Leonard Woolf and Empire: The Village in the Jungle

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, a DPhil student, explores empire as shown in an early twentieth-century novel less well known than the popular works by Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster. In this guest blog post, she argues for Leonard Woolf’s literary legacy.

Leonard Woolf

By Oliver Mallinson Lewis from Oxford, United Kingdom (Picture 034) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Leonard Woolf is probably one of the few men to be remembered in history as somebody’s husband. Overshadowed for the greater part of his life by his eccentric and brilliant wife Virginia Woolf, Leonard is often considered to be part of a literary moment in which he played a secondary role. Few intellectuals, however, can match the sheer versatility of his work. Many students of literature will know of his contributions to the Bloomsbury group, a radical set of modernist writers, and his role in the establishment and running of the Hogarth Press, which published the first works of many writers at the beginning of the twentieth century (including the first edition of Freud’s works in English translation). Fewer will know that he published his first novel in 1913, two years before Virginia’s The Voyage Out, and that when he died in August 1969, he had two novels, short stories, a five-volume autobiography and several economic, political and literary essays to his name.Leonard Woolf’s life before he married Virginia was the source of much of his literary and political engagement in the subsequent years of his life. When he was unfortunate enough to be ranked sixty-ninth in the Imperial Civil Service examinations after graduating from Cambridge, he was sent to the aspiring colonialist’s second choice, Ceylon, rather than India. Woolf left England with the enthusiasm of a twenty-four year old, but returned seven years later, in 1911, lonely and ambivalent about the value of colonialism.The Village in the Jungle (1913) was his first novel, loosely based on his administrative and personal experiences when working as an Assistant Government Agent in the Hambantota District of Ceylon. Mirroring Woolf’s own disillusionment with the imperial project, the novel traces its protagonist Silindu’s struggle against the slow but steady bureaucratisation of life that comes with the account books, gun licenses and courthouses of colonial rule, which ultimately leads him to murder.The novel is a strange counterpoint to Woolf’s other writing from his time in Ceylon. While his official administrative diaries show meticulous records of legal proceedings, pearl fishing and harvesting, The Village in the Jungle finds facts difficult to grapple with. Dominated by a narrative voice from within Silindu’s community, the novel nevertheless refuses to put forward definite opinions. Using the master-trope of the modernist colonial novel, disorientation, all the characters and events that Woolf writes about are, like the jungle, shrouded in a sense of unknowability.

The novel is an exceptional contribution to the modernist period, largely because of its unusual treatment of racially othered characters. Unlike commonly read novels such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Forster’s Passage to India (1924), set in the Belgian Congo and colonial India respectively, The Village in the Jungle has a single white character (a magistrate, possibly based on Woolf himself), and escapes resorting to stereotypes of the “native” as uncivilised, immature and dangerous. Instead, a more complex portrait of Sinhalese colonial society is created. Rather than simply representing the colonial encounter in terms of binaries of us/them, the novel demonstrates that communities are built not just on race, but also on affect and fellow- feeling. Woolf’s fellow colonisers, as the volume of his autobiography dealing with Ceylon, Growing, shows us, had little in common with him; he in turn was disgusted by their artificiality and stylised behaviour. Similarly, while Silindu’s oppressors, headmen and petty moneylenders, are definitely instruments of the colonial state, they are Sinhalese like him, and yet see nothing but a bestiality in him that they at once exploit and are afraid of. The magistrate, on the other hand, not only recognises the suffering he sees in Silindu’s face when he is brought before him on charges of murder, but identifies with his pain in a manner that renders barriers of race and colour irrelevant.

Perhaps some of the most poignant descriptions in the novel are of the jungle itself. The jungle threatens all the characters in the novel, it is an impregnable force that remains beautiful, though elusive and dangerous, subjecting all to its will. Woolf realised this quickly, and his descriptions of the jungle in Growing and his letters to Lytton Strachey at the time are similarly heavy with wonder and awe, but also a great sense of fear.

The aftermath of The Village in the Jungle spurred Woolf on to write a series of tracts that argued against the British Empire, both as an economic as well as a moral-political construct. He also went on to actively propound these views through his associations with the Labour Party and Fabian Society. He was only to visit Ceylon again in 1960, nine years before his death. The novel, in its centenary year of publication, remains today a central text in the Sri Lankan colonial literary canon.

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay

You can access a digitized version of The Village in the Jungle at the California Digital Library.

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