Leonard Sidney Woolf : Born : 25th November 1880
Plaque Installed on Frome Railway Station : 25th November 2014
Cecil Woolf’s Speech on the Unveiling of the Plaque
Saturday 22nd November 2014
How do you relate a saga that lasted about seven years, full of fascinating detail, in ten minutes? Well, I will try.
When Leonard Woolf met Virginia Stephen one summer afternoon in 1903, we don’t know if it was love at first sight, but we do know from Leonard’s autobiography written half a century later, that her beauty, in a white dress and parasol, ‘took [his] breath away’.
Virginia Woolf – to give her her married name – has become a household name, not only in this country and America, but worldwide, so she needs no introduction from me. Leonard was my uncle – that is to say, one of my father’s older brothers. He was an extraordinary man: author and journalist, political thinker and campaigner, feminist, co-founder of a distinguished publishing house and has been pointed out both as a pivotal member and outsider of the Bloomsbury group. As husband of one of the great writers of the twentieth century, he has been somewhat eclipsed, but I think one can say, that without Leonard, the name Virginia Woolf would quite probably be unknown today.
I broke off with Leonard’s brief encounter with Virginia in 1903. For the next six and a half years he lost sight of her while he worked as a Colonial administrator in that far-flung outpost of the British Empire, Ceylon. During that time he kept in close touch with his friend and fellow-undergraduate at Cambridge, Lytton Strachey. In one of his letters to Leonard Lytton announces that he has proposed marriage to Virginia – and been accepted. Lytton, as we all know was gay, so it must have been a relief to all three of them, especially Leonard, that the engagement lasted only 24 hours, thus leaving the field open to himself. Leonard wrote at once to his friend, (I quote) ‘The most wonderful [thing] of all would have been to marry Virginia. She is I imagine supreme [‘supreme’ is a world that occurs frequently in their correspondence]. Do you think she would have me? Wire me, if she accepts. I’ll take the next boat home.’ He asked Lytton to ‘hand on’ his proposal of marriage via her sister Vanessa. Whether either Lytton or Vanessa passed it on we do not know.
Two years were to pass before Leonard was due for home leave. When he returned, in June 1911. he lost no time in seeking out Miss Stephen. At this time she is described as rather ‘fierce in her manner to most men’. She was a notably beautiful young woman, as we know from Beresford’s iconic photographic portrait, and it is not surprising that she had about half a dozen suitors. But Leonard was not ‘most men’ and the years in Ceylon, ruling an area almost as large as Wales, had not only radically changed his thinking on Colonialism but gained him a great deal of self-confidence, which together with his steely determination was to stand him in good stead in his courtship of Virginia Stephen.
Leonard’s sister, Bella Sidney Woolf, understood her younger brother well. She wrote to him, ‘You need a very special girl and if you don’t find her you’d better steer clear of matrimony . . . . If you marry a weak character you’ll squash her. You must marry someone who can hold her own with you and yet be good tempered’.
Sadly, there is no time this afternoon for details. We must fast forward to the time when, at last, Leonard boldly decided the time had come to propose marriage to Virginia. There are a number of versions of Leonard’s proposals, depending on which biography you read, but the one we are here to celebrate today took place on 11 January 1912 when Leonard was staying with his friend the Rector of the Church of St Mary Magdalene at Great Elm. Let me quote what he writes in his autobiography: ‘The change from the incessant whirl of London to the quiet somnolence of a Somerset rectory was the passing straight from a tornado into a calm, or from a saturnalia into a monastery. At last I had time to think. It took me 48 hours to come to a decision and on Wednesday I wired to Virginia asking whether I could see her next day. Next day I went up to London and asked her to marry me. She said she did not know and must have time – indefinite time – to see more of me before she could make up her mind . . .’ (Beginning Again, pp. 52-3)
When Leonard got back to Great Elm Rectory after his visit, before going to bed he wrote to Virginia: ‘I have not got any very clear recollection of what I really said to you this afternoon but I am sure you knew why I came – I don’t mean merely that I was in love but that that together with uncertainty drives me to do t
these things. Perhaps I was wrong, for before this week I always intended not to tell you unless I felt sure that you were in love & would marry me. I thought then that you liked me but that was all. I never realised how much I loved you until we talked about my going back to Ceylon. After that I could think about nothing but you. I got into a state of hopeless uncertainty, whether you loved me or could ever love me or even like me. God, I hope I shall never spend such a time again as I spent here until I telegraphed. I wrote to you once saying I would speak to you next Monday but then I felt I should be mad if I waited until then to see you. So I wired. I knew you would tell me exactly what you felt. You were exactly what I knew you are & if I hadn’t been in love before I would now. It isn’t, really it isn’t, merely because you are so beautiful – though of course that is a large reason & so it should be – that I love you: it is your mind & your character – I have never known anyone like you in that – won’t you believe that?
‘And now I will do absolutely whatever you want. I don’t think you want me to go away, but if you did, I would at once. If not, I don’t see why we cannot go on the same as before – I think I can – and then if you do find that you could love me you would tell me.
‘I hardly know whether I am saying what I mean or feel. I am extraordinarily tired. A dense mist covered the whole of Somerset & the train was late & I had to crawl my way from the station for 3 miles to the house.’
He ends by writing: ‘Don’t you think that the entrance of Walter almost proves the existence of a deity?’
This last sentence refers to Walter Lamb, another suitor, having arrived while Leonard was with Virginia, which helps to explain the confusion which Leonard alludes to in the opening of his letter.
I know our time is short, but I cannot resist quoting two passages from a letter Virginia was to write to Leonard on May Day 1912: ‘It seems to me that I am giving you a great deal of pain – some in the most casual way – and therefore I ought to be as plain with you as I can, because half of the time I suspect, you’re in a fog which I don’t see at all. Of course I can’t explain what I feel – these are some
of the things that strike me. The obvious advantages of marriage stand in my way. I say to myself, Anyhow, you’ll be quite happy with him; and he will give you companionship, children, and a busy life – then I say By God, I will not look upon marriage as a profession. The only people who know of it, all think it suitable; and that makes me scrutinise my own motives all the more. Then, of course, I feel angry sometimes at the strength of your desire. Possibly, your being a Jew comes in also at this point. You seem so foreign. And then I am fearfully unstable. I pass from hot to cold in an instant, without any reason; except that I believe sheer physical effort and exhaustion influence me. All I can say is that in spite of these feelings which go chasing each other all day long when I am with you, there is some feeling which is permanent and growing.’
This is a long letter and towards the end she writes: ‘If you can still go on, as before, letting me find my own way, as that is what would please me best; and then we must both take the risks. But you have made me very happy too. We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we? Perhaps we shall get it; then, how splendid!’
It is a letter which sends mixed messages. A lesser man than Leonard would I think have been deterred. But Leonard was ready to let Virginia ‘find [her] own way’ and go on as before.. It must have been a golden moment for him when later in May she agreed to marry him. They were wedded on Saturday, 10 August 1912.
As for the marriage, as most of you will know, it was a successful one, despite Virginia’s recurring mental breakdowns. Leonard, as a husband, has been variously depicted as either a long-suffering saint or a harsh, overbearing tyrant. I think Virginia herself should have the last words on the subject. After twenty years of marriage she wrote, ‘If it were not for L[eonard] how many times I should be thinking of death’. (Hermione Lee, p. 319) And again, a few hours before she decided to end her life in 1941, she wrote: ‘I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. . . . No one could have been so good as you have been’. (Hermione Lee pp. 759-60)
And to close, I would like to pay a very warm tribute to the Woolf Plaque Supporters for all the hard work and loving care that has gone into this permanent celebration of an historical link. I must also thank Mr Nicholas Reid, the Manager of Frome Railway Station (as well as most of the south-west), without whose support and commitment this project could not have been brought to fruition. I would also like to mention the image of the intertwined elm trees on the plaque that you’ll see in a moment, which have a double significance: firstly they symbolise the village from which Leonard set out on his romantic mission and secondly they remind us of the two great elm trees that stood at the end of the Woolfs’ garden at their Sussex country retreat, one of which Virginia named Leonard, the other Virginia. Their ashes were scattered at the foot of their respective tree.
It gives me great pleasure to unveil this tablet.
The great elms at Monks House, Rodmell from Virginia Woolf’s Photograph Album
A watercolour of The Rectory, Great Elm, 1881