Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account of his experience in Jaffna is both similar and different from the readings we have had thus far. We get the sense of the reluctant colonial administrator – after having been ‘transformed’ from an “unconscious imperialist” to becoming “fully aware of its (British imperialism’s) nature and problems” – reminding us of George Orwell, for instance. Yet, the crucial difference lies in the very genre of Woolf’s writing per se, for, by tradition, we are trained to perceive autobiographies as ‘truthful’ (but no less controversial) accounts.
I wish to suggest a rather sympathetic reading of Woolf’s account. While a critic can easily turn the modernist ethos of “unreality and theatricality” as the very antithesis of what Woolf is in my opinion trying to portray, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. One reason, I suppose, is because the amount of emotionally-charged, judgmental remarks on the Ceylon people is within my tolerable limit, although there is no doubt that he does perceive his surroundings through an exoticized spectacle (“I came to like them and their country, though never as much as I like the lazy, smiling, well-mannered, lovely Kandyans in their lovely mountain villages or the infinite variety of types among the Low Country Sinhalese in their large, flourishing villages or the poverty and starvation stricken villages in the jungle”; all emphases mine).
Over all, Woolf’s arguably “quiet complexity”, to use Claire Messud’s words, might have given me the impression of being an earnest, perhaps, travel writer.