Leonard Woolf, the third of ten children of Sidney Woolf (1844–1892) and his wife, Marie de Jongh (1848–1939), was born in Kensington on 25th November, 1880. His father, who was a lawyer, died when he was eleven, leaving his family in financial difficulties.
Woolf was educated at St. Paul's School and in 1899 he went to Trinity College, on scholarships for five years. While at the University of Cambridge he became friends with Thoby Stephen, the brother of Virginia Stephen and Vanessa Stephen.
In 1902 he was the first Jew to be elected to the famous undergraduate society known as the Apostles. Other members included E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, George Edward Moore, Robert Trevelyan, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Desmond MacCarthy. According to his biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum: "G. E. Moore was the dominant influence there, and to him Woolf owed his commitment to rationality, clarity, and common sense; Moore's concern with states of mind and his basic distinction in Principia ethica (1903) between instrumental and intrinsic value was incorporated into Woolf's political theory."
In 1904 Virginia Stephen and Vanessa Stephen moved to to Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. They invited a group of friends to discuss literary and artistic issues at their home. The friends included Woolf, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Desmond MacCarthy, Mary Warre-Cornish, Duncan Grant, Arthur Waley and Saxon Sydney-Turner. Over the next few years others joined such as Roger Fry, Ottoline Morrell, Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge. This group of friends eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Group.
After leaving university he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service. On 10th August 1912 he married Virginia Stephen. He resigned from the colonial service after a six-and-a-half-year stint as civil servant. The couple embarked on a writing life at Hogarth House in Richmond and at her rented home, Asheham House, at Beddingham, near Lewes. In 1913 he published his first novel, The Village and the Jungle. The following year, a second novel, The Wise Virgins (1914).
In 1914 Virginia Woolf had a severe mental breakdown. Leonard nursed her back to recovery and in 1915 her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published. According to Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum: "He had recognized her genius before their marriage, but not the extent of her mental instability. For nearly thirty years one of Leonard's chief occupations was caring for Virginia. Without his vigilant love, her books would never have been written; he was her first reader, her editor, and her publisher. Though not a sexually active marriage, theirs was one of profound and enduring affection."
An opponent of Britain's involvement in the First World War, Woolf was spared becoming a conscientious objector by being rejected by the military as unfit for duty. Woolf joined the Fabian Society in 1916 and wrote two books on consumer co-operative socialism, maintaining in them that economics should be organized according to the needs of consumers. He also wrote two Fabian reports on international government that became part of the basis for the League of Nations.
Woolf began spending time with Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell at their home Garsington Manor near Oxford. It was also a refuge for conscientious objectors. They worked on the property's farm as a way of escaping prosecution. Other people who Woolf met at Garsington included Dorothy Brett, Mark Gertler, Siegfried Sassoon, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and T.S. Eliot.
Woolf also met Aldous Huxley at Garsington Manor. He later commented: "The Oxford generations of the nineteen tens and nineteen twenties produced a remarkable constellation of stars of the first magnitude and I much enjoyed seeing them twinkle in the Garsington garden. There for the first time I saw the young Aldous Huxley folding his long, grasshopper legs into a deckchair and listened entranced to a conversation which is unlike that of any other person that I have talked with. I could never grow tired of listening to the curious erudition, intense speculative curiosity, deep intelligence which, directed by a gentle wit and charming character, made conversation an art."
In 1917 Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded the Hogarth Press. Over the next few years they published the work of Flora Mayor, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Vita Sackville-West, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Graves, T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. They also published Virginia's Night and Day, a novel that deals with the subject of women's suffrage.
After the war they bought Monk's House, a cottage in Rodmell, so they could be close to her sister, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who lived at Charleston Farmhouse. In 1919 Woolf was appointed as secretary of an advisory committees on international and imperial questions that had been set-up by the Labour Party. In 1920 Woolf published Empire and Commerce in Africa, which analysed the economic imperialism of African colonization.
A member of the Labour Party he published Socialism and Co-operation, to coincide with the 1922 General Election. As Claire Tomalin points out: "His declaration of political faith, put out for the election of November 1922, blames the old men and old methods of the two main political parties not only for the First World War, but also for the troubles of Ireland and the Empire and the disastrous economic condition of the country. He wanted the Treaty of Versailles revised to be fairer to Germany, with the hope of building a united Europe; he wanted disarmament and recognition of the Soviet Union, and he supported the League of Nations; at home he proposed an educational structure which would give real equality of opportunity up to university level. Finally, he called for a more equitable system of taxation."
Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum has pointed out: "Woolfs' rising income enabled him to resign and write After the Deluge: a Study of Communal Psychology. The first volume (1931) surveyed the growth of democratic communal psychology in the eighteenth century; the second (1939) concentrated on 1830 to 1832. Woolf interrupted this work to write three shorter books in the 1930s on totalitarianism. In them he again advocated the need for socialist co-operation and international government, and he warned of the impending destruction of his civilization's values, which for Woolf were freedom, democracy, equality, justice, liberty, tolerance, and the love of beauty, art, and intellect."
Virginia Woolf had recurring bouts of depression. The outbreak of the Second World War increased her mental turmoil and Leonard Woolf arranged for Octavia Wilberforce to treat Virginia. He later recalled: "She (Octavia Wilberforce) had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack."
On 28th March, 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote a letter to Leonard: "I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer."
Later that morning she committed suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse, near her home in Rodmell. After her body was recovered three weeks later, on 18 April, Leonard Woolf buried her ashes in the Monk's House garden.
After the death of his wife he began an affair with Trekkie Parsons, a book illustrator, whose husband was Ian Parsons and at that time was abroad as a member of the Royal Air Force. After the Second World War Trekkie, who was twenty years younger than Woolf, spent the weekends with her husband and the rest of the week at Monk's House.
Woolf wrote five volumes of autobiography, Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), Downhill All the Way (1967), and The Journey not the Arrival Matters (1969). His biographer has argued: "Leonard Woolf's own personality is revealed in his autobiographies with remarkable detachment and integrity; a fatalistic strain in them sometimes masks the considerable charm, dry humour, and deep feelings of the man.... Futile as his political writing and committee work may have appeared to him, he was nevertheless right about the wrongs of imperialism and capitalism, the need for international organization, and the evils of fascist and communist totalitarianism."
Leonard Woolf suffered a stroke and died at Monk's House on 14th August 1969.