Good colonialist with a distaste for empire

Woolf in Ceylon - The Village in the Jungle
November 4, 2005

Leonard Woolf is perhaps best known as the husband of Virginia Woolf, for his wonderful autobiography and for his work in political theory and sociology. What is less known is that he was a colonial civil servant and novelist.

The experience of being an imperialist had an important influence on Woolf's life. In 1904, when he was 24, having formed friendships at Cambridge University with other future core members of the Bloomsbury Group such as Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster, Woolf found himself in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as a cadet in the colony's Civil Service. He did well, was promoted and developed an exceptional understanding of the Ceylonese, but he also formed a mistrust of imperialism. In 1911, he returned to England on leave and married Virginia Stephen. He resigned from the Ceylon Civil Service without returning to Ceylon and wrote The Village in the Jungle , a novel widely read in Sri Lanka and recognised by scholars of the region as a notable work of English colonial literature alongside Forster's A Passage to India , Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book and George Orwell's Burmese Days .

Christopher Ondaatje - collector, author and philanthropist - was brought up in Ceylon in the 1930s and 1940s, in the twilight of empire, before emigrating to Britain and then to Canada. In 2004, he returned to the land of his birth to retrace the steps of Woolf, the young civil servant. His book is not mere biography, for Ondaatje injects his own memory of empire, the experiences of his journey, historical sketches and more. He draws on Woolf's publications, principally the second volume of his autobiography, Growing , but also on his official diaries, correspondence, short stories and his novel.

The majority of chapters recreate Woolf's three disparate postings and his travels during his sojourn in Ceylon. His first destination was Jaffna in the north, with its Tamil culture and arid landscape. Woolf's journey was made without hindrance across what was considered a model colony; Ondaatje's, by contrast, took place in Tamil Tiger-held territory during the limbo of a ceasefire and involved negotiating checkpoints and witnessing the aftermath of war.

Woolf's early experiences of a foreign culture and colonial society are crucial to an understanding of his Ceylon years. His descriptions, as assembled by Ondaatje, of his non-intellectual colleagues, his loss of virginity, his frequent melancholy, his near-death from typhoid and a bizarre episode in which, as an assistant superintendent of the island's celebrated pearl fishery, he disciplined Arab divers with his walking stick, make for enlightening reading. His zest for efficiency did not endear him to his clerks, resulting in an unpopularity that prompted him to confess that it made him "dimly perceive the problems of the imperialist".

The next posting was in the hill capital and Sinhala heartland of Kandy, where Woolf became attracted to the culture of the majority and to Buddhism. Life improved when his sister and confidante, Bella, joined him.

He courted a tea planter's daughter, played his role as an imperialist with assurance, continued to exasperate his clerks, yet began to have reservations about empire and was dismayed to be put in charge of hangings in the city prison.

Woolf gained youthful promotion to the exalted position of assistant government agent of the remote coastal district of Hambantota, his most influential posting. He was the administrator and judge for a large area, one of only a handful of Europeans; an isolation he relished. He supervised salt production, issued hunting licences to aristocratic sportsmen, endeavoured to resolve the problems of the villagers and dispensed justice with wisdom yet severity. His total immersion in the life of the people and his fascination with the jungle led to the writing of his novel in London.

Ondaatje's later chapters deal with the influence of Woolf's imperial past on his life in Britain. One focuses on The Village in the Jungle , which Woolf believed was the "symbol" of his anti-imperialism. With it, he eschewed the convention of portraying the East through the impressions of the coloniser. Instead, he created characters from the colonised and, from his knowledge of the Ceylon villager, made them authentic. Since even his close friend Strachey thought the novel was "about nothing but blacks", it is little wonder that it failed to capture the imagination of most British readers.

Another chapter discusses Woolf's support for the political aspirations of the Ceylonese after his return to England and how, in 1960, aged 80, he revisited Ceylon, post-independence, at the Government's behest. With an epilogue in which Ondaatje goes in search of the probable village of Woolf's novel, the subject is covered in depth.

Photography evokes the period and charts the author's journey. There are some 130 photographs, a number of them unfamiliar historical images from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society. Of particular interest are the studies of everyday life that Woolf would have witnessed in 1904-11.

These are augmented by images taken from Growing showing Woolf and the pearl fishery. In often striking contrast are Ondaatje's contemporary photographs, especially those documenting the war-ravaged north.

Woolf in Ceylon is a handsome publication with a well-researched, explicatory and absorbing text. Ondaatje is adept at weaving the threads of the narrative into a rich tapestry of biography, travelogue and history that will appeal to the Woolf enthusiast, the colonial specialist, the more adventurous general reader and anyone with an interest in Sri Lanka.

In 1974, five years after Woolf's death in his late eighties, the original manuscript of his novel was gifted to Sri Lanka's Peradeniya University.

Comparison of this manuscript with the first and subsequent editions of the novel was undertaken by a distinguished academic, also a biographer and novelist, Yasmine Gooneratne, who, like Ondaatje, joined Sri Lanka's diaspora.

Gooneratne discovered that Woolf made numerous amendments to his manuscript before publication, mostly in pursuit of accuracy, objectivity and sensitivity. Although Woolf glossed some of the Sinhala words he employed, others went unexplained, as did the obscure aspects of the text concerning indigenous customs. A certain mystification has therefore always hampered the full appreciation of The Village in the Jungle by Western and indeed some Eastern readers. In addressing the problem with thoroughness, Gooneratne provides not just the novel's definitive edition but also the key to its enjoyment by future readers.

Richard Boyle lives in Sri Lanka and is the author of Knox's Words , a study of English words of Sri Lankan origin.

Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904-1911

Author - Christopher Ondaatje
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 326
Price - £24.95 and £12.95
ISBN - 0 00 200718 5 and 0 00 639525 2

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