Nathan Sivasambu presented a lengthy and detailed seminar paper to promote a debate on whether or not Leonard Woolf can be called an imperialist. The main thrust of his paper was that “It was naïve and misleading…..to say that Woolf was an ‘imperialist’ when he arrived and an ‘anti-imperialist’ when he left Sri Lanka…because although Woolf has used these terms in referring to himself, we need to spell out what he meant by this”.
In pursuit of this, Sivasambu reflected on Woolf’s time at Cambridge where, along with literary luminaries like Lytton Strachey and the philosopher G.E. Moore (author of ‘Principia Ethica’), he was part of the self-styled “Apostles”. They prided themselves on their attachment to “values which transcended their age and their country”( in other words beyond imperialism). This group was a legacy of the Cambridge enlightenment which was heavily influenced by Darwin, Marx and Freud. Above all, the Apostles elevated “the divine voice of plain common sense” while questioning the “truth and authority of the establishment”….. “We were in the van of the builders of a new society which should be free, rational, civilised, pursuing truth and beauty”.
|Woolf: An apostle who turned anti-imperialist? Pic courtesy bbc.co.uk
Woolf came from a solid middle class Jewish family in Putney who had produced well-known, successful lawyers and judges for several generations. As such, with no private income, unlike several of his colleagues within the Apostles, he had to earn a living. While abjuring the law, he passed the Ceylon Civil Service exams and left for Colombo in 1904. Woolf therefore became a member of the imperialist class by default.
To quote from Sivasambu’s paper – “whilst Woolf had an authoritarian façade, his sympathy and imagination were engaged by the (Sri Lankan) people. This was not true of most, if not all, the other British civil servants.” Woolf himself found his CCS colleagues to be “lacking in imagination and sympathy” towards those they governed. However, he himself admits, in one of his diary entries, that “I had entered Ceylon as an imperialist ….and the curious thing is that I was not really aware of this.” He wrote that over the next six years, he “saw from the inside British imperialism at its apogee and ……gradually became fully aware of its nature and its problems.”
Woolf is probably best known for his novel about the life of the inhabitants of Baddegama, a fictional village in the jungle between Hambantota and Yala, during the early 20th century –“Village in the Jungle”. This book was written on Woolf’s return to Bloomsbury in 1911 while his experiences as Assistant Government Agent Hambantota - his last posting – were still fresh in his mind. One of the major questions posed and debated at the recent seminar was: where do we place this novel in 20th century literature? Does it belong squarely in Sri Lankan literature in English or should it be placed as an early forerunner of world literature or should it be placed in literature belonging to the British Empire and/or the Commonwealth or is it strictly part of English literature? There was considerable discussion about this at the seminar.
Ian Griffiths of the Virgina Woolf Society remarked that the British Empire had produced little good literature and that Woolf’s novel was one of the best examples of the genre and should be appreciated more widely. Dr. Jane Russell pointed out that ‘Village in the Jungle’ was comparable to “Passage to India” and “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” as an example of imperial literature , except that it “did not have enough white people in it to become popular : it had a narrow focus but within that, it was perfect”. A member of the audience however, described it as a “flawed book” and said that Woolf himself would not “have described it as a great novel as he had his own ideas of what made a great novel (as evidenced by his contribution to Virginia Woolf’s literary output) and “Village in the Jungle” does not correspond to these ideas”.
Jan Kostowski, an artist from Poland living and working in London described the book as bleak but said in relation to the village woman who was the book’s main character that Woolf was “drawn to vulnerable and exceptional outsiders like himself – due to his Jewish background which necessarily cut him off from his fellow British imperialists”. A British lady member of the audience, who said she had visited Sri Lanka on a number of occasions, described the novel as “exceptional” and as “epitomising the Cambridge liberal sensibility”. She said that she had gained insight into Sri Lankan society through reading it.
Mr. Sivasambu then introduced Madame Micha Venaille, a French academic who is translating Woolf’s autobiographical volumes into French. She had recently been interviewed by ‘Sandesaya’ for the BBC World Service. Madame Venaille spoke about “Village in the Jungle”. She said that Woolf was essentially “an outsider who had built a wall around himself, a carapace. But he was an extraordinary observer of people and there is a symbiotic relationship between Woolf and the Sinhalese villagers about whom he wrote which made it a unique book”. However, what had most struck her was that his fellow Apostles, Lytton Strachey in particular, had either condemned the book as being an irrelevant and dull work about “blacks” or had said nothing about it at all, which she felt was at odds with their professed liberal sentiments. This point was taken up by the earlier Sri Lankan speaker who said that what had repelled Woolf’s erstwhile intellectual colleagues was the content of “Village in the Jungle” which was not only about “natives” but also about the “poor” - which would have made it doubly shocking to them. Madame Venaille responded that this only made Woolf appear the greater writer.
A Sri Lankan lady member of the audience then posed the question “If Leonard Woolf had not written this book and married Virginia, would we be bothered with this centenary at all?“ Ian Griffiths (of the Virginia Woolf Society) agreed that Leonard Woolf was “the most famous husband in literary history” but he pointed out that despite Woolf’s self-effacing personality (something noted earlier by Dr. Russell), as an unofficial adviser to the Foreign and Colonial Office during the Versailles peace negotiations, Woolf had come up with the idea of the League of Nations, which was included in the Versailles Peace Treaty and has led to the present-day United Nations. He continued to stay in touch with the FCO and was used by them and the Labour Party as an unpaid adviser on South Asian colonial affairs. Mr. Sivasambu added that when D.B. Jayatilleke and E.W. Perera came to London to try to get the Colonial Office to send a Commission of Enquiry to Ceylon to investigate the 1915 riots, it was Woolf who led their delegation to the Colonial Office and made representations, unsuccessfully, on their behalf--- and all this as a private British citizen.
Jane Russell suggested that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that it had been Woolf, acting behind the scenes, who had influenced his friend and fellow Bloomsbury group member, Sydney Webb, the Labour Minister of Colonial Affairs, to send out the radical-thinking Donoughmore Commissioners to Sri Lanka in 1931. They had surprised the English-speaking world by awarding universal franchise to the Crown Colony of Ceylon, thereby paving the way for democracy to be introduced throughout the empire – the inevitable forerunner of the empire’s demise. Sivasambu, in his paper, quotes Woolf as saying “My seven years as a civil servant in Ceylon have made me very much a political animal and I have remained such ever since”. But Woolf in his self-effacing way doubted the value of his own political contribution. He once calculated that he had worked 150,000 hours for the Labour Party executive and wondered “ Was it worth it?
(Part 2 next week)