Leonard Woolf

Leonard Sidney Woolf (1880–1969), man of letters, political worker, author, publisher, husband of author Virginia Woolf, and a pupil of F. M. Alexander.


Woolf worked in the Ceylon Civil Service (1904-11). He resigned in 1912 and married Virginia Stephen the same year. He turned to writing and published his first novel in 1913. He joined the Labour Party and the Fabian Society. Throughout his life he wrote articles for several journals, and was editor of The Political Quarterly (1931-59). In 1917 with his wife he founded the Hogarth Press, which published his own tracts as well as Virginia Woolf’s novels and the first edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Leonard and Virginia Woolf were influential in the Bloomsbury Group. Leonard Woolf’s most famous work was probably his autobiography, in four volumes, Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), and Downhill All the Way (1967).

Connection with the Alexander Technique

Leonard Woolf, who had lessons with F. M. Alexander in 1937 to rid himself of a tremor, wrote in his memoirs:

Bernard Shaw, who had noticed this [tremor], once told me that he had been to F. M. Alexander who had cured him of some nervous affliction and he strongly advised me to let Alexander deal with my tremor. I went to Alexander and he treated me for some time. He was a remarkable man. He was a quack, but an honest, inspired quack. He had himself been suddenly afflicted with a nervous disorder and had cured himself by discovering that his loss of muscular control was due to the fact that he had got into the habit of holding his head and neck in the wrong position. From this he went on to maintain that all sorts and kinds of diseases and disorders were due to people getting into the habit of holding their head, neck, shoulders, and spine in this wrong position and his cure consisted in training the patient by exercises to abandon the wrong and acquire automatically the right posture. He said he could certainly cure me and for some time I went to him two or three times a week for treatment at considerable expense. I think that if I had had the  patience to go on with the treatment and do the abominable exercises, I might have been cured or at any rate very nearly cured. But I simply cannot bring myself day after day to do physical exercises or remember to hold my head in a particular position, and gradually I gave the whole  thing up. But Alexander himself was an extraordinarily interesting psychological exhibit. I feel sure that he had hit upon a very important truth regarding automatic muscular control and loss of control and that his methods could cure or relieve a number of nervous disorders. So far he was completely honest and a genuine ‘healer’ of  the primordial, traditional type. What was fascinating  about him was that, though fundamentally honest, he was at the same time fundamentally a quack. The quackery was in his mind and came out in the inevitable patter and his claim to have discovered a panacea. However, as I said, I think his method might have cured me, but I had not the necessary patience to persist with the business and resigned myself to go on trembling slightly all my life.[1]

Virgina Woolf also refers to Leonard’s lessons with Alexander in her diaries (Monday 19 July 1937):

On Friday we went to Worthing. Mrs W. very plaintive. Would even like to try Dr. [sic] Alexander – have I noted – no I leave out all the interesting facts – that L. [Leonard] is trembling less & less – can drink his coffee steady – & has, at 56, cured a disease that has, I guess, moulded his life wrongly since he was 5. All his shyness, his suffering from society, his sharpness, & definiteness, might have been smoothed. I mean by this something mostly superficial, but possibly constricting underneath also.[2]

A 2006 biography of Leonard Woolf also reports the story:

Seeking relief from his worsened hand tremor, Leonard also consulted Frederick Matthias Alexander, founder of the ‘Alexander technique’, on the recommendation of the Shaws, and began a course of exercises [sic] with him. Leonard could believe that Alexander’s theory – that many disorders were caused by people holding their head, neck, shoulders and spine in the wrong position – held ‘an important truth’. He thought Alexander was an ‘honest, inspired quack’.[3]

And adds:

Leonard wrote in Sowing that he stopped going to Dr. Alexander [sic] because he did not have the patience to practice the ‘abominable exercises’ at home. Circumstances played their part: he could not, in the immediate aftermath of Julian’s death, keep his appointments; and having stopped, he went no more. But in July [1937], Virginia was recording a marked lessening of his tremor, thanks, she thought, to Dr. Alexander. A ‘disease’ was cured, she wrote, which had, ‘I guess, molded his life wrongly since he was five. All his shyness, his suffering from society, his sharpness, & definiteness, might have been smoothed.’[4]

Leonard Sidney Woolf *25 November 1880 – †14 August 1969.


[1] Sowing – An autobiography of the years 1880 to 1914 by Leonard Woolf (The Hogarth Press, 1967 [1960]), pp. 101–02.
[2] The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. 5 1936–1941 edited by Anne Olivier Bell assisted by Andrew McNeillie (First Harvest/HBJ Book, 1985), p. 103.
[3] Leonard Woolf – A Biography by Victoria Glendinning (Free Press, 2006), p. 292.
[4] Leonard Woolf – A Biography by Victoria Glendinning (Free Press, 2006), p. 293.