Misery loves company

Since we were on the topic of gender, and particularly the representation of women in the modernist colonial texts, I think it will of interest in our study to highlight the profoundly telling similarity in the dialectic between surface and depth in the subjectivity of the female/colonized other in Leonard Woolf’s Growing.

Introducing the readers to Sinnatamby at the Jaffna country club, Woolf writes: “I used to watch Sinnatamby with some interest, a big stoutish Tamil in a voluminous white cloth and towering maroon turban… He was extremely respectful, but I sometimes thought that I caught in his eye a gleam which belied the impassive face when some more than usually outrageous remark… echoed up into the heavy scented immense emptiness of the tropical evening sky… I could imagine generations of Sinnatambys standing respectfully behind their white masters in India right back to before the Mutiny – and some of them with that gleam in the eye getting their own back during the Mutiny.” (45-46)

This image of Sinnatamby in a “voluminous white cloth and towering maroon turban” is later uncannily mirrored by Mrs. Dutton, “dressed completely in white in a voluminous, bride-like dress”, her “glossy black hair parted in the middle”. Looking as though “filled with bridal veils”, the “overpowering smell of clean linen” betrays a “feeling of unmitigated chastity”, and the Dutton’s bedroom figures as a kind of virginal prison chamber. If women can only achieve legitimized status through marriage, then Mrs. Dutton’s unconsummated marriage would make her an less than a legitimate entity, thus marking an affinity between the conditions of the English woman in the outpost and the colonized native; both are colonized subjects and held in servitude to the white man.

Sinnatamby’s white garb of servitude is undercut by the gleaming eye, the deep though unspoken intent of “getting their own back”. Interestingly, the women characters are portrayed to have more constrains set upon them by the natives. Mrs. Dutton suppressed her unhappiness over her marriage in a “patter of expressed and unexpressed misery” while Mrs. Price, conscious of maintaining an appearance of ladylikeness tired to conceal her misery, “except for the unhappiness terribly stamped upon her face. In Woolf’s narrative of displacement, the European women in the colonial outpost are presented as severely displaced, and it is as though only by wearing bride-like dresses and signing off with conviction her husband’s name – both acts as validation of the male figures’ masculinity – can the women validate their legitimized status as married women.

Impressionistic Aesthetics in Growing

I’m going to hop on the fictionality bandwagon here too. I found the autobiography to be strangely surreal and impressionistic in the way everything is portrayed such that, like Russell, Peiyi and Yuying, I found the believability of this self-claimed autobiography quite questionable. However, to me what really highlighted the artifice of this autobiography is not just the references to the fictional characters or the theatrical elements mentioned in the text that my classmates have already brought up. Instead, I believe that this questioning of the text’s reliability can also be examined via its aesthetics.

The impressionistic way in which the landscapes are drawn up in Growing – the descriptions elephant pass and the “thick jungle thin[ning] into scrub jungle and then into stretches of sand broken by patches of scrub” and the “gaunt disheveled palmyra palms […] sticking up like immense crows” – sounds a lot, to me, like rather vague and brush-stroke-blending way of glossing over the landscape. While the writing of an autobiography banks a lot on memory and remembrance, I couldn’t help but notice how the writing is really veiled by a layer of rose-tinted of nostalgia, and that the descriptions are reflecting psychological landscapes and the overall impression of the place rather than placing emphasis on any type of accurate representation. And this is why I want to suggest that his writing is actually very impressionistic; because the attention he pays to detail in the landscape isn’t really a matter of trying to convey accurate and realistic portrayals of landscape-mapping but rather, his descriptions perform an attempt in trying to achieve an overall effect of what it looks like the perceiver’s mind’s eye. And it is the impressionistic element of his writing that, to me, undercuts a lot of the reliability of what he is saying in the text. I’m not suggesting that he is deliberately lying or changing facts but I think the impressionistic aesthetic really highlights just how re-constructed his stories and recounts are and we really ought not to take everything he says to the last word, because there is a sense that these stories are told as he remembers them in the overall memory he has of Ceylon, more so than what exactly transpired in that land.

Performing a Sahib

When reading Leonard Woolf’s growing, what stood out especially was the performance element of the sahib as a stock character which everyone is required to play in the same way against the backdrop of imperialism in order to qualify as a good fellow. Mundane things like a game of tennis followed by the routine conversation revolving around banal topics are given an almost religious, ritualistic aspect. This element of performance is seen in texts like Burmese days, Passage to India and Shooting the elephant but not as explicitly as in Growing.

Set in this unreality, it is no wonder the sahibs are able to divorce themselves from their natural and perhaps more humane selves which they have left behind in the real world England and become fully immersed into their roles as the colonizers where aggression and a propensity for violence and even odd behaviors are encouraged. When the protagonist’s dog displays  an uncharacteristic violence toward the native animals, its aggression elevates him in the eyes of the other sahibs and this suggests that a similar attitude from him towards the natives would be encouraged.  Indeed, the native may even be seen as below the rank of the sahib’s dog because when the sahib’s dog vomits on a native, it is treated as nothing offensive or out of the ordinary. 

The effect of living in the performative space is that when one is onstage, one is expected to play one’s role and sustain the illusion. In sustaining the illusion, it does not matter if one is required to play the villian because it is only after all a role which does nothing to change the notion of one’s true self. Thus, the sahibs both have the liberty/ and are compelled to do what they need to do in order to sustain the illusion of empire and that is performing over and over what it means to be a superior sahib in a self- reaffirming lie.

Fiction vs. autobiography

Like Russell and Peiyi, I was also struck by the rather ‘fictional’ feel of Leonard Woolf’s Autobiography. Not only does he make allusions to literary figures and fiction in general, the general tone, pace and structure of the writing seemed very Victorian-fiction to me. What particularly struck me was this sentence: “I set out for Jaffna with a Sinhalese servant, my dog, a wooden crate containing Voltaire, and an enormous tin-lined trunk containing clothes” (23).

If this were a piece of fiction that we were doing a close reading of, I think we’d all fixate on the choice of these things that accompanied him on his journey, and look for structural symbolisms and other, deeper meanings to them. Yet, I’m not sure if this speaks more to our ‘over-enhanced sense’ as literature students, or the blurred lines between fiction and autobiography. At the same time, it occurs to me that the most enjoyable autobiographical writings are those that read like fiction (here I can’t help but think of Roald Dahl’s Boy). I mean, that is precisely the reason I find Virginia Woolf so unreadable—’high Modernist’ writing that rejects the conventions of rigidly controlled linear-narratives propelled by events might be closer to ‘life as it was lived’, but it’s definitely hard to read, or it is for me at least.

Taking the consideration of fiction-vs-reality in another direction, can autobiography ever really capture ‘truth’, or recap events as they happened? To a certain extent, isn’t all writing re-creation, fiction? Personally, whenever I’ve read autobiographical works, I’ve always wondered how on Earth the authors remember tiny details—for example how could Leonard Woolf possibly remember what he brought with him on that journey, much less the details of what type of trunk his books were packed in?

Woolf’s “Growing”

“… the cafe waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously ‘acting the part’. If there is bad faith here, it is that he is trying to identify himself completely with the role of waiter, to pretend that this particular role determines his every action and attitude. Whereas the truth is that he has chosen to take on the job, and is free to give it up at any time. He is not essentially a waiter, for no man is essentially anything.” – Sartre on “bad faith”

With Sartre’s quote we may try to apprehend the moral crisis of identity which often faces the figure of the reluctant colonist – be it Woolf or Orwell – in his uncomfortable feelings towards imperialism and empire. In Growing I feel that Woolf paints his autobiographical character with greater depth and conviction, for if Orwell’s Flory’s interests and contemplations are often self-serving, Woolf incorporates both the psychological interior and exterior dilemmas of the reluctant colonist in his theatrical personae, the public mask and façade of the surroundings, as well as the dilemma of being the colonial administrator which entails making difficult decisions affecting the native people in various operational duties.

Woolf likens his initial experience in Ceylon as a kind of ‘second birth’ and I feel the need to link this second trauma of alienation and estrangement, of being brought into an entirely new world, to explain why the colonizer acts as he must as the enforcer of imperialism. He has to validate his existence in an alien world and justify his righteous power over the people. Coupled with Woolf’s moralistic ideals and his altruism, such tensions doubtlessly surface in his self-reasoning: ‘to them I was part of the white man’s machine, which they did not understand. I stood to them in the relation of God to his victims: I was issuing from on high orders to their village which seemed arbitrary and resulted in the shooting of their cows. I drove away in dejection, for I have no more desire to be God than one of his victims’.

The way in which Woolf depicts his orientalist attitudes towards native life and culture, together with his humanist philosophy towards animals, nature and even Buddhism, are at odds with the façade of his public personae as the  harsh and no-nonsense colonial administrator. But like Orwell, Woolf is at least faithful to a genuine depiction of colonial experience through the lens of a former colonist. One cannot begin to attack a system until one has had real experience of being in it, as is the case for imperialism and the complicity of the reluctant colonizer.

Inscrutability of the colony

Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account in Growing reminded me of Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in that they both highlight the white man’s increasing sense of alienation and unease in the colony. Woolf’s recounts his life in Ceylon as a civil servant stating that there “always retained for [him] a tinge of theatrical unreality”. This reminds me of the idea of performativity that we have discussed in Orwell’s narratives where colonial masters are required to act according to the code of the sahib. For Orwell, the expectation to act accordingly resulted in the loss of individual freedom for both the white man and the native. He then saw this as the oppression of the machinations of imperialism that he desired to extricate himself from. However in Growing, the “theatrical unreality” that Woolf describes seems to hint at his own sense of unfamiliarity with Ceylon (which is after all, geographically and culturally far removed from England), and the uncanny feeling that the colony produces in Woolf. In addition, Woolf also states that “the whole of [his] past life in London and Cambridge seemed suddenly to have vanished, to have faded away into unreality”. This alludes to his own displaced identity onto a foreign land, detached from his own history. His new environment was vastly different from what he was familiar with (even the pace of life and ease of accessibility in London and Ceylon are seen in contrast to each other), and this unfamiliarity made him uncomfortable within the colony, despite his privileged ruling position.

Woolf’s description of Jaffna country also reminds me of the inability to understand the essence of the colony due to the inscrutability of India in A Passage to India. The “long distances and difficulties of transport” and the immensity and vastness of Jaffna allude to the difficulty of accessing the place both literally and metaphorically:

Here again is one of those featureless plains the beauty of which is only revealed fully to you after you have lived with it long enough to become absorbed into its melancholy solitude and immensity.

Plainly speaking, the colony was inaccessible to the imperialist because it seems to be limitless (the sands “stretch far away” under the “enormous sky”) and existing outside the scales of comprehension. Thereby creating the sense of “theatrical unreality” that Woolf feels in his participation in the colonial enterprise.

finding merit in Woolf’s life

My first reaction to Growing was “gee… i’m glad he doesn’t write like his wife.” I think in many ways, Leonard Woolf led a fascinating life and the autobiographical mode in which he tells his story makes it more personal for us. But as Russell and Kaiquan have suggested, one has to question his motives in claiming this text as an autobiography. can we indeed take his word for it when he says,”I had entered Ceylon as an imperialist … The curious thing is that I was not really aware of this.” I think in some ways we can.

His experiences in Ceylon made him increasingly anti-imperialist, so he quit the service in 1911, married Virginia and he became a left-wing realist and one of the key players in the Labor Party. There is no doubting that his role in the British administration made him jaded and dispassionate towards the natives and we shouldn’t condone his exploitation of the native women through prostitution. But that being said, i do sense that he felt uneasy being a part of the system of imperialism:”strange and disconcerting. The backcloth … was imperialism” and how he felt a “twinge of doubt in [his] imperialist soul.” And i think that Woolf does suggest that a radical change is necessary and that the colonial government no matter how ‘good’ it is, is no replacement for self-government of the native people. And he took this 7 years of experience back with him and tried to use his writing to advocate world peace (International Government) and use his position as secretary of the Labor Party to better the conditions of the poor. I think that Woolf recognized his inability to fight the colonial system (like Orwell in Shooting an Elephant) and so he leaves and tries to influence social change in other ways (way better than to perpetuate the system and kill an innocent animal in my opinion). And i think that that is his own way of negotiating imperialism and dealing with the guilt that it brings. It might not be the perfect solution, but at least he tried and i think that that in itself is commendable.

On Leonard Woolf’s autobiography

I must say I really quite enjoy this piece of autobiographical work by Leonard Woolf. However, the reason why I thoroughly enjoy the work is mainly attributed to the fact that it read like a work of fiction/travel literature more than anything else, a work of memoirs that had been dramatized and enhanced through whimsical and even hyperbolic expressions. This really raises the concern of slippages between fact and fiction, though. If the work is meant to be autobiographical, the contents would more or less be seen as factual events that had transpired in the author’s life, how then do we draw the line when it comes to interpreting the truth behind the elegantly composed and fictionalized aspect of the work? Woolf draws much amusement when he compares certain real life personalities to Jane Austen’s characters and at one point even suggested that ‘people in rotten novels are astonishingly like life’, further blurring the boundaries between reality and representation, and almost evoking the idea that there isn’t one to really begin with in the first place.
However, certain statements in the writing are reminiscent of ideas underscored by Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Burmese Days -the performativity aspect of identity. Woof also points out that the Anglo-indians and imperialists were essentially ‘displaced persons’ and that they all ‘pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick….’, etc. And if we take into consideration that Woolf himself, having similarly undergone the pressure of an imperialist just as Orwell did, there is certainly a similar tract in their portrayal of the psychological stress that the white, imperial figure finds himself being entrapped within.

Performance of Britishness.

The colonialists had their own struggles with identity. While in the colonies, they bonded together by pretending “to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings” (47). In actual fact, the colonialists were much better off in the colonies than at home as Leonard says,”we were all grand, a good deal grander than we could have been at home in London, Edinburgh, Brighton or Oban. We were grand because we were in the ruling class in a strange Asiatic country” (24).

Here, we see the British colonialists themselves trapped within this concept of ‘Britishness’. They are caught within their loyalty to their home country, and their enjoyment of their grander lifestyle. They feel as if they are constantly forced to perform the part of the colonizer. Woolf calls it acting upon a stage and constantly uses the words ‘facade’, ‘masks’ and ‘perform’, in addition to other words that allude to acting. We see this in Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’  as well, where the protagonist feels pressurized by the natives into killing the elephant even though he does not want to. He is compelled to perform his role as a colonizer, and feels like a great pretender. Similarly, Woolf echoes this when he says “I had put the finishing touches to a facade behind which I could conceal or camouflage my intellect and also hide from most people, both in Ceylon and for the remainder of my life, the fact that I am mentally, morally, and physically a coward” (37).

Perhaps the colonizers felt this need to act the part of a colonizer over the natives in order to maintain and reinforce their power over them. This also reveals that these differences are constructed and exacerbated. Once this wall between the colonizer and the colonized is broken, the colonial social order may crumble.

The Autobiographical Genre

What struck me while reading selections from Leonard Woolf’s Growing this week was the autobiographical genre that the work classifies itself under. Why claim that a work is autobiographical? Does it make the work more believable? Interestingly, many fictional references appear in this autobiographical work, such as Woolf’s mention that in moving to Ceylon, ‘one feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream, and plays and dreams have that curious mixture of admitted unreality and the most intense and vivid reality’(21). This juxtaposition of autobiography with fiction continues with Woolf describing his life as a ‘theatrical unreality’, performing on ‘the stage [that] was imperialism’ (24-25). Woolf even describes the people he meets as a ‘Jane Austen character’ or a ‘character in a Kipling story’ (42, 46). All these deal with the relationship between fiction and reality, summed up in a nutshell by Woolf himself: ‘I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story’(46). How do we reconcile the autobiographical genre of Woolf’s work with the fictional aspects of it, keeping in mind that the Conrad works we read earlier in the module were also highly autobiographical, but that Conrad classified them as fiction? Is there some form of narrative ethics being negotiated here?

Filtering the self through fiction

In ‘Growing’, Woolf often compares the people he comes across with literary characters in order to illustrate better for his readers that which he is talking about. The first instance of this (in ‘Jaffna’) was when he compared the G.A’s wife, Mrs Lewis to Mrs Jennings of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and it struck me as being amusing.

But I soon realized that his tendency to look at people with ‘literary lens’ reveals the political nature of reading – it is very much about power. An example is when he compares the white residents of Jaffna to characters in Kipling’s works:

The white people were also in many ways astonishingly like characters in a Kipling story. I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story. (p.46)

Not only does this bring to attention the power of representation – it is not only the colonised, but also the coloniser who is perhaps mis-represented, and consequently, influenced and changed by those mis-representations:

We all pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings. (p.47)

Along the same lines of reading the self, as well as colonial relations through texts, Woolf includes letters from this past. These he suggests show clearer his state of mind at those points in time. It seems to me that in reading his ex-self, he works to exculpate his present-self – he distances himself from his past, a past which he underscores already give ‘exaggerated, one-sided picture[s] of the writer’s state of mind’ (p.61).

Thus his candidness in talking about his ex-self as ‘imperialist’ needs to be reconsidered – to what extent does he assume responsibility for his part as agent of empire? Or does he use texts to evade the blame, casting his ex-self as simply some character whose motivations could be deferred and excused by writing and by fiction?

The empty shell

Leonard Woolf’s chapter on Jaffna seems to highlight the oppressiveness of colonialism which represses individuality, forces the creation of a façade, and therefore creates a kind of spiritual void in the colonizers themselves.

Woolf “feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream” and felt as if the civil servants in Ceylon, himself included, “were all always, subconsciously or consciously, playing a part, acting upon a stage”. He then speaks of how he “developed, in part instinctively and in part consciously, a façade or carapace behind which [he] could conceal [his] most unpopular characteristics”, in order to keep up the image of him as one of the good fellows. The idea of  a façade and theatricality serve to highlight the daily performance required of the colonizer (think of the narrator in Shooting An Elephant), while I found the choice of the word “carapace” extremely apt in suggesting that the colonizer is but an empty shell, forced to be devoid of individuality and spirituality. In contrast, Woolf reflects how the natives “do not conceal their individuality”.

As such, Woolf shows how as “displaced persons”, they become “unreal, artificial, temporary and alien”.  Human beings become no different from “manikins”. This induces in Woolf “a feeling of impotence, the dwarfing and dooming of everything human in the enormous unpitying universe”.  I think this very pertinently describes the effect of colonialism on its colonizers; that it robs even the colonizers of their individuality, resulting in a loss of vigour, and thus an emotional and spiritual sterility.

“We may live our whole lives behind our lace curtains in the image, not of God or man, but of the rubber stamp and the machine”  – This sentence neatly illustrates the oppressiveness of  the system of colonialism on the colonizer, pointing to the futility of existence in having to repress his individuality and become a soulless, mechanical replica of the model colonizer. Not just for Woolf but for the other civil servants, they are shown to be no more than cogs in the machine.

Autobiographical Fiction?

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.