Leonard Woolf on G H Hardy

Article by D G Rogers

Levy [Paul Levy, Moore: G E Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (Oxford, 1981)] introduces his study of G E Moore by discussing the assessment made of Moore by Leonard Woolf, drawing not only on Woolf's five volumes of autobiography, but also on an interview he had with Woolf. Perhaps it is an innocent enough indulgence on the part of publishers like Woolf and Harold Macmillan that they publish multi-volume autobiographies. The early volumes of both have a certain period charm. But whereas Macmillan's autobiography is famous for what it omits or conceals, Woolf's is truly a repository of information, ready to be drawn on by scholars like Levy. No doubt Woolf had this in mind in writing; and certainly Lewis Namier, always a stern critic, saw merit in Woolf's attempt to explore the general social millieu which might have given rise to the common thoughts of a generation.

Remarkably enough, like a pressed flower found in some dusty Victorian tome, G H Hardy also figures in Woolf's autobiography. Indeed, as Woolf introduces the first, and principal, reference, he too is surprised that the fragment of conversation recorded in 1903 has survived his time in Ceylon and subsequent shifts of abode, coming across his notes again over half a century later. In introducing Hardy to his readers, he sums him up in rather formulaic terms:
Hardy was one of the most strange and charming of men. A "pure" mathematician of great brilliance, he became an F.R.S. and Savilian Professor of Geometry in Oxford. He had the eyes of a slightly startled fawn below the very beautiful and magnificent forehead of an infant prodigy. He gave one the feeling that he belonged more properly to Prospero's island than the Great Court of Trinity.
[Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904 (Hogarth Press, London, 1960), p.110. This is, I think, some years earlier than C P Snow's well-known vignette of Hardy.]

An abbreviation of this formula is used when Hardy appears again, in the company of many other old friends, all Apostles, when Woolf first revisits Cambridge on his return from Ceylon in 1911 [Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918 (Hogarth Press, London, 1964), p.18; see also, p.20]. Hardy does not appear thereafter, although, for example, Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein all receive mention in the fifth and final volume. Given that Woolf spent some seven years as a colonial official in Ceylon, and is celebrated for a novel set there, it is unfortunate that there appears to be no record of him meeting Ramanujan, or even comment on Hardy's collaboration with Ramanujan. It is somewhat strange that Woolf's synopsis of Hardy's career seems to stop with Hardy becoming Professor at Oxford.

On the other hand, Levy, drawing on the records of the Apostles, does include mention of Hardy's involvement with their meetings, and Woolf's comments add to the picture of Hardy that can be gleaned from these; and they add significant detail to the letters of Russell quoted by Ivor Grattan-Guinness in his illuminating study of Russell's relations with Hardy, especially what Russell writes of Hardy's association with Gaye.

The text of the passages from Woolf's autobiography now follow:
  1. Sowing: An Autobiography of The Years 1880-1904, pp.110-113.

    A word must be said about the dramatis personae in the first conversation. G. was R K Gaye, H. was G H Hardy, and F. was Walter Morely Flectcher; they were all Fellows of Trinity in 1903 when the conversation took place. Hardy was one of the most strange and charming of men. A "pure" mathematician of great brilliance, he became an F.R.S. and Savilian Professor of Geometry in Oxford. He had the eyes of a slightly startled fawn below the very beautiful and magnificent forehead of an infant prodigy. He gave one the feeling that he belonged more properly to Prospero's island than the Great Court of Trinity. He lived in a double suite of rooms in Great Court with Gaye, a saturnine classical Fellow who committed suicide some years later. Gaye and Hardy were absolutely inseparable; they were never seen apart and rarely talked to other people. They collected railway tickets (this, I think was really Gaye's mania) and had a passion for every kind of game. They admitted Saxon and me into a restricted acquaintanceship because Saxon had been at Westminster with Gaye, and we played bowls with them in the Fellows' Garden and cricket with a walking stick and tennis ball in their rooms. Fletcher became Secretary of the Medical Research Council, and F.R.S. and a K.B.E. Here is the record of the conversation to which I have given the title, "The Cat, the Worms, and the Rats":

    When I went into G. and H.'s room, I found them sitting one on each side of the fire in a very dejected condition. On the floor between them sat their cat. They were quite silent and dishevelled and they merely gazed at the cat. The cat's ill, said H. at last in a dull voice. It's got worms, at least that's what the vet said - F. told us to go to him. Poor thing! I felt I had to say, to break the pause. It hasn't eaten for two days, he went on. You see, the vet says as soon as it makes the movements preparing to eat, the worms - they're in the stomach, you know - come up into the oesophagus and nearly choke it. But what are you doing for it? I said. Well, the vet gave us powder for it. He said just give it to him and it will kill the worms inside. But that's the worst of these experts, you always think it's quite easy when they are telling you what to do; when you go and try to do it, you find it's impossible. We can't get him to take the powder; we tried to make him take it mixed with milk - the vet told us to - but we could only force a little of it down his throat with a teaspoon and even then he was sick at once. F. says he doesn't believe you can make a cat take anything against its will. There was a long pause, while we all looked at the cat. It's in a very emaciated condition, H. was pursuing in a still lower voice, when the door opened and F. came in. Well, how's the patient? he said with conscientious cheerfulness. Just the same, said H. You know we can't make it take the powders; it was sick when we forced a little down its throat. If it was only a dog, I said. You'd simply open its mouth and drop it down. But then of course there are the claws. You can't get hold of a cat. No, said F., even a dog can't kill a cat easily. That's because he can't come to close quarters, I said. I suppose if he got it in the back like he does a rabbit, he could quite easily. I suppose he could, said F. You know a terrier kills a rabbit or rat with a flick just breaking its back. By the bye that reminds me of the most repulsive sight I ever saw - it really was too filthy. It was in France last vac. I was biking in the Rhone valley with J. - Here H. to whom G. had whispered something broke in: I'm sorry, F., but, before I forget, do you think it's a funny or bad symptom that while the cat is being sick it walks backwards? Yes, said G., and it also keeps on drawing its head back. I really don't know, returned F. Well, we were biking through a small village and found there was a fair going on, so we dismounted to have a look. The great attraction was Madame Boug, the champion rat catcher. We found a big crowd awaiting her arrival round a pit. We squeezed in among them and soon she made her appearance. She was a tall, big woman and stark naked except for a tightly fitting red pair of drawers - really quite repulsive, you know. Well, she went into the pit and they loosed about twenty big sewer rats into it too. Then she went down on her hands and knees and chased the rats round. She crawled extraordinarily quickly and every now and then made a dart with her head, caught one by the back in her mouth, gave a little flick, and it was dead. It was quite foul, you know; to see her seize them in her teeth and give that little jerk just like a terrier. But didn't they bite her? I said. O yes, he said, in the ears, that was so repulsive. For when there were only three left, she worked them up into a corner and as she was killing one another seized her ear, and I saw another leap up from under her breast too right over her neck. I daresay they bit her in the breast too, but it was really so repulsive, you know, that we made off feeling quite sick. But, said G., as F. got up to go, I shouldn't have thought her mouth was big enough to seize a rat in. Ah, said F., she was a big-mouthed woman, quite repulsive, you know. Then the door closed upon his Goodnight!

    May 10th, 1903

    {Exercise: rewrite A Mathematician's Apology, with Hardy taking up Fletcher's conversation, in place of Housman's.}

  2. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918, p.18 and p.20:

    During the next few days slight depression continued, for the return is nearly always an anticlimax. But I decided, with some misgiving - for I did not know what I should find there - to plunge straight back into the life of Cambridge which I had left seven years ago. Three days after my arrival in Putney I took the train to Cambridge to stay with Lytton Strachey, who was living there in rooms on King's Parade. It was a formidable plunge. I dined at the high table in Trinity, and went to see McTaggart and Bertrand Russell, and played bowls on the Fellows Bowling Green with G H Hardy, who was a remarkable mathematician, became Professor at Oxford, and was one of the strangest and most charming of men. ...

    Lytton and Rupert, Bertie Russell and Hardy, Sheppard and Goldie at the Society on Saturday evening - all this was a wonderful plunge direct from the three years in Hambantota. In the train back to London, I came to the surface once more a little out of breath and slightly dizzy. At the same time I felt the warmth of a kind of reassurance. I had enjoyed my week-end.

    There was Cambridge and Lytton and Bertie Russell and Goldie, the Society and the Great Court of Trinity, and Hardy and bowls - all the eternal truths and values of my youth - going on just as I had left them seven years ago. Though I was fresh from the sands of Jaffna and Hambabtota and from the Kiplingesque, Anglo-Indian society of Ceylon, I found that I was still a native of Trinity and King's, a Cambridge intellectual. My seven years in Ceylon had added a touch to my reserve and aloofness, but I had no difficulty in taking up the thread of friendship or conversation with Lytton and the others where I had left them in 1904.

Last Updated August 2007