Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Diary of Virginia Woolf Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

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Virginia Woolf sprinkles her diary with judgments of her literary contemporaries. Her dissatisfaction with the popular novelists John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells is well known from her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), but the diary provides unguarded remarks about the somewhat younger generation of novelists whom the critical consensus has come to esteem more highly. She had reservations about James Joyce for his “indecencies,” she could not accept D. H. Lawrence as an artist because of what she saw as his inclination to preach, and she thought that Aldous Huxley “makes people into ideas.” Woolf could be jealous of women rivals and recognized that fact. Katherine Mansfield, some of whose work the Woolfs published, is one such example. She also had little good to say about Dorothy Richardson, Woolf’s main rival as an early female exploiter of the possibilities of stream-of-consciousness fiction.

As a record of her concern with her own literary technique, the diary is invaluable. She had very little to say about her distinctive style while she was in the process of developing it in her short fiction between 1917 and 1920. This fact seems to reflect her discovery—later often expressed as a disagreement with Percy Lubbock’s influential The Craft of Fiction (1921)—that craft is less often something articulated and imposed on one’s work than the result of considerable trial-and-error writing. When Woolf began the attempt to apply her “new method” to works which took months and even years to complete, however, she had much to say about it. She sought a “loose” and “light” effect without “scaffolding” while writing her first novel in her new manner, Jacob’s Room (1922).

She reports her husband as both highly encouraging and constructively critical of the completed manuscript of this novel. He thought the characters were like “ghosts,” which she took as a compliment, but he suggested that she apply the method to only one or two characters in her next novel. Interestingly, that is exactly what she did in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), which became one of her most celebrated novels. While working on it, however, she was haunted by an article in the March 10, 1923, issue of The Nation and Athenaeum in which Middleton Murry asserted that the lack of plot interest in the new fiction that she and some of the younger writers were producing was leading the novel to an “impasse.” In retrospect, it is easy to see that, far from being an impasse, Jacob’s Room had merely initiated her most creative period. Nevertheless, she recognized that her new method could create problems. Her preoccupation with the inner life of her two characters caused her to fear that she was injecting “too many ideas.” There was also the danger that in her fascination with words she would merely “fabricate” with them. In the course of working on Mrs. Dalloway, she came to call her approach a “tunnelling process,” with expository elements introduced along the way “by instalments.” Yet with two tunnels representing the two main characters of the novel, Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, there lurked also the danger of failing to make the necessary connections between them.

The contrast between her intensity while working on such a novel and a feeling approaching desolation when she was finished with it—coupled with her anxiety while waiting for the novel to be published and the critical reaction to it, especially from influential literary friends such as E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey—invariably threw Woolf into a depression from which only the genesis of a new novel could rescue her. After her next success, To the Lighthouse (1927), her diary records her wish to compose a jeu d’esprit as a welcome change of pace from several years of steady, serious writing. The result was Orlando (1928), her lighthearted account of a dashing Elizabethan knight who lived on through the centuries and in the process turned into a woman.

The indexes in each volume of Anne Olivier Bell’s edition of the diary allow the reader to trace the growth of each of her books. In the case of Orlando, it is possible to find early, unindexed evidence. Within weeks of meeting Vita Sackville-West, a poet and novelist from an old patrician family, in December of 1922, Woolf believes that she can “trace her passions 500 years back.” Early in 1927, when Woolf knows Sackville-West much better, the latter woman’s accounts of her ancestors “light up” the centuries for her. Thus, before arriving at the idea for her androgynous novel, she associates Sackville-West with the sweep of English history. A month later, she is planning the novel; she thinks of her protagonist as a “heroine,” but sexually ambivalent, as she has already taken her friend to be. Not until September of that year, however, does she specifically identify Sackville-West with Orlando. Thus, in a series of diary entries one can see the unfolding of a novel.


Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Diary of Virginia Woolf Analysis


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