Seven Years in Ceylon by Leonard Woolf reviewed in The Oldie magazine by Jan Morris
This fascinating book is a kind of parable. It opens when one October morning in 1904 Leonard Woolf, aged 24, sets sail from Tilbury for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, thena middle-sized component of the British Empire. He is to become a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, but he is an improbable imperialist. Rather weedy-looking, he has lately come down from Trinity College, Cambridge, where he has been an active member of the ultra-intellectual Apostles club. His luggage includes 90 volumes of Voltaire’s collected works, 1784 edition, andhe is never out of touch with the most prominent of the Apostles, Lytton Strachey.
Almost at once he is plunged into the ambience of imperialism, in the late heyday of the imperial idea: the true diligence of it, the latent prejudices, the red tape, the accountings, the rural courts, the horse-back journeys, the red tape, the petty disputes, the occasional floggings, the demands of religions and feudalisms – together with the hockey, squash, bridge, tennis, gossipings and ambitions that were the consolations of the imperialists themselves. In Ceylon their own community was layered too, civil servants, army officers and planters one and all looking down upon the business people who were, after all, almost never members of The Club. As Kipling made clear, it was a very provincial sort of society, and a far, far cry from Voltaire and the Lytton Stracheys . . .