Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Diary of Virginia Woolf Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2183

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.

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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 of Queen Victoria as in the age of Sigmund Freud, and in many ways Woolf fits the former era better than the latter. Yet the entries offer numerous examples of introspection. Bad reviews and unkind comments deeply disturbed her: She was so worried about the reception of The Voyage Out (1915) that its imminent publication triggered a lengthy mental collapse.

Through such revelations the diary dispels many received opinions about Woolf. Anyone envisioning her as an ink-stained aesthete unconcerned about her appearance will discover how important clothes were to her. At times, they seem virtually an obsession. Her ambivalent sexuality has prompted questions about her relationship with Leonard Woolf. She felt more comfortable in the company of women than of men, and the one love affair she had after her marriage was with Vita Sackville-West. Nevertheless, Leonard remained very important to her as a source of strength and comfort. Without him, she maintained, she would have been “a ravaged sensitive old hack,” and she found in his conversation and support a relief that no one else afforded.

The diary also shatters the illusion that Woolf was generally depressed. Certainly there were periods of unhappiness, and the entries after 1939 reveal a growing pessimism. On June 9, 1940, she writes, “I will continue—but can I? The pressure of this battle wipes out London pretty quick.” Later that month she records, “I cant conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941”; for Woolf there was not. Yet these notes of sadness form a minor rather than a major strain in the diaries. More characteristic is the last entry for 1919, which claims that she and Leonard are “the happiest couple in England.”

The image of Virginia Woolf as recluse receives a corrective in these pages, which reveal her as socially active. She claims that January 2, 1915, offers “an altogether average sample of [her] life,” spent eating, writing, reading, talking with her Belgian landlady, going for a walk, and shopping. In fact, more characteristic is her explanation of the hiatus in the diary between November 6 and November 15, 1919. Under the latter date, she remarks that she has been too busy to write, for Sunday was spent with Lytton Strachey, Monday with the Harrisons (her dentist and his wife) and Mary Agnes Hamilton (writer and Socialist), Tuesday she devoted to letter writing, but the rest of the week disappears amid more socializing and a concert. The next entry is dated thirteen days later, the interval once more filled with visits, dinner parties, “letters, telephone calls, books to review, reviews of my book, invitations to parties & so forth.”

Such a full life would not seem to leave much time for reading, yet Woolf managed to consume vast quantities of literature. Some of her reading was required for the reviews she wrote, but she also read much for pleasure. The scope and quantity of material she perused are exemplified by lists such as that recorded for October 2, 1934, which includes thirteen titles ranging from four plays by William Shakespeare to recently published books such as H. G. Wells’s An Experiment in Autobiography and Bonamy Dobree’s Modern Prose Style (both published in 1934). Her two volumes of The Common Reader (1925, 1932) and her projected history of English literature rest on a firm knowledge that could easily have secured for her a doctorate. She shunned degrees and titles, though, politely refusing the Companionship of Honour just as she declined an honorary degree from the University of Manchester and the Clark Lectureship at the University of Cambridge.

Woolf was a social creature but not a political one. A little more than a month after the Armistice in 1918 she observed that “the war is already almost forgotten,” and the following day she again dismissed one of the greatest cataclysms in European history as “an unimportant incident; one of our political dodges.” For the most part, she left politics to her husband, and she found reformers and philanthropists less trustworthy and interesting than artists. Nevertheless, events did occasionally intrude upon her; during the 1926 General Strike she helped Leonard draft and circulate a petition urging the government to negotiate with the workers.

Despite this lack of interest in politics, Woolf documents important developments. One finds here what life was like amid work stoppages, how London responded to the Armistice and the Battle of Britain in 1940, what it was like to travel through Nazi Germany in the mid-1930’s. Sometimes history comes very close indeed, as when her nephew Julian Bell is killed in the Spanish Civil War or when she joins those who traveled to the north of England to observe the total solar eclipse on June 29, 1927.

The diary’s greatest appeal resides in its record of another kind of history, the development of Woolf’s literary creations. Thinking about her diaries in March, 1926, Woolf reflected on what would become of them after her death. Perhaps Leonard would “make up a book from them. . . . I daresay there is a little book in them: if the scraps & scratches were straightened out a little.” In 1953 her husband acted on this suggestion, publishing about a quarter of the entries under the title A Writer’s Diary, and for most readers the five-volume set might bear the same title, presenting as it does an account of Woolf’s writing habits and the evolution of her works.

Many scenes and characters that appear in her publications first surface here. One day she happened on a blind beggar holding a dog and singing outside the Kingsway subway station. In Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh sees a similar figure outside the Regent’s Park station. Dining with Clive Bell at the Cafe Royal in March, 1919, she observes as a woman creates a disturbance; the episode reemerges in Jacob’s Room (1922). In that same month she discusses in her diary the experience of having a tooth out under gas. Seven years later she returns to this incident in her essay “On Being Ill.” In her treatment of John Maynard Keynes’s wife, Lydia Lopokova, one finds the prototype of Rezia Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway. On October 22, 1927, Woolf ponders a new book that has been occupying her thoughts: “It is based on Vita [Sackville-West], Violet Trefusis [one of Vita’s earlier lovers], Lord Lascelles, Knole [Sackville-West’s house, the largest in England], &c.” Thus, Orlando was born.

The diary reveals which books came easily (To the Lighthouse and Orlando) and which were agonizingly difficult (The Years and her biography of Roger Fry). Even when she wrote quickly, though, she was never satisfied. She observed that for a short book review, “I write every sentence as if it were going to be tried before 3 Chief Justices.” Three drafts were common; for some she required as many as six. Her books received the same meticulous care. After finishing a draft of To the Lighthouse in September, 1926, in about nine months, she spent the next four months revising. Still not content, she made more changes after the novel went to press, so that the version published in the United States differs from the one that appeared in England.

Writing could be difficult, at times literally maddening, yet the diary discloses how important the physical and mental activity of creation was to Woolf. On December 5, 1919, she writes, “My mind turned by anxiety, or other cause, from its scrutiny of blank paper, is like a lost child—wandering the house, sitting on the bottom step to cry.” Whatever her doubts about her work—and she records many of these—however deeply hurt she was by bad reviews, she wrote on, asserting, “the truth is that writing is the profound pleasure & being read the superficial.” This urge, indeed, this need, to write helps explain the very existence of these diaries, in which Woolf could record her thoughts of the moment without worrying about being read, without the fear of bad reviews or her own subsequent dissatisfaction. She could suspend her critical faculties and for a few moments simply, indulgingly, put onto paper whatever words came to mind.

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