the biography's successes and its shortcomings, it...


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