Leonard Woolf was born in London in 1880. He spent five years at Trinity College, Cambridge — probably the most formative of his life — where he began lasting friendships with men such as Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes. In 1904, Woolf applied to join the home civil service but failed the exam. Instead, he was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as a cadet in the Ceylon civil service, joining the small group of white administrators who ruled the colony. There he remained for nearly seven years.
In Woolf in Ceylon, Christopher Ondaatje, who was born and brought up in the island, follows in the footsteps of Woolf. Drawing on his personal experience of Ceylon and empire, he compares the way of life during imperial days with that of the post-colonial era. We learn as much about the country and its people and their transformation of the country during the past century as we do about the man who used his colonial career to become one of the leading English men of letters of the twentieth century.
Ondaatje’s sensitive descriptions, illustrated with period and modern photographs, tell the compelling story of Woolf’s sojourn in Ceylon and his developing disillusionment with the British colonial system. The result is a unique evocation of both a vanished imperial world and colonial servant’s enduring legacy in the contemporary culture of an enchanted but troubled island.