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Christopher Ondaatji
Woolf In Ceylon

Woolf In Ceylon

As one who has always been a bit afraid of Virginia Woolf and daunted by heavy tomes on the Bloomsbury group, I opened this book cautiously. I soon found that I was wrong to be nervous as I became caught up in a fascinating story. Leonard Woolf was Virginia 's husband and his life was far more interesting than hers.

The author, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, is one of the most remarkable men of our times. Now one of Britain 's leading philanthropists, his life, as he says himself, has been in some ways an echo of Woolf's. Skilfully, he interweaves his own childhood memories and experiences of the Ceylon of fifty years ago with the modern, ongoing, conflict between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese. And he does this without ever losing the main thread of his story: the life led by Leonard Woolf during his seven years in the Ceylon civil service. The many sepia pictures help to blur past and present. Many, dating from before World War I, come from the newly opened archives of the Royal Geographical Society, while others were taken by the author in recent years. They are timeless and I found myself constantly checking the Photographic Acknowledgements to see which era each came from. There are also lots of stunning colour photographs of the Sri Lanka of today.

This is how history should be told. The politics of the British Empire seen though the eyes of a superb administrator, whose gradual disillusionment with the system led to his becoming one of the key players in the development of the Labour Party between the wars and one of the foremost men of letters of the 20 th Century. It was his concern for the impoverished and exploited villagers Woolf lived and worked among that formed the basis of his subsequent socialism and his desire to improve the lot of Britain 's poor. His intimacy with and sympathy for the Sinhalese people was exceptional and resulted in an understanding of them unique among western writers of his time. The author rates him above Conrad and Forster in his ability to bring indigenous people alive, rather than concentrating on the characters of the white colonists. Kipling may have captured India even better, but his opinion of empire could hardly have been more different. Woolf's view of colonial rule and the life of a British civil servant comes across as clear and dispassionate, seeing the world from both sides, warts and all, while admiring the virtues of both. Yet, there is a constant sense of foreboding; a feeling that something was wrong and radical change inevitable: that ‘good government was no substitute for self-government'.

Until I read this book I had no idea how influential Leonard Woolf had been on the writings of other towering contemporary figures. Lytton Strachey was his great friend and they corresponded copiously and intimately. Later, he came to know well George Bernard Shaw, who also visited Ceylon and drew on Woolfs's experiences when writing about that country. Unlike Michael Holroyd's great biographies of Strachey and Shaw, Ondaatje's book is immediate and accessible to anyone – and not at all daunting!

There is a lot of sex, too, implicit rather than explicit, which is of course much more titillating. Woolf liked prostitutes, innocent dusky local girls. One of his published stories, “A Tale Told by Moonlight”, is about an Englishman who falls in love with a girl in a brothel, buys her out of it, lives with her, dresses her in European clothing and teaches her English. In time their differences prove greater than the attraction and he abandons her, when she drowns herself, dressed in her “stays and pink skirt and white stockings and shoes”. He had a peculiar relationship with his wife. Sexually incompatible, they loved each other fiercely to the end, in spite of her bouts of madness and her affair with Vita Sackville-West.

Ondaatje completed twenty years of research for Woolf in Ceylon late last year. Following in his tracks around the island, he stayed in the places where his subject had been posted a hundred years before, and he photographed them. The last of these, and the one they both loved best, was Hambantota, a fishing village in an utterly beautiful sandy bay on the south coast of the island. On December 26 th 2004 it was annihilated, one of the places worst hit by the monster waves of the tsunami. Virtually nothing of the town remains and few of the inhabitants survived.

Review by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Christopher Ondaatje's best book to date is a refreshingly creative illustrated biography of Leonard Woolf in the years preceding the Great War. Woolf in Ceylon is simultaneously a reconstruction of its subject's term of office as a civil servant on the colonial outpost; a photographic archive of a long-vanished society in the heyday of empire; a literal journey in Woolf's footsteps through war-ravaged twenty-first-century Sri Lanka; and an autobiographical travelogue. These four threads are woven together to make a well thought-out book, similar in genre to Ondaatje's Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2003). The literary world may well be thirsty for Victoria Glendinning's much-anticipated biography of the man of letters, but Ondaatje's timely offering constitutes a valuable analysis of Woolf in his most formative years.

Ondaatje is well placed to comment on Woolf: born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter, his early life is a curious mirror image of his subject's. While the young Woolf, freshly graduated from Cambridge, sailed eastward to Ceylon for a stint in the Civil Service in order to learn the imperial ropes, Ondaatje was packed off in the other direction to a private school in Devon to discover how to become an English gentleman. The parallels continue, and it's not hard to see why Woolf holds such a fascination for Ondaatje. Nor is it hard to draw the conclusion that Ondaatje's return to Sri Lanka in 2004 to take photographs for the book has a personal significance akin to that of Woolf's triumphant return to the island in the 1960s.

Woolf in Ceylon contains detailed explanations of some of the imperial workings of the British Civil Service, a system that plagued the highly strung Woolf. He was one of the first to see the cracks appearing in the British Empire, and his understanding of the situation clearly influenced the thinking of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party in the years leading up to 1945.

The volume also comprises an important reappraisal of Woolf's early novel The Village in the Jungle , which is set in Ceylon during the time of his posting there. Currently revived under the Eland banner (having been out of print in the UK since the early 1980s, though it has never gone out of print in Sri Lanka), the new edition has an afterword by Ondaatje. In this essay, as in Woolf in Ceylon , he convincingly contends that The Village in the Jungle 's importance lies primarily in its being one of the very few books to deal with a colonial situation from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser – a blatant clue to Woolf's developing mistrust of, and later disgust with, imperialism. In his epilogue Ondaatje indulges in some literary forensics as he sets out to find the original village of the title, long thought to be fictional. Working on the basis that Woolf's fiction is nearly always rooted in established, demonstrable fact, the author makes the not unreasonable assumption that the double murder central to the novel's plot must have happened in a real place. True to his explorer's instincts, Ondaatje not only finds the actual site of Beddagama but makes a plausible case for Woolf's association with it. Importantly, Woolf in Ceylon also offers an insight into and critique of Woolf's incredibly rare Stories from the East , three brilliantly revealing short pieces relating to his time in Ceylon that have previously only been available in a 1921 Hogarth Press edition limited to 300 copies (expensive!), or as an appendix to the improbably entitled Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911: Records of a Colonial Administrator, being the Official Diaries maintained by Leonard Woolf while Assistant Government Agent of the Hambantota District, Ceylon … ; & Stories from the East: Three Short Stories on Ceylon , available as a paperback only, and after considerable effort, in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ondaatje focuses much of his critical attention on the second volume of Woolf's acclaimed autobiography, Growing – the instalment that deals specifically with the Ceylon years. Much of the attraction of Woolf's five-volume autobiography is his lucid and candid self-examination. Sometimes this can border on the downright odd (as when, for example, he ponders humankind's relationship with its companion animals), but for the most part he is simply and elegantly matter-of-fact (and often very funny). His recollections of his youthful sexual promiscuity are only sensational in as much as they are an intellectual exercise in candour. He even reproduces a letter to his closest friend Lytton Strachey, in which he reveals how he lost his virginity to a Burgher girl in Jaffna.

But, sexual awakening aside, the real issue and defining characteristic of Woolf's Ceylon years – something that was to serve him well in later life – was his punishing work ethic: his ability to ‘stick at it' was to effect his meteoric rise to influence in Ceylon. He did the work of his superiors in Jaffna, organised social events in Kandy with great efficiency for Sir Hugh Clifford (the acting Governor of Ceylon and a notorious ladies' man), and was rewarded with the job of Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to the post. Woolf's efficiency and industry in the dry, south-eastern Hambantota district resulted in its becoming the best-run region in Ceylon. He doubled salt production as he had doubled pearl-fishing profits during his earlier posting in Jaffna.

Ondaatje is probably at his best when analysing Woolf's strange courtship of Virginia Stephen, whom he saw, with characteristic honesty, as less beautiful than her sister. Ondaatje is also observant on Lytton Strachey's influence on the couple's early relationship, as well as on the sensitive issue of Virginia's sexual abuse as a child by her elder half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth (published posthumously in Sketches of the Past ). These passages illuminate the loving but sexless marriage between two of the most influential figures in Edwardian literary circles.

The text of Woolf in Ceylon could easily stand on its own, but the inclusion of more than sixty photographs of Ceylon in the first decade of the twentieth century, drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, add real value. These heritage photos are more than ably supported by the author's own documentary shots of modern Sri Lanka, which serve to broaden the book's appeal and take Leonard Woolf on a quite unexpected journey into the mainstream. Woolf in Ceylon is certain to give today's reader a much clearer understanding of why his importance goes way beyond simply being Mr Virginia Woolf.

Nick Smith


There are few figures who are central to the cultures of two extremely different countries, still fewer who appeal deeply in both the East and the West. Leonard Woolf is one of this select band.

Christopher Ondaatje, who was born in Ceylon , has been intrigued by Leonard Woolf ever since he read Woolf’s unputdownable five-volume autobiography when it was published in the 1960s. Growing, the second volume, about Ceylon in 1904-11, resonated strongly with him, because he grew up in the waning years of the British Empire . Woolf in Ceylon is his homage to Woolf, in which he revisits his subject’s former imperial haunts while considering afresh the wide range of his writings on Ceylon . In a jungle village, he encounters Woolf as a living legend, which allows him to explain the origin of The Village in the Jungle more convincingly than any previous writer. I personally regard it as Christopher Ondaatje’s most valuable book to date.

Andrew Robinson

Literary Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement.

Author: Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye and Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man.

‘In a magical journey to the outposts of colonial Ceylon, Christopher Ondaatje has woven together the threads of Leonard Woolf’s short career in the island’s civil service and his increasing significance as the author of one of the greatest autobiographies ever written. This book is certain to give today’s reader a much clearer view as to why Woolf’s reputation is steadily growing, and why he is now deservedly regarded as one of the literary giants of the 20 th Century.’

Nick Smith

Editor, Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society

Braiding life and work with unmatched insight, Christopher Ondaatje's new book on Leonard Woolf opens up a new space for re-evaluating the career of a long neglected but important thinker and writer of the Bloomsbury Group. Ondaatje pays rare attention to Woolf as a narrator and a master craftsman who turned his own experience as a colonial bureaucrat into one of the most compelling works of fiction ever to be produced about the British Empire, placing him next to the so-called masters-Forster and Orwell. 

Anindyo Roy

Associate professor, Department of English, Colby College , Maine , USA .

Author:  Civility and Empire: Literature and Culture in British India , 1822-1922. 

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