I’ve been a little obsessed with Virginia Woolf recently. Something happened after reading Olivia Laing’s excellent ‘To the River’ and since then I’ve found myself wanting to know more about this woman, this writer, who seems to be remembered more for walking into the River Ouse with her pockets weighted with stones than for her groundbreaking fiction. I’ve also been pretty obsessed with memoirs and personal stories, so Virginia Woolf’s diaries seemed a perfect read to me. It was also helpful that the wonderful Persephone Books include her diaries, as edited by her husband Leonard Woolf, in their catalogue so not only was I going to read insights from the mind of a great writer, I also got to lend my (small) support to the independent publishing industry. Oh, how virtuous am I?
Virginia Woolf’s diaries run into many volumes, but this condensed version focuses on those entries which centre around the act and art of writing, the thorny development of a book and Woolf’s fears and uncertainties about how calibre as a writer. It makes for an interesting read, and perhaps the best introduction to Woolf who is in fiction a somewhat difficult writer to read. In her diaries, however, she is sharp and engaging, insightful and amusing. What emerges is Woolf the human being, an individual struggling with the thorny activity that is creative writing. The diaries begin in 1918, during the period when Woolf is writing Night and Day, and follows through to her death in 1941. During this time we see Woolf following a pattern in her writing: she has an idea, is excited, starts writing though maybe whilst writing something else which becomes like a millstone around her neck, hates what she has written, suffers self-doubt and destructive feelings, edits edits and more edits, waits impatiently (whilst not wanting to know) for Leonard’s opinion, receives good feedback, feels relieved, glad it’s over, publishes, waits in dread for the reviews. As a budding writer, reading about a writer of Woolf’s calibre working through that arc, book after book, is somewhat heartening. It gives me hope (though hopefully won’t drive me to the river).
What makes Woolf’s diaries so sparkling, however, is Woolf herself. Her poetic expression, her keen insight. Even when tinkering around in her diary, she displays her keen eye and artistic temperament, no matter how seemingly ordinary the subject. She lends insight into everything. On Shakespeare:
“I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing. When my mind is agape and red-hot. Then it is astonishing. I never knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.”
“London is enchanting. I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet, it seems, and get carried into beauty without raising a finger. The nights are amazing, with all the white porticos and broad silent avenues. And people pop in and out, lightly, divertingly like rabbits; and I look down Southampton Row, wet as a seal’s back or red and yellow with sunshine, and watch the omnibuses going and coming and hear the old crazy organs.”
“Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world – this moment I stand on.”
There’s a great deal of ground covered in Woolf’s diaries, and it makes for an interesting read from a number of perspectives: Woolf as a writer, Woolf as a woman, Woolf as a depressive – though I should say that her depressiveness does not come across greatly in the diary. Then there is the wider Bloomsbury set, her meeting with Thomas Hardy (which is beautiful), his funeral, her relationships with Roger Fry and E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf himself, of course. The inter-war years, the coming of WWII and how it affected and, in the end it seems, destroyed her. For me it was Woolf as a writer and as an insightful, intelligent woman living in a way that women simply didn’t in those days: childless (unapologetically so) and independent, writing groundbreaking fiction and the value of a room of one’s own.
Virginia Woolf’s diaries are an excellent read, and one that benefit from multiple readings. A pleasure, like a long slow walk along the riverside on a sunny day, crickets chirping, pike leaping and long meadow grasses swaying in a cool wind, plump clouds overhead, just passing.
A Writer’s Diary receives a pleasurable 10 out of 10 Biis. One to read and read.