Feminists love Virginia Woolf. Her selfishness (coupled with undeniable brilliance) attracts them. Leonard, her long-suffering husband, hasn’t fared as well with them.
As John Gross writes in a review of Victoria Glendinning’s new biography of Leonard, the feminist attack on Leonard’s reputation followed soon on the heels of his death:
“[I]n no time at all, came a surge of feminism — and of malice unleashed in the name of feminism. Within a year or two of Leonard’s death, he was being reviled as a persecutor and an oppressor. There were claims that he had done his best to undermine his wife’s genius, and even her sanity.
“Absurd though they were, these accusations have not entirely died down. As recently as 1998, a book was published entitled Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf?, with the clear implication that Virginia, for one, should have been very afraid indeed. But Glendinning will have none of it. She does not idealize Woolf as a husband, or simplify his role. He often stood guard over Virginia in ways that would have been hard to justify if she had had a more stable personality. But Glendinning’s final verdict is overwhelmingly favorable, and completely convincing. You are left in no doubt, after reading her, that he was as supportive — or very nearly — as almost everyone once assumed.”
The Bloomsbury crowd, over which Virginia reigned (though Leonard wasn’t quite accorded consort status), wasn’t a very nice bunch of folks — that didn’t mean that they couldn’t write immortal prose. They could, and several of them did. John Gross’s review dwells on one of Virginia’s least attractive qualities — her anti-Semitism. When she married Leonard, she often described him as “a penniless Jew.”
“It need hardly be said that Virginia’s unfavorable reflections on Jews were not confined to remarks about her in-laws,” writes Gross. “A curious example of how contorted her reactions could be occurred at a lunch in 1929 at which she met Sir Philip Sassoon.
“The Sassoons — ‘the Rothschilds of the East’ — were an immensely wealthy family of Iraqi Jews who had made their fortune in Bombay and settled in England. By Philip’s time, they were firmly entrenched in English life. A baronet (the third Sassoon in succession to hold the title), he was educated at Eton and Oxford, and during World War I he served as private secretary to the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Haig. His subsequent positions ranged from minister for the air force to chairman of the National Gallery. A friend of Proust (whose sexual tastes he shared), he was renowned for his opulent homes and his work as a patron of the arts.
“All this needs to be known if one is to register the full force of the description of Sir Philip Sassoon that Virginia set down after their lunchtime encounter: ‘an underbred Whitechapel Jew.’ (Whitechapel was the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side.) It is hard to imagine an insult further off-target — unless one is looking for confirmation of the anti-Semitic principle that all Jews are interchangeable.”
To their credit, both Woolfs did see the horror of Hitler early on. But Virginia’s anti-Semitism is still shocking.
And, as usual, the feminists have embraced the wrong person — Leonard, long-suffering Leonard, is such a more appealing character than his wife.