In the preface to the 1928 Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf observed:It is true that the author can if he wishes tell us something about himself and his life which is not in the novel; and to this effort we should do all that we can to encourage him. For nothing is more fascinating than to be shown the truth which lies behind those immense facades of fiction—if life is indeed true, and if fiction is indeed fictitious.
Though much has been written about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle of which she was the center, her diary remains an important as well as an entertaining source for anyone seeking the truth about her, her world, and her work.
The portrait that Woolf paints of herself is not always flattering. The fourth entry (January 4, 1915) begins, “I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh.” Two decades later, she comments that her Jewish husband and his brothers are not gentlemen. On January 9, 1915, she writes of walking along a towpath and passing a group of the mentally feeble. She records her reaction: “It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.” A charitable interpretation might ascribe the comment to her growing depression, which culminated in a nervous breakdown several weeks later. More difficult to excuse is her callousness when she hears of the famine in 1919 that killed hundreds of Armenians each week: “I laughed to myself over the quantities of Armenians. How can anyone mind whether they number 4,000 or 4,000,000? The feat is beyond me.” She dismissed as monkeys a group of Ceylonese visiting her husband.
She was scarcely more charitable to Anglo-Saxons in command of their faculties. Visiting a library, she comments on “all the shabby clerks & dressmakers thumbing illustrated papers, like very battered bees on very battered flowers.” Later she remarks, “the hard scrubbed surface of the lower middle class mind does not attract me.” The rich clients of Day’s subscription library please her no more:They come in furred like seals & scented like civets, condescend to pull a few novels about on the counter, & then demand languidly whether there is anything amusing? . . . The West End of London fills me with aversion.
She cared for neither the poor suburbs and East London nor aristocratic Mayfair.
Had her associations extended farther, her sympathies might have as well. Despite her anti-Semitic comments (typical of her class), she was married to a Jew. She exhibited at least as much patience as annoyance with the servants she employed, and she could be charitable to striking workers. Her world—and thus her loyalties and affection—was, however, largely limited to the social and intellectual circle of upper-middle-class Bloomsbury, which she regarded as the moral as well as the cultural hub of the universe, and her portraits of its inhabitants exhibit greater insight and more generosity than those she painted of outsiders.
Because she numbered most of literary London among her acquaintances, and because the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press published the works of a number of these people, the diaries provide privileged glimpses into the lives and habits of such figures as T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, Lytton Strachey, and Edmund Gosse. Not all the descriptions are attractive. She likened Gosse, the doyen of Georgian letters, to a grocer and H. G. Wells to a butcher. Her description of Bruce Lyttleton Richmond, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and his wife, Elena, is devastating: “Elena has no beauty, no charm, no very marked niceness even! . . . Seriously, one has doubts for her complete mental equipment.” Elena’s husband, Woolf continues, “is completely circular: round head, eyes, nose, paunch, mind.”
Though she can be harsh, she can also be penetrating. Her view of Strachey, though tempered with fondness, reveals sharp critical insight; Woolf maintained that his work was not first-rate because it never dared enough. Consequently, it remained “brilliant, superbly brilliant journalism, a supremely skilful rendering of the old tune.” Not only have critics confirmed this judgment, but also Strachey himself confessed to feeling uncomfortable whenever he strayed from his sources. Another portrait captures Eliot, whom she first met in November, 1918. Her first impression suggests someone “very intellectual, intolerant, with strong views of his own, & a poetic creed.” She also observed that “his excessive care in the use of language” could make him obscure, a paradox noted by many of Eliot’s readers.
In addition to reflecting on her literary contemporaries and the rising generation of authors, Woolf’s diaries occasionally discuss older writers as well. In July, 1926, Woolf visited Thomas Hardy, then eighty-six years old; the lengthy description of his life and conversation well repays the reading. Another fascinating segment records a conversation with the author and politician Augustine Birrell in July, 1923, in which the essayist gives his impressions of many prominent figures he has known, among them Charles Dickens and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Woolf was more inclined to analyze her friends (and enemies) than herself; the diary might as easily have been written in the age...
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