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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hermione Lee

The Diary of Virginia Woolf review – a book for the ages

Virginia Woolf in London in 1939.
Virginia Woolf in London in 1939. Photograph: Photo Researchers/Getty Images

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual,” Virginia Woolf wrote on 17 February 1922, when she had just turned 40. Her diary is full of pain: deaths, losses, illness, grief, depression, anguish, fear. But on every page life breaks in, with astonishing energy, relish and glee. The diary is an unmatchable record of her times, a gallery of vividly observed individuals, an intimate and courageousself-examination, a revelation of a writer’s creative processes, a tender, watchful nature journal, and a meditation on life, love, marriage, friendship, solitude, society, time and mortality. It’s one of the greatest diaries ever written, and it’s excellent to see it back in print.

Woolf’s first surviving diary entry was made in 1897, when she was nearly 15; her last was on 24 March 1941, four days before her death. She kept these 42 years’ worth of writings in unlined notebooks with soft covers which she bound in coloured papers. She often referred back to them to remind herself of her past, and she drew on them when she started her memoir, Sketch of the Past, in 1939. When her London house was bombed in October 1940, she made sure to salvage them.

Before she killed herself, on 28 March 1941, she left a note for her husband Leonard asking him to destroy all her papers. Luckily for us, he didn’t. Instead he set about sorting and saving a vast mass of materials, including manuscripts of novels, essays and reviews, and these diaries, which went to the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library. In 1953, Leonard selected extracts, published as A Writer’s Diary, which gave the impression of nun-like dedication to the task of writing. It would take the publication of the complete diaries and letters, 20 or so years on, to shift that unsmiling image.

Woolf’s posthumous reputation as a gigantic figure in 20th-century literature, galvanised by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, was secured by the scholarly editing and publishing of her novels, thanks to all those manuscripts Leonard preserved, and by decades of biographical and critical books on her. It also owes a great deal to the joint work of her nephew, the art historian Quentin Bell, who wrote her firstfull-length biography in 1972, and his wife, Anne Olivier Bell, who edited the diaries between 1977 and 1984, helped by Andrew McNeillie. That long labour is nicely evoked by her daughter Virginia Nicolson in her foreword to this Granta edition (all five volumes have good introductions from, among others, Olivia Laing and Margo Jefferson). Olivier transcribed more than 2,000 photocopied pages, tidied up Woolf’s quirks of spellings, datings and punctuation, introduced paragraphs into the rapid, free flow of her prose, and annotated, thoroughly, briskly and humorously, the torrent of names, references, in-jokes and allusions on every page. Granta keeps the original editorial prefaces and notes, and adds a hitherto not-included 1917 wartime Asheham Diary, but sadly doesn’t include Woolf’s early journals (1897 to 1909) which were published by another editor in 1990 as A Passionate Apprentice.

There is, notoriously, no shortage of mean remarks in Woolf’s diaries, as in her letters. She can be spiteful and snooty, and she often speaks the now-offensive language of her times. This has for years been catnip to Woolf critics who condemn her for her views. But, as Laing says here, she is “capable of shocking episodes of snobbery and cruelty while remaining far more progressive and politically engaged than many of her class”. Though Olivier removed a few unkind references to living people, she decided not to “beautify” Woolf by “cutting away ugly bits here and there”. The publisher at Granta has sensibly followed suit, but notes that “the language used and/or views expressed in the diary … and the original editorial material are those of the respective authors in their time and do not represent the publisher’s attitudes”.

No one could ever blame or shame Woolf as much as she does herself. She is intensely self-critical and longs to push outside herself, beyond egotism, to identify as “we”, not “I”. There’s a gripping struggle throughout between solipsism (“How I interest myself!”) and a longing for impersonality and communality. Her precise, passionate descriptions of the landscape around her, whether the Sussex Downs or London city streets, which in themselves make the diaries worth reading, are part of that longing to reach out from the self to what she calls “the singing of the real world”. And her avid fascination with other people makes for an almost uncanny empathy, as if she is turning herself into the person she is observing. The diary is a treasure house of characters, from the famous literary men and women she knew (Hardy, Wells, Yeats, Sackville-West, Mansfield, Eliot) to a thousand vivid portraits of more obscure lives.

How many different uses she puts her diary to! It is a record of her world, and if you want to know the details, written up at speed in the heat of the moment, of the general strike, or the abdication crisis, or the civilian experience of the second world war, this is the place to go. It is a writer’s exercise book, where she works at finding an “elastic” form which will make something of “this loose, drifting material of life”: “It strikes me that in this book I practise writing; do my scales.” It is an essential form of therapy, where dangerous feelings – anger over a row with Leonard about money, terror at the onset of depression, pain in illness, social embarrassment, apprehension of being laughed at when her books are coming out – can be laid to rest. This is where she “composes” herself: “To soothe these whirlpools, I write here.” It is a reader’s notebook, where she records her literary responses and judgments and often tells herself “what a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me!” It is an intimate account of her own writing process, like the joyous moment in her bath when she suddenly invents Three Guineas – “Lord how exciting!” – or the evolution of To the Lighthouse, from the first thought: “to have father’s character done complete in it; & mothers; & St Ives; & childhood; & all the usual things I try to put in – life, death, etc”.

It is a memory book, which, very importantly for her, brings back her past and compulsively revisits key dates like her mother’s death when she was 13, or her marriage to Leonard, or the moves to different houses. It is a book about mortality, knowing that death is coming and making the most of what is now and here. “I am glad to be alive and sorry for the dead,” she writes after the suicide of a friend. She wrings all the juice from life: love, pleasure, affection and enjoyment run all through. She wants to live for the moment. “If one does not lie back & sum up & say to the moment, this very moment, stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying? No: stay, this moment. No one ever says that enough. Always hurry. I am now going in, to see L & say stay this moment.”

The Diary of Virginia Woolf (in five volumes) is published by Granta (£30 each). To support the Guardian and Observer, order at Delivery charges may apply.

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