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

by Christopher Ondaatje

Published by HarperCollins

303 pages, 2005

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You Can Go Home Again

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


With glossy, thick pages, a plethora of color and black and white photos, and a dust jacket sporting Leonard Woolf's portrait, this hefty hard cover could almost be a coffee table book, except -- who is going to pick it up? It will be right at home in the archives of the local library or the collections of a handful of academics, but it is hard to imagine its circulation justifying the expense.

The book covers a scant seven years of Woolf's life while he was a colonial administrator in the civil service in Ceylon, but how many people know who he was? A search on the Internet turns up just 40 matches for "Leonard Woolf," but in only one does his name come before his much more famous wife's, Virginia. He is primarily described as a critic and writer on politics and economics, a practical theorist, a literary editor and an administrator in Ceylon. Some readers may also recall that he started the Hogart House Press, a highly successful publishing venture.

However overshadowed by her immense reputation he may have been, it seems that Virginia's husband has found a champion in Ondaatje and perhaps in Nick Smith, editor of Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographic Society, whose comments appear on the back cover jacket. "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 twentieth century."

But how much can we learn about Woolf's literary skills from a book whose topic is Woolf's short career in early Ceylon's civil service? Unfortunately the answer is, very little.

Although Ondaatje wanders off the book's topic in Chapter eight to elucidate and give us plot details on some of the former's works -- mostly notably The Village in the Jungle -- most readers will be more interested in details of how the fiction mirrors Woolf's experiences in Ceylon. And intentional or not, I'm afraid many readers will be alienated by much of the Woolf they do meet on these pages. It was a different time, to be sure, a time of British Imperialism and male dominance, but it's difficult to warm to a man whose most common expression for an elderly woman is a "hag," who writes in a letter to his friend: "Most women naked when alive are extraordinarily ugly, but dead they are repulsive...." and who calls a gracious 80-year old Empress, "positively ugly." In letters home to his Bloomsbury Circle friends, again and again he rails against the low class of the circle he's forced into and the lack of suitable intellectual company even whilst going out of his way to charm this self same group.

Happily, however, the book is not just about Woolf. Although the reader may be ill-prepared for what was to me the main thrust of the work, the subtitle does help shed some light. Ondaatje returns to the country of his birth to follow in Woolf's footsteps, and to compare colonial Ceylon with self governing Sri Lanka. That's his motivation. The travelogue that ensues as a result of this is the most interesting part of Woolf in Ceylon. The photos he has managed to unearth to illustrate this lavish book truly capture the essence of a land and its people. Many were taken by the author, while others are credited to the estate of Henry Lamb, private collection; the Royal Geographical Society; the University of Sussex and the Society of Authors as their representative, and the Hulton Archive/Getty Images, to mention only some.

It's always interesting when a person returns to an altered place after many years, so in following Ondaatje's journey, we find it easy to forget about Woolf and to enjoy instead the sensations and feelings of a man returning home after 43 years, drinking coconut arrack and feasting on sambols, curries and tilapia, then falling asleep lulled by the "thudding sound of the surf." Descriptions of the routes, the towns, the history, the people, the war-torn areas and the geography of this ethnically diverse island are so enthralling that the ultimate effect of the book is to spur a very keen desire to go there. I wonder if that's what the writer intended?

This is no ordinary author. Born in Ceylon and educated in Britain, Ondaatje emigrated to Canada in 1956. He built a successful career in corporate finance, established Pagurian Press in 1967 and after retirement began a new career as a writer. Some of his books include Hemingway in Africa, The Prime Ministers of Canada and Journey to the Source of the Nile. Ondaatje is also director of the World Wildlife Fund and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, was named an Officer, Order of Canada in 1993 and was awarded a Knighthood in the Queen's honours list in England in 2003, where he now lives. Many readers will be curious as to whether he's related to Sri Lankan born Michael Ondaatje, one of Canada's most celebrated playwrights and novelists, whose book, The English Patient, many are familiar with. The answer is -- yes. Michael is a younger brother. I guess some things just run in the family. | December 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.