Leonard and Virginia Woolf: writing against empire Anna Snaith, King’s College London Abstract



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Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, Empire and Commerce in Africa, empire, anti-colonialism, economic imperialism

Scholarship on Virginia Woolf has turned its attention increasingly to the representation of empire in her writing. This has manifested itself in a reordering of the Woolf canon, with texts such as The Voyage Out (1915) or ‘Thunder at Wembley’ (1924) coming to the forefront. It has also meant engagement with the way London monumentalises empire in Mrs Dalloway (1925), for instance, or The Years (1937) as a novel peopled by the colonial returned. Virginia Woolf’s family was populated on both sides by men (and women) engaged in empire work. Her mother was born in India to a family of Anglo-Indian administrators. Relatives on her father’s side were abolitionists: her great-grandfather, James Stephen, was an ally of William Wilberforce, and his son, another James Stephen, drafted the 1833 legislation that ended slavery. It is surprising, however, that relatively little attention has been paid to one of most significant routes by which Woolf would have gained knowledge about colonial issues: her husband, Leonard. After his work for the Colonial Civil Service in Ceylon between 1904 and 1911, he became one of the most significant theorists of anti-imperialism in Britain in the interwar period.

This essay will argue for a more intertwined reading of the Woolfs’ engagement with imperialism. It will achieve this by reading trans-genericallynot by comparing their two ‘village in the jungle’ novelsbut by setting The Voyage Out (1915) alongside Leonard Woolf’s Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920). We already know, from Virginia’s letters and diaries and Leonard’s autobiography, the extent of Leonard’s familiarity with his wife’s writing, but the depth of her knowledge of his nonfiction texts has been less clear. The recent discovery by Michèle Barrett of close to 800 pages of notes taken by Virginia as research for Leonard’s Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920) reveals that she was not just a passive reader of this text but a collaborator if not co-author (Barrett, 2013). I want to suggest, however, that even before undertaking this research, Virginia was thinking about empire in terms similar to those Leonard would articulate in his wide-ranging and ground-breaking study. This essay, then, offers new perspectives on Leonard Woolf’s anti-imperialism by highlighting points of convergence with Virginia Woolf’s fictional work. This more collaborative or symbiotic intellectual relationship between the Woolfs has been obscured by deep-rooted accounts of Leonard as his wife’s guardian or minder. The persistence of such readings of the marriage (confirmed and reinforced by the 2002 film version of The Hours) is evidenced by the fact that these note cards have lain untouched for so long.

In the later 1920s into the 1930s, the Woolfs shared their views on imperialism through their work at the Hogarth Press, a key disseminator of fiction by colonial writers as well as a notable publication route for anti-imperialist thought. CLR James published The Case for West Indian Self-Government in 1933 as No. 16 in Hogarth’s Day to Day political pamphlet series. James had arrived in Bloomsbury from Trinidad the year before, and it is telling that an intellectual who would go on to become one of the twentieth century’s most significant postcolonial theorists identified the Hogarth Press as a suitable publisher for one of his earliest works of anti-colonialism. Subsequent titles in the series included WG Ballinger, Race and Economics in South Africa (1934); Leonard Woolf, The League and Abyssinia (1936); Leonard Barnes, The Future of the Colonies (1936) (Woolmer, 1986: 199). Mulk Raj Anand, the Indian nationalist and writer, worked for the Press as a proof-corrector and published stories with John Lehmann’s New Writing series (see Snaith, 2010). Other key writers on empire included Norman Leys (Kenya (1924), Last Chance in Kenya (1931) and The Colour Bar in Africa (1941)) and Sydney Olivier (The Anatomy of African Misery (1927) and White Capital and Coloured Labour (1929)), whose The Myth of Governor Eyre, on the brutal suppression of the 1865 uprising in Jamaica, had been published alongside James’ pamphlet. The Press published the first book in English by a Kikuyu writer: Githendu Parmenas Mockerie’s An African Speaks for His People (1934).

These publications certainly speak more of Leonard’s imprint than Virginia’s: many of them coming to him via his work for the Labour Party’s Advisory Committee on International and Imperial Questions in the 1920s. Prior to Barrett’s discovery, it was known that in 1917 Virginia was researching and indexing for Leonard (V Woolf, 1977: 229n) and that she was familiar with the published work: ‘I’m reading it for the second timeto me it seems superb’ (V Woolf, 1976: 413). She also uses a phrase from one of Leonard’s epigraphs‘Ce chien est à moi’ from Pascal’s Pensées—in A Room of One’s Own (1929). In the Leonard Woolf Archive at the University of Sussex are 783 folios covered with Virginia’s notes: some typed, some handwritten. The notecards represent extensive empirical data on international trade, taken, as Barrett describes, from British Consular Reports and books on European contact with Africa. The fact that these notes have only recently come to light indicates the persistence of limited and misguided accounts of Virginia Woolf’s engagement with politics. It was assumed that she could only have had a passing interest in the politics of empire; our critical narratives go a long way to determining what we find in the archives. These research notes are hugely significant therefore in what they reveal about Virginia’s knowledge of European colonial relations with Africa and for what they indicate about the intellectual working relationship of the Woolfs.

I want to build on these findings by suggesting that Virginia did not just act as an unacknowledged scribe or secretary for Leonard’s ground-breaking volume, but that she had actually anticipated his central thesis about the economic motivations behind imperial expansion in her first novel The Voyage Out (1915). It was not simply that by carrying out research for Leonard, Virginia went on a crash-course on imperialism in Africa, but that she was already conceiving of the colonial encounter as one based on exploitative economic relations. My aim here is not to pinpoint exact lines of influence in one direction or another, but to highlight congruence in the writing of husband and wife so as to suggest a more flexible and mutual intellectual relationship between them. It is also to recognise, amidst a reconsideration of Leonard’s 1913 novel, the significance of his non-fiction writing and the need, when considering anti-colonialism in the modernist period, to read across the fiction/non-fiction divide.

Critics have noted the intertwined composition and content of their two ‘village in the jungle’ novels. Although Virginia had started work on her first novel in 1907, its gestation was protracted and she was revising The Voyage Out after she read The Village in the Jungle in manuscript in 1912. As Mark Wollaeger argues, Virginia ‘changed three crucial tightly-linked scenes’ including the river trip undertaken by the English tourists to visit a native village (2003: 52). The novel’s young protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, dies after this trip and her encounter with a village of indigenous women. But the novels are also very differing projects. Leonard’s detailed depiction of Sinhalese village life from the inside is, as he wrote, ‘the symbol of the anti-imperialism which had been growing upon me more and more in my last years in Ceylon’ (L Woolf, 1964: 47). His focus on the ‘Sinhalese way of life’ as opposed to the ‘dreary pomp and circumstance of imperial government’ suggests a desire to see from the position of the colonised if not a position of envy. He describes being ‘obsessed’ and ‘fascinated’ with jungle life: he ‘tried vicariously to live their lives’ (L Woolf, 1964: 47-48). As Dominic Davies and Priyasha Mukhopadhyay explore in detail in this special issue, he depicts the various effects of empire: the legal, economic and bureaucratic systems that marginalise and make vulnerable Silindu and his family; the position of the headman, Babun, who uses the system of fines and debts for his own profit, and the power held by those who speak English. For all the limitations resulting from Leonard’s European vantage point, such as the representation of the jungle itself as malign space, the novel is a remarkable attempt to think transculturally. When compared, for example, with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which delineates the violent abuses of imperialism yet relies on a dehumanising and homogenising representation of indigenous peoples, The Village in the Jungle seems more akin to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in its desire to depict the workings of a community from the inside, as Nisha Manocha discusses later at greater length. In The Voyage Out, by contrast, Virginia’s emphasis is, characteristically, on the coloniser and the links between imperialism, patriotism and patriarchal control. The indigenous peoples encountered on the river trip are described in terms of an unchanging, eternal primitivism: ‘So it would go on for ever and ever […] those women sitting under the trees’ (V Woolf, 1970: 289). In a similar way to the African peoples in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (with which Leonard and Virginia were surely in dialogue), they function, in part, as a catalyst for the European protagonist’s moment of enlightenment/horror as symbolised by the tropical disease that ultimately kills Rachel.

But instead of contrasting these two novels, I want to investigate the Woolfs’ shared articulation of economic imperialism. This resonance is encapsulated in a repeated phrase in The Voyage Out and Empire and Commerce in Africa: the concept of ‘buying cheap and selling dear.’ The profit motive is central to the exploitative trade relations that frame the contact between Europeans and South Americans in The Voyage Out. Mr and Mrs Flushing, who instigate the trip up the Amazon, are bohemian travellers, artists and art collectors who buy up indigenous goods to sell to women for enormous profit in London. When Rachel visits Mrs Flushing’s hotel room she finds the room covered with her paintings. Mrs Flushing, with a paintbrush in her mouth, opens her wardrobe and tosses ‘a quantity of shawls, stuffs, cloaks, embroideries, on to the bed’ (V Woolf, 1970: 237). As Rachel moves to touch them, again, she ‘dropped a quantity of beads, brooches, earrings, bracelets, tassels, and combs among the draperies’ (238). ‘“My husband rides about and finds ‘em”’, she explains, ‘“they don’t know what they’re worth, so we get ‘em cheap. And we shall sell ‘em to smart women in London”’ (238). The river excursion is a chance to replenish their stocks. In this crucial central scenewhich was extended after she read her husband’s novelVirginia outlines, in microcosm, the global economic and political dynamics on which imperialism depends.

In Empire and Commerce in Africa, Leonard writes:

Whatever be the cause, it is certain that at no time in the history of the world has there existed a society of human beings dominated by such a universal economic passion as ours is. It is the passion of buying cheap and selling dear. The commodities which we desire to sell dear and to buy cheap differ from person to person: some of us deal in wheat and cotton goods, others in labour, others in the product of the intellect or imagination. But in all these transactions […] we unconsciously accept the same principle, ideal, and even obligation: to make a profit […] by selling in the dearest and buying in the cheapest market.

The application of this principle to the relations of Europeans to Africans is undoubtedly the fundamental cause of the African problem. Europe has treated the African and his land simply as something to make a profit out of, something which it could buy very cheap and sell very dear’ (L Woolf, 1998: 360).

Leonard’s critique here, of course, is of capitalism: ‘the capitalist system in Europe produces the exploitation of Africa’ as the profit-driven search for cheap labour and goods moves ever outwards (1998: 362). The echo of this repeated phrase and its application to the economic motivation behind colonialism suggests the intellectual and political symbiosis in the Woolfs’ writing. Well before she was involved in preparing Leonard’s fullest articulation of economic imperialism, Virginia Woolf saw the colonial relationship in these terms rather than one based around the ‘civilising mission’ or the ‘white man’s burden’. In Leonard’s obsessive repetition of the phrase ‘buying cheap and selling dear’ we can hear an echo of many of the colonialist aspects of Virginia’s first novel, which Leonard thought ‘extraordinarily good’ (L Woolf, 1964: 81).




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