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Criticism 43.2 (2001) 189-210

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"Telling Brutal Things": Colonialism, Bloomsbury and the Crisis of Narration in Leonard Woolf's "A Tale Told by Moonlight"

Anindyo Roy

UPON RETURNING FROM Ceylon in 1911, where he had served for nearly eight years as a colonial bureaucrat, Leonard Woolf resigned his post in the colonial service and married Virginia Stephen, eventually settling down with her in their new home, Monk's House in Sussex in 1916. Along with Virginia and Vanessa and their Cambridge friends, Leonard Woolf established the "new" Bloomsbury Group as the center of a liberal aesthetic and intellectual culture fashioned after the tradition inherited from the late Victorians. During this period Leonard Woolf wrote his novel The Wise Virgins (1914), and a novel and three short stories based on his experienced in Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle (1913) and "Stories of the East" (1921). Woolf's five-part autobiography was to appear much later in the 1960s. Despite the growing body of scholarship on Bloomsbury, Leonard Woolf's fiction has been of peripheral interest to literary scholars. The Wise Virgins remains his most widely discussed literary work, mainly because of its portrayal of the troubled relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. 1 Praised by Quentin Bell as a novel of superbly dispassionate observation, but also reviled as a work with "too many blacks in it" 2 --this was the "reason" Lytton Strachey offered for not liking it--The Village in the Jungle was largely ignored by scholars. It was only during the 1960s, nearly fifty years after its first appearance in 1913, that scholars from South Asia recognized the novel as a significant social document about colonial Ceylon. As for "Stories of the East," it failed to generate any interest during Woolf's lifetime, and Woolf's contemporary Bloomsbury friends and peers, who had on other occasions been eager to express their personal views on his work, remained silent about this work. Modern critics seem largely to be unaware of its existence, and despite its republication in 1963 in Diaries in Ceylon [End Page 189] 1908-1911: Record of a Colonial Administrator, it has received no significant scholarly attention. Originally handprinted and published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, the collection appears to have quietly slipped out of the memory of Bloomsbury. The most recent, and to my knowledge the only, study of Woolf's colonial stories is to be found in Elleke Boehmer's "'Immeasurable Strangeness' in Imperial Times: Leonard Woolf and W. B. Yeats," in which she calls for their reassessment based on a re-thinking of modernism's troubled relationship with its own metropolitan identity, particularly during the last phase of the "age of empire." 3

How, then, does one begin to comprehend this silence? Does it have to do with Woolf's reputation as a creative writer, which rapidly faded after 1916 when he entered the arena of liberal left politics in Britain and undertook projects that involved the writing of political pamphlets in support of the League of Nations, and of his famous critiques of imperialism, such as Mandates and Empire (1920), Economic Imperialism (1921), and Imperialism and Civilization (1928)? Did these changes affect the perceptions of his peers and modern critics regarding his "literary" abilities? 4 Or did the silence stem from an inability on the part of the Bloomsbury circle and its critics to comprehend the stories' undercurrents--their persistent and often troubled questioning of the legitimacy of narrative authority derived from the power of metropolitanism and evoked in the name of the liberal State, or their challenge to the deeply entrenched orientalist impulse within Bloomsbury to objectify the colony as the realm of the "other?" 5 Although the stories are narrated in a recognizably modernist form, did the underlying question about questioning authority go beyond the issue of stylistic innovation and open up a particularly "brutal" history of power relations between the metropolis and the colony? 6 Did the recovery of this history mean that Woolf had targeted his...