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Woolf in Ceylon; an Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf 1904-1911

by Christopher Ondaatje
326 pages,
ISBN: 0002007185


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Candour in Kandy
by Nick Smith

In a world where new books are increasingly drafted by marketing departments and commissioned by accountants, it's good to see HarperCollins, if not exactly bucking the trend, then at least making a genuine editorial contribution in the form of Christopher Ondaatje's best book to date¨a refreshingly creative illustrated biography of Leonard Woolf in the pre-Great War years. Woolf in Ceylon is, in fact, more than standard-fare "Englit biog", being simultaneously a reconstruction of Woolf's term in 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 21st century Sri Lanka; and an autobiographical travelogue by an author who is a distinguished explorer in his own right. These four threads are woven together to make an extremely well thought-out book, much in the manner of Ondaatje's genre-defining 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 an important analysis of Woolf in his most formative years. The current flurry of activity around Woolf is a reflection of his growing reputation as one of the literary big guns of the 20th century.
Ondaatje is well entitled to comment on Woolf¨ born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter, the biographer's 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 imperialist 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. It's also hard not 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 Woolf's triumphant return to the island in the 1960s.
Woolf in Ceylon contains detailed explanation 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, which was to be disbanded with amazing alacrity after the Second World War, 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 Christopher Ondaatje. In this essay, as in Woolf in Ceylon, he correctly contends that the importance of The Village in the Jungle 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 as 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 convincing case for Woolf's association with it. Importantly, Woolf in Ceylon also offers 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 of 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 installment 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 (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 inasmuch 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; he organised social events in Kandy with great efficiency for Sir Hugh Clifford¨the acting Governor of Ceylon (a notorious ladies' man)¨and was rewarded with the Assistant Government Agent job in Hambantota, becoming the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to the post. Woolf's efficiency and industry in the dry south-east Hambantota area resulted in the district being the best-run region in Ceylon. He doubled salt production as he had doubled the pearl-fishing profits during his earlier posting in Jaffna.
Ondaatje is probably at his best when analysing Woolf's strange and emotional courtship of Virginia Stephen, whom he saw, with characteristic honesty, as less beautiful than her sister. Ondaatje is also heedful of Lytton Strachey's influence on the couple's early relationship, as well as of 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, presumably not by Duckworth). 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 60 early photographs of Ceylon in the first decade of the 20th century, drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, adds real value. These heritage photos are more than ably supported by the author's own documentary shots of modern Sri Lanka that serve to broaden the book's appeal and take Leonard Woolf on a quite unexpected journey into the mainstream. In so doing Woolf in Ceylon is certain to give today's reader a much clearer view as to why Leonard's importance goes way beyond simply being Mr. Virginia Woolf.
Nick Smith is the editor of the Geographical Magazine.
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