For most of its length there is a peculiarly insulated quality to the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diary. We find little suggestion of her buried or imaginative life, almost no mention of the novel (her second, Night and Day) that she was writing through much of this period, only the briefest of critical comments on her reading, a minimum of reference to the larger social and political issues that consumed the energies of her husband, Leonard—in fact, if it were not for the occasional air raid warning and the sight of German prisoners of war, the reader would scarcely be aware of the fact that England was lost in the dark, bloody tunnel of World War I. For all of their crochets, the letters currently being published provide us with a much fuller sense of Woolf’s life during the period covered by the present volume.
Indeed, the first two-thirds of the volume gives us only the barest outline of Woolf’s days and ways. So reticent is the diary at this early stage that Woolf’s biographer, Quentin Bell, may be correct in suggesting that the diary was initially intended for therapeutic purposes, “partly as a sedative, a way of proving to herself how normal she was.” Certainly there seems to be an air of determination and self-congratulation in the keeping of the diary, an air that the diary itself scarcely seems to warrant. But, given the fuller and more complex entries in the closing pages of the volume as well as the selections already published by Leonard in A Writer’s Diary, later volumes should prove extraordinarily interesting both to the careful critic and the gossipy reader.
Nevertheless, even through the reticence several things begin to emerge. There is, for example, the closeness of Virginia and Leonard, marked, among other things, by the frequency with which they simply went walking together: “After lunch we took the air in the Old Deer Park”; “we noticed the damaged Bridge as we walked to Kingston this afternoon. . . . We had a very good walk.” However, Virginia’s interest in Leonard’s outside concerns could not even be termed marginal, so that they separated often enough when Leonard went to the London School of Economics, to a meeting of the Fabian executive, to groups promoting the League of Nations and the cooperative movement, to editors, to the offices of publications he himself edited, to the innumerable lectures he was called upon to give as his fame and expertise grew. She could take only a limited supply of the Sidney Webbs: “L. went to the Webbs, & I came home.” Nor did she cotton much to her in-laws: “L. went to see his mother; I called on Jean.” But when, in London, they went their separate ways, they met regularly for lunch or afterwards; when left at home to write, Virginia was likely to meet “L.” en route so that they might walk home to Richmond together. Often enough, Leonard’s moods and needs were registered in the diary along with her own: “amused me, but bored L. I’m afraid.” And more than once we find the crisp comment: “We wrote all the morning.” Clearly they created an atmosphere for each other in which they could work independently, possess their own souls and moods, and at the same time rest in each other.
There were differences enough, of course, and some of them, when pulled out of context, must have seemed insuperable. Virginia registered several quarrels—“We quarrelled almost all the morning!”—and no doubt there were some that she did not register. Her comments on Leonard’s family and on Jews in general could, at times, be downright anti-Semitic: “I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh,” comments that Leonard must have read. There were also, of course, her recurring madness and daily fear of madness. Poignantly, the first segment of the diary lasts only six weeks, for it was interrupted by a bout of violent, screaming lunacy that, among other symptoms, took the form of a raving antipathy to Leonard himself. On February 13, 1915, she wrote: “I met L. at Spikings & we had tea, and were very happy.” Two days later, the diary breaks off, not to be resumed for two and a half years.
While asserting over and over again her lack of interest in social, political, and economic matters—the very staff of life to Leonard—Virginia did accompany him now and then to some of the meetings he addressed, and she was suitably impressed by his ability as a speaker; in 1913, in fact, she had joined him on a ten-day...