Friday, August 29, 2014

Stories of the East by Leonard Woolf


Before he married Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) spent the years 1904 through 1911 as a civil servant and administrator in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which was then part of the British Empire. Woolf became something of a jack of all trades, serving in such roles as police magistrate, judge, supervisor of various projects, adviser on farming, and tax collector, to name a few of his jobs. He chronicled his experiences in his diaries but wrote fiction about Ceylon in his novel The Village in the Jungle. He also wrote a trio of short stories, known as Stories of the East, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1921.

The short stories illustrate the conflict between the rule of the British and the native society in Ceylon. My favorite of the stories was "The Two Brahmans" which deals with the strong caste system and what happens when two Brahmins go against their caste. One man tries fishing and loves it even though it is forbidden, and another man digs a well and carries the dirt on his head, also forbidden, instead of paying someone to do it for him. These men are ostracized by the caste, and their actions have unintended consequences for future generations of their families. Another story, "Pearls and Swine" is about a civil servant who supervises the operation of a pearl fishery and the death of a diver.

The story I liked the least was "A Tale Told by Moonlight," the tragic tale of a British man who visits his friend who works in Ceylon. The visitor falls in love with a native girl who is a prostitute. While I understand that this story is at the heart about the clash of cultures, Woolf compares the relationship between the two lovers to the love a dog has for his master. In the analogy, which is used several times in the story, the young woman is the animal. This kind of analogy created a distraction to my enjoying the story.

I didn't like these stories as much as I expected and have read that they are not typical of Woolf's writing. Although these stories did not appeal to me, I would like to read more of Woolf's fiction.

I would recommend these stories to someone studying Leonard Woolf's writing or his life as Stories of the East is considered to be somewhat autobiographical and reflects Woolf's anti-imperialist view. I would also recommend the stories to someone interested in the history of the British rule of Ceylon. 

If you are interested in reading more about Leonard Woolf's life, Victoria Glendinning's book Leonard Woolf: A Life is an excellent biography.

Have you read any of Leonard Woolf's fiction?

The photos below are stock images of Sri Lanka. 








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