While the diary was written hurriedly, often in moments snatched between dressing and dinner or while tea waited downstairs, it remains a literary work in its own right. Its publication is the result of the continuing fascination with Bloomsbury and the growing reputation of Virginia Woolf. Yet it would merit reading even if she were an obscure Georgian lady rather than an important author. Woolf admired the nineteenth century realist writers who filled their books with the petty details of daily life, and she praised the diary of Samuel Pepys for including “the buying of clothes, the losing of tempers, and all the infinite curiosities, amusements, and pettinesses of average human life.” Such a style, she believed, had gone out of fashion in the modern era; contemporary fiction, like contemporary rooms, no longer tolerated the overstuffed, crowded appearance of the Victorian era. In her diary, though, she could indulge her taste for this older mode. Like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) or the novels of her relative William Makepeace Thackeray, her diary records daily life with all of its people and places visited, its small triumphs and little tragedies, in a manner at once immediate and crafted.
As such, it offers an intimate portrait of Virginia Woolf and her world. Even her letters, published slightly before the diaries, are less revealing, for these were intended for specific audiences, and for each reader Woolf donned a particular mask. Only in the diary was she free to speak to herself, though as the work progressed she became increasingly conscious that she was writing for other eyes as well. She paints herself, warts and all, with her prejudices, fears, and vanities but also with her courage and dedication to her art. Samuel Pepys, when forced by failing eyesight to give up his diary, lamented that the decision was “almost as much as to see myself go into my grave” because like all diarists he realized that days unrecorded would for his future self as well as for posterity be days unlived. For Woolf, too, the diary was a stay against time, a barrier between herself and death. The Woolf who emerges from these pages is not the shadowy figure who drowned herself in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941. Rather, she appears as a colorful woman who enjoyed life fully, who adhered to the creed she borrowed from Montaigne: “Its life that matters.”