Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

On January 3, 1897, shortly before her fifteenth birthday, Virginia Stephen began to keep a diary, which she maintained faithfully for much of the year. After the death of her half sister, Stella, in July, however, entries became sparser, and on September 14 she wrote, “We will follow the year to its end & then fling diaries and diarising into the corner—to dust & mire & moths & all creeping crawling eating destroying creatures.” Despite this resolution, she subsequently made a number of attempts at “diarising,” one of these resulting in a daily record for several months in 1905.

Although these manuscripts survive, they are not reprinted in these volumes. Instead, this edition reproduces the contents of thirty notebooks housed in New York Public Library’s Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The first entry is dated January 1, 1915, the last March 24, 1941, four days before her death. Each volume covers roughly five years: Volume 1 includes 1915 through 1919, volume 2 1920 through 1925, volume 3 1926 through 1930, volume 4 1931 through 1935, and volume 5 1936 through 1941. Though the division is arbitrary, each book seems to revolve around a few dominant events and assumes its own tone. The third volume reflects her great personal hope following the publication of The Common Reader (1925) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925). It records the successful completion of her two best works, To the...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

If the first volume of The Diary of Virginia Woolf had a somewhat insulated, claustrophobic quality, the second volume leaps immediately and triumphantly into the midst of that busy British cénacle known as Bloomsbury. Early in 1920 Woolf can complain of the many interruptions she has had to contend with, but it is clear that the life of clubs, conversation, gossip, teas, and dinners was absolutely necessary to her existence as a person and as a writer: “For some time now life has been considerably ruffled by people. Age or fame or the return of peace—I don’t know which—but anyhow I grow wearied of ’going out to tea’; and yet can’t resist it. To leave a door shut that might be open is in my eyes some form of blasphemy.” And at the very close of the volume, in the entry for December 21, 1924, she notes, rather complacently, “All our Bloomsbury relationships flourish, grow in lustiness. Suppose our set to survive another 20 years, I tremble to think how thickly knit & grown together it will be. At Christmas I must write & ask Lytton [Strachey] if I may dedicate the common reader to him.”

Time after time the diary reads like a social calendar. In fact it becomes one: “Tuesday the Squires & Wilkinson & Edgar to dinner; Wednesday tea with Elena; Thursday lunch with Nessa, tea Gordon Square; Friday Clive and Mary here. . . .” She may write of being spread thin, but she clearly rejoiced in her world. While the diary overlaps only in part the recently published third volume of The Letters, the two publications indicate clearly enough the difference between what she told her diary and what she poured out in her hundreds of letters. The letters provide a series of masks carefully adjusted to the recipients; emotionally, at least, it is difficult to trust any single one of them. The diaries not only outline her days but attach to each moment the feeling associated with it.

In 1920 Virginia Woolf was just beginning to acquire a literary reputation in her own right and was also finding that she enjoyed the feeling: “At a party now I feel a little famous—the chances are people . . . whose names I know, also know my name.” She was quite clear and self-conscious on the personal value of such recognition. Visiting Roger Fry, who, despite his standing as an art critic had failed as a painter, she describes him as filled with “an obscure irritation” and too willing to adopt an aggrieved tone. In such a mood Fry was scarcely capable of praising the work of another—Woolf’s, for example. “I sometimes fancy,” she points out to her diary, “that the only healthy condition is that of doing successful work. It’s the prime function of the soul.” In the five years covered by this volume of the diary, Woolf attained her literary majority—publishing her first genuinely experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, completing Mrs. Dalloway, and assembling the collection of critical essays entitled The Common Reader. There were shorter works of fiction as well, over a hundred articles and reviews, and, of course, those scores of letters. And there was that most important, increasingly time-consuming but increasingly gratifying venture, the Hogarth Press, which in 1923 published Eliot’s The Waste Land. It also, of course, enabled Woolf to feel relatively free of the pressures of the literary marketplace since she could, and did, publish her own work.

As one would expect, it was to her diary that she also confessed her doubts, dilemmas, and hunger for praise when it was not forthcoming. After a conversation with Eliot, she feels that her husband, Leonard, shone more than she did, and asserts, determinedly, “but I didn’t much mind.” Very shortly, however, her diary notes, “But I think I minded more than I let on,” and the writing of Jacob’s Room comes to a halt; she feels listless, doubts the value of what she is doing, and admits to some jealousy of Leonard: “Perhaps at the bottom of my mind I feel that I’m distanced by L. in every respect.” She conducted a love-hate...

(The entire section is 1683 words.)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Beyond a doubt, the third volume of Virginia Woolf’s diary is the most important, the most useful, and the most intriguing to date, and it will probably prove to be the one most frequently perused and referred to when the entire five-volume series is in print. Between 1925 and 1930, the years covered by the third volume, Woolf reached her literary majority. She revised and sent to the printer both The Common Reader (1925) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925); with startling ease, she wrote, revised, and published To the Lighthouse (1929), Orlando (1928), and A Room of One’s Own (1929); and as 1930 was drawing to a close she had almost, if not quite, emerged victorious from an extended struggle...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

“Lady L. a now shapeless sausage, & Mrs. Hunter, a swathed satin sausage, sat side by side on a sofa. Ethel stood at the piano in the window . . . conducting with a pencil. There was a drop at the end of her nose.” The passage might have been taken from one of Virginia Woolf’s novels, but is actually part of her diary record of her attendance as one of a small audience at a music rehearsal in a “vast” English mansion. The entry is representative of the mastery of laconic, descriptive detail and satiric bite that lend so much interest to the fourth volume of one of the most celebrated diaries of the twentieth century.

The fourth volume of Woolf’s diary covers the years from 1931 to 1935. During this...

(The entire section is 1527 words.)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Virginia Woolf once observed that a good diarist writes either for himself or for a distant posterity. Clearly her own diary was written for herself. Her self-analysis therein is unposed, and her criticisms of other people, while sometimes devastating, are not malicious, as they sometimes appear to be in her correspondence. She aims at precise description, without the self-indulgence and condescension with which she entertains the readers of her letters. More than once she remarks on the likely serviceability of her diary in the event she decides to write a memoir.

Volume 5 of The Diary of Virginia Woolf begins in 1936 and concludes four days before her death on March 28, 1941. Early in the volume, the reader...

(The entire section is 2225 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although not intended for publication, The Diary of Virginia Woolf has become five volumes edited by Anne Olivier Bell. As the wife of Woolf’s nephew, she had access to many family papers, including the notebooks in which Woolf kept her diary briefly in 1915 and then from August, 1917, until shortly before her death in 1941. Throughout this period, the novelist lived in London and in a succession of homes in rural Sussex. She did not try to write daily; although it was not uncommon for her to make entries every day of a given week, at other times she would go three or four days, sometimes a week, between entries. The entries also vary considerably in length, from short, single paragraphs to entries several pages long....

(The entire section is 473 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Leonard Woolf’s abbreviated edition of the diary undoubtedly whetted public interest in his wife’s book, Bell’s carefully edited version of the entire work gave readers a week-by-week account of an outstanding woman novelist’s mental life throughout her most creative quarter of a century. Together with Virginia Woolf: A Biography by the novelist’s nephew Quentin Bell and the six-volume edition of her letters, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, The Diary of Virginia Woolf inspired and enabled a new burst of activity by Woolf scholars, critics, and admirers.

Few women will be able to read an entry of April 9, 1935, without being stirred. Woolf, by this time a noted author,...

(The entire section is 325 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Atlantic. CCL, August, 1982, p. 94.

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. A remarkably objective, crisp, clear book by a nephew who also brought the skills of a teacher and artist to his task. This biography is well documented and carefully indexed, and it contains thirty-two pages of excellent photographs.

Book World. XIV, December 9, 1984, p. 1.

Booklist. LXXXI, November 15, 1984, p. 415.

Christian Science Monitor. August 4, 1982, p. 15.


(The entire section is 485 words.)