Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ in the Literary Review (archive stuff)

Candour in Kandy

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’

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 also 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.

To find out more about Christopher Ondaatje’s books visit http://www.ondaatje.com

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