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Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf 1904-1911

by Christopher Ondaatje

Like all excellent travel literature, Christopher Ondaatje’s Woolf in Ceylon provides a multifaceted approach to the island that was once Ceylon and became Sri Lanka in 1972. Ondaatje interweaves biography and literary criticism of Leonard Woolf’s works with history and travel writing about Ceylon and memories of his own boyhood spent on a tea estate.

Posted to the towns of Jaffna, Kandy, and Hambautota, Woolf was a member of the colonial civil service from 1904-1911. He began his career as a quiet imperialist, but his convictions, temperament, and exposure to the native population gradually led him to favour a policy of self-government. In 2004, the 100th anniversary of Woolf’s arrival in Ceylon, Ondaatje decided to retrace Woolf’s progress about the island with two friends from Sri Lanka.

Ondaatje became fascinated with Leonard Woolf in the 1960s after reading his six-volume autobiography. Woolf, an important member of the Bloomsbury Group, published a collection of short stories set in Ceylon entitled Stories of the East. He also wrote a novel about Ceylon, Village in the Jungle, which was praised upon publication and later made into both a film and a play. The novel is all but forgotten in the West but retains its relevance from a historical, political, sociological, economic, and literary perspective in Sri Lanka. The novel contains no white characters but is, says Ondaatje, “one of the very few novels by a Western writer with totally convincing Asian characters.” Ondaatje also draws on Woolf’s letters to Lytton Strachey and his official government diary, Ceylon 1908-1911 Records of a Colonial Administrator, to plot his journey from north to south and past to present.

The book is copiously illustrated with historic and contemporary photographs that help capture the exotic beauty of Ceylon, with its richness of flora and fauna, art and architecture, people and traditions. All shine through Ondaatje’s portrait of his own homeland, and of Leonard Woolf.