8 September 2023

British writer and publisher Leonard Woolf with Margaret Llewelyn Davies, in 1916.

In the garden of Monk’s House, the small Sussex cottage they bought in 1919, stand the busts of Virginia (1882-1941) and Leonard Woolf (1880-1969). Like Philémon and Baucis, the mythical couple, they sometimes seem to lean towards each other, testifying to the intimacy that bound them for almost thirty years – from their marriage in 1912 until the suicide of the writer, drowned in the Ouse, the river a few meters away.

However, if we know well the brilliant author of Mrs Dalloway (1925), The Lighthouse Walk (1927) or Orlando (1928), we are less familiar in France with the man who gave him his name. Leonard Woolf is not only “the husband of…”, far from it. Pioneer of anti-colonialism and inspirer of the League of Nations, director of several literary reviews and co-founder of the famous Bloomsbury group, he is also the author of a substantial body of work: short stories, novels, a play, a large number of essays on socialism and imperialism, to which must be added six volumes of a gigantic and captivating autobiography, compiled in French in My life with Virginia (Les Belles Lettres, 2016).

Continuing their effort to disseminate the work of Leonard Woolf, Les Belles Lettres are today publishing an unpublished text, The Wise Virgins (1914), accompanied by a reissue of his first novel, The Village in the Jungle (1913). The opportunity to discover this other Woolf who, in his own way, marked British literary and intellectual life.


Leonard Woolf was 24 when, on a windy day in October 1904, he left England aboard the liner Syria of the shipping company P & O. Freshly graduated from Cambridge, he had just been taken to the Ceylon Civil Service to work in the colonial administration of the island (now Sri Lanka). On board, he travels in the company of his faithful wire-haired fox terrier and… Voltaire, whose complete works he has taken with him, ie ninety volumes. What to take care of before docking in Colombo three weeks later.

Woolf will live seven years in Ceylon. This “radical cut” made him “the effect of a second birth”he notes in My life with Virginia. He learns Tamil, Sinhalese, closely observes local customs and succumbs to an ambivalent fascination for the jungle. All this inspired her first novel, The Village in the Jungle (L’Age d’homme, 1991), a thousand miles from the colorful exoticism of Douanier Rousseau, which illustrates the cover of its reissue. “The longer you are in the jungle, the more you tend to feel it personified, as someone hostile”, he wrote. And this danger resonates with another law of the jungle, that which undermines relations between the British and the natives. Widely read on the Indian subcontinent, this novel is an important milestone in English anti-colonialist literature. For Woolf himself, who could have stayed in India and made a good career there, he will play a revealing role. “My seven years in Ceylon had made me a political animal”he adds. “My first experience (of life) allowed me to understand in which direction my journey would go: to the left. » From the novel, he will move on to committed essays and will also become secretary of the Labor Party.

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