Leonard Woolf



Leonard Woolf


Growing is the autobiography of a young man sent straight from university to help govern the British Empire. Rarely has an empire had such an intelligent, dutiful, hard-working and incorruptible civil servant. Woolf was determined to do what was good, but discovered for himself that colonial rule was fated to do what was wrong. 

Growing is a deeply affectionate portrait of the mystery, magic and savage beauty of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at the beginning of the twentieth century. For Woolf had both the time and the intelligence to explore the country, its diverse religions, beliefs and philosophies, and to pay attention to the differing cultures of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Anglo-Indian communities. He also had the wit to leave a series of devastating portraits of the colonial ruling class.

‘He has a seemingly effortless way with words which is beautiful and spellbinding.’- J.M. Edelstein, New Republic
‘The great quality in Woolf as an autobiographer is his utter truthfulness.’- Malcolm Muggeridge

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ISBN: 978-1-78060-071-0
Format: 208pp demi pb
Place: Sri Lanka/Ceylon

Author Biography 

Leonard Sidney Woolf was born in London in 1880. Educated at St Paul's school, he then won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1899. In 1904 he joined the Civil Service in Ceylon, working there for several years as a government agent. On his return to England in May 1911 he married Virginia Stephen who was, like her husband, a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group. His first novel, The Village in the Jungle was published in 1913 followed by Wise Virgins (1914). His other books include Socialism and Co-operation (1921), After the Deluge (1931), Barbarians at the Gate (1939) andPrincipia Politica (1953), and a five volume memoir. He worked as a literary editor of the Nation from 1923-30, as well as for the Hogarth Press, which he co-founded with Virginia in 1917. He died in 1969.


Extract from Chapter One

In October 1904, I sailed from Tilbury Docks in the P&O Syriafor Ceylon. I was a Cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service. To make a complete break with one’s former life is a strange, frightening and exhilarating experience. It has upon one, I think, the effect of a second birth. When one emerges from one’s mother’s womb one leaves a life of dim security for a world of violent difficulties and dangers. Few, if any, people ever entirely recover from the trauma of being born, and we spend a lifetime unsuccessfully trying to heal the wound, to protect ourselves against the hostility of things and men. But because at birth consciousness is dim and it takes a long time for us to become aware of our environment, we do not feel a sudden break, and adjustment is slow, lasting indeed a lifetime. I can remember the precise moment of my second birth. The umbilical cord by which I had been attached to my family, to St Paul’s, to Cambridge and Trinity was cut when, leaning over the ship’s taffrail, I watched through the dirty, dripping murk and fog of the river my mother and sister waving goodbye and felt the ship begin slowly to move down the Thames to the sea.

To be born again in this way at the age of twenty-four is a strange experience that imprints a permanent mark upon one’s character and one’s attitude to life. I was leaving in England everyone and everything I knew; I was going to a place and life in which I really had not the faintest idea of how I should live and what I should be doing. All that I was taking with me from the old life as a contribution to the new and to prepare me for my task of helping to rule the British Empire was ninety large, beautifully printed volumes of Voltaire* and a wire-haired fox terrier. The first impact of the new life was menacing and depressing. The ship slid down the oily dark waters of the river through cold clammy mist and rain; the next day in the Channel it was barely possible to distinguish the cold and gloomy sky from the cold and gloomy sea. Within the boat there was the uncomfortable atmosphere of suspicion and reserve that is at first invariably the result when a number of English men and women, strangers to one another, find that they have to live together for a time in a train, a ship, a hotel.

In those days it took, if I remember rightly, three weeks to 

sail from London to Colombo. By the time we reached Ceylon, we had developed from a fortuitous concourse of isolated human atoms into a complex community with an elaborate system of castes and classes. The initial suspicion and reserve had soon given place to intimate friendships, intrigues, affairs, passionate loves and hates. I learned a great deal from my three weeks on board the P&O Syria. Nearly all my fellow-passengers were quite unlike the people whom I had known at home or at Cambridge. On the face of it and of them they were very ordinary persons with whom in my previous life I would have felt that I had little in common except perhaps mutual contempt. I learned two valuable lessons: first how to get on with ordinary persons, and second that there are practically no ordinary persons – that beneath the façade of John Smith and Jane Brown there is a strange character and often a passionate individual.

One of the most interesting and unexpected exhibits was Captain L. of the Manchester Regiment, who, with a wife and small daughter, was going out to India. When I first saw and spoke to him, in the arrogant ignorance of youth and Cambridge, I thought he was inevitably the dumb and dummy figure that I imagined to be characteristic of any captain in the Regular Army. Nothing could have been more mistaken. He and his wife and child were in the cabin next to mine, and I became painfully aware that the small girl wetted her bed and that Captain L. and his wife thought that the right way to cure her was to beat her. I had not at that time read ‘A Child is Being Beaten’ or any other of the works of Sigmund Freud, but the hysterical shrieks and sobs that came from the next cabin convinced me that beating was not the right way to cure bedwetting, and my experience with dogs and other animals had taught me that corporal punishment is never a good instrument of education.