Today in Literary History – August 14, 1969 – Leonard Woolf dies

Leonard Woolf, the editor, publisher, novelist, memoirist and husband of Virginia Woolf, died from a stroke on August 14, 1969 at the age of eighty-eight.

Woolf was born into a Jewish family in London. His father had been a lawyer but after he died when Woolf was eleven years old the family fell on hard times. Woolf did manage to earn a scholarship to Cambridge University, but the family had no money for further education.

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Virginia and Leonard on their wedding day

He entered the British Colonial Service in 1904 and spent the next seven years in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he learned Tamil and Sinhalese and rose to become a local administrator. Woolf was troubled though by his personal political opposition to the British colonial project. In 1911 he was granted a one year leave back to England and never returned to Ceylon.

In England he met Virginia Stephen, the sister of his Cambridge friend Thoby Stephen. Virginia referred to Woolf as “a penniless Jew” but they were married in 1912. Gradually, the couple accrued a group of intellectuals and artists around themselves, becoming integral figures in the Bloomsbury Group.

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Woolf published several novels but to only moderate success. He was soon eclipsed by Virginia’s literary success. He was also drawn into the role of being her nurse and protector as she suffered a series of mental breakdowns.

Virginia committed suicide in 1941, leaving a note to Woolf that said in part “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it.”

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Woolf was devastated by Virginia’s suicide. To help himself cope he worked harder at The Hogarth Press, the publishing house he and Virginia founded and devoted himself to editing and publishing her diaries.

Late in his life he began a project of writing a series of autobiographical books. They were well received and are still in print. The only one I have read is Growing, published in 1961 when he was eighty years old. It deals with his seven years in Ceylon and is very charming and full of dry wit and love of the local culture.

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