Leonard Woolf's forgotten Sri Lankan novel

Jungle in Sri Lanka Image copyright Thinkstock

The Bloomsbury Group and Sri Lanka are rarely spoken of in the same breath, but that is partly because Leonard Woolf's groundbreaking first novel, The Village in the Jungle, is unjustly ignored, argues writer and broadcaster Nick Rankin.

She was born Virginia Stephen, daughter of the Victorian bookman Sir Leslie Stephen, but when she married in 1912, her name changed to Virginia Woolf, and she went on to become the best-known woman writer of the 20th Century.

Her lesser-known husband, Leonard Woolf, however, wrote and published a novel first.

That almost forgotten book, first published in 1913, is called The Village in the Jungle and it is a remarkable work because it is the first novel in English literature to be written from the indigenous point of view rather than the coloniser's.

It's not a book about the white chaps at the club who run the show, but about those at the very bottom of the imperial heap, the black and brown fellows who don't even know they're part of an Empire, but who just survive day by day, hand to mouth, as slash-and-burn agriculturalists.

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The village in the jungle described in the book is called Beddagama. It consists of 10 crude mud huts in a hot dry clearing hacked from the inexorable jungle in the south of Sri Lanka, the island then known as Ceylon. The novel tells the story of one family, the wild hunter Silindu and his two daughters, Punchi Menika and Hinnihami, and the bad things that happen to them when their lives start to go wrong. There is no safety net here. The jungle is harsh, the village malicious.

We enter into the mindset of rural people, feeling the terrors and joys of their spiritual beliefs. We also come to see how, in the material world, they are continually oppressed by debts to money-lenders and unbreakable obligations to village elders. Lust and greed start a chain of tragic events which, compounded by the ignorance and misunderstanding of judges, leads to the destruction of Silindu's family, and the swallowing up of their homes by the relentless and hostile scrub.

It's a bleak picture.

How on earth did the author come to compose it? How did he know so much about Sri Lanka, on the other side of the world?

Leonard Woolf was the son of a Jewish barrister who attended St Paul's School in London and then went to Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1899. There he made friends with people like Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, EM Forster, Desmond McCarthy and Thoby Stephen, in whose rooms he first met Stephen's sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, in 1901.

This group of Cambridge friends would over the next few decades become the core of the progressive and bohemian Bloomsbury Group, named after the London neighbourhood near the British Museum where, as the saying went, "they lived in squares and loved in triangles".

When he graduated from Cambridge in 1904, Leonard Woolf joined the Colonial Civil Service and was sent to Ceylon, where he stayed for the next seven years. Woolf was a liberal intellectual - he travelled out with the complete works of Voltaire in his luggage, in 70 volumes - and he was not enamoured of the white colonial society he found himself in. He threw himself into his administrative work, was promoted to Assistant Government Agent and in 1908 he was put in charge of running his own district in south-east Ceylon, Hanbantota Province, which covered 1,000 square miles and contained 100,000 people.

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Woolf taught himself Sinhalese and Tamil and he travelled all over his district, dealing with agriculture, justice, public health, road-building, taxation and petty problems of every kind. He got to know the people of the area and the hard lives that they led. He kept a detailed diary of his daily activities, which still survives and was published in 1963, and he drew on it heavily when he came to write The Village in the Jungle on his return to England in 1911. There's a murder in the novel, for example, which is just like an incident which Woolf himself had to investigate, the corpse slowly swelling in the heat. And there's a trial, which takes place in the very court-room in Hanbantota where Woolf himself sat as the magistrate. So the book is detailed in its authenticity and observation. It's not invented by someone who hasn't been there.

Perhaps this is why the book is so well known in Sri Lanka - it's seen as a sociological or ethnographic description of south-east Ceylon in the early 1900s - and almost completely neglected in Britain. It's not part of the literature of Imperial Adventure - there's no white hero finding King Solomon's Mines or a Treasure Island. It's not part of the literature of Imperial Derangement either. There's no Mr Kurtz, driven mad by the atrocities of enslavement, as in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The Village in the Jungle is different because it's not about Us, but wholly about Them. It was very advanced in 1913, when many people in Europe were racist.

Leonard Woolf said that his experience of empire made him a liberal, and his later witnessing of poverty in the East End of London made him a socialist. He worked with the Co-Operative movement, became a Fabian and wrote a book in 1916, International Government, which influenced the founders of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. There followed other works on economics and imperialism and a five-volume autobiography before he died in 1969.

But of all Leonard Woolf's works, the slim volume The Village in the Jungle will probably live the longest. It was written 10 years before the far better-known novel of imperial cross-purposes by his friend EM Forster, A Passage to India, and 20 years before George Orwell's critique of empire, Burmese Days, based on his experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police. The book represents a shift in 20th Century consciousness - from north to south, from top to bottom, from ruler to ruled, from agent to acted upon. It shines the light of intelligent sympathy on the desperately benighted, the world's poor.

Listen now to Nick Rankin's Radio 4 documentary, Woolf in the Jungle, on the BBC iPlayer