I am always a little cautious with letter or diary collections – I can’t quite ever rid myself of the idea that I am completely the wrong audience. Letters and diaries have a very specific audience – often rooted in the time they were written, and the writers never intended, never dreamed perhaps that they would be being read by random strangers on buses, fifty, sixty or seventy years on. Still we can’t help but be fascinated can we – to read words never intended for us, left behind by those we still revere.
Diaries are difficult to review. Where to start? A Writer’s Diary really is a wonderful reading experience, Virginia Woolf seems to have been incapable of writing a poor sentence, though she was horribly hard on herself. From the first entry in this diary dated 1918 to the final entry – 1941 just three weeks before her death, we see something of her private inner world, from the books she was reading, the words she was herself writing to the people she encountered.
“One out to say something about Peace Day, I suppose, though whether it’s worth taking a new nib for that purpose I don’t know. I am sitting wedged into the window and so catch almost on my head the steady drip of rain which is pattering on the leaves. In ten minutes or so the Richmond procession begins. I fear there will be few people to applaud the town councillors dressed up to look dignified and march through the streets, I’ve a sense of Holland covers on the chairs; of being left behind when everyone’s in the country. I’m desolate, dusty, and disillusioned.”
When Virginia Woolf died in 1941 she left behind her the diaries which she had kept intermittently since 1915. In her diaries Virginia Woolf, had recorded what she did, what she thought and the impressions she had of the people around her. She also recorded her struggles as a writer, her hopes, fears, inspirations and experiments. Frequently her struggles, so exhaustive they made her ill. One of the uses Virginia made of her diary – Leonard Woolf explains in his preface – is that she would commune with herself about her books. She discusses sometimes briefly, sometimes at length her characters, her use of plot, form, even the titles she will give her books come in for scrutiny.
Some years after her death it fell to her husband, Leonard Woolf to edit twenty-seven years’ worth of diaries, it must have been quite a task. He realised that there were parts that could not be published until after people referred to in them had died. However, there was still lots of wonderful material, waiting to be discovered by her readers, and Leonard Woolf concentrated on those entries which particularly referred to Virginia Woolf’s writing. In these entries, we see the woman Virginia was, we feel her frustration as she wrestles with her writing, driving herself on, remorselessly sometimes, it is quite simply a wonderful portrait, painted by Virginia herself.
“So I have to create the whole thing afresh for myself each time. Probably all writers now are in the same boat. It is the penalty we pay for breaking with tradition, and the solitude makes the writing more exciting though the being read less so. One ought to sink to the bottom of the sea, probably, and live alone with one’s words.”
We see, Virginia elated when Morgan (that’s E M Forster to you) responded favourably to one of her works. Anxious about reviews that will inevitably appear whenever a new book was published – telling herself she wouldn’t care – she clearly did.
“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.”
Alongside the detailed life of a writer – which is wonderfully readable, we catch glimpses of her life, life in London and at Rodmell, holidays to France and Italy. She records details of a slightly bizarre meeting she had with Thomas Hardy his wife Florence and their dog in 1926. She reads voraciously, and widely, is saddened by the death of Arnold Bennett. Life and death are a constant presence in these diaries, every bit as important as in her fiction. Virginia reports on the deaths of various figures; Strachey, Hardy and Roger Fry among others.
The woman who gave us Septimus Smith, who wrote Three Guineas was a woman deeply affected by war. She had been somewhat traumatised by the reports from the Front during The First World War. Here we see her, a woman in her fifties, living through another terrible war, struggling to make sense of it.
“Walking today (Nessa’s birthday) by Kingfisher pool saw my first hospital train – laden, not funereal but weighty, as if not to shake bones: something – what is the word I want – grieving and tender and heavy laden and private – bringing our wounded back carefully through the green fields at which I suppose some looked. Not that I could see them. And the faculty for seeing in imagination always leaves me suffused with something partly visual, partly emotional, I can’t, though it’s very pervasive catch it when I come home – the slowness, cadaverousness, grief of the long heavy train, taking its burden through the fields. Very quietly it slid into the cutting at Lewes. Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvered; took up positions and passed over Caburn.”
Although I did a bit of dipping in and out – I did read another short novel while reading this collection – I did pretty much read this collection straight through – although it took the best part of a week. On reflection, it is probably not the best way to read these diary extracts – although I found myself more compelled and constantly drawn back to the book – Virginia Woolf’s testimony to her own creativity and triumphs is endlessly readable and endlessly quotable, as are her vulnerabilities. Forgive the wealth of quotes – I couldn’t help myself. I was amused by her preoccupation with her age – she mentions it quite often – sometimes on her birthday – but at other time too like this from April 1937.
“I was thinking between 3 and 4 this morning, of my 55 years. I lay awake so calm, so content, as if I’d stepped off the whirling world into a deep blue quiet space and there open eyed existed, beyond harm; armed against all that can happen.”
I am so glad I managed to fit in this marvellous volume of diaries to my #Woolfalong phase 5 – I wasn’t sure I was in the right frame of mind – but I needn’t have worried.
So phase 5 of #Woolfalong ends soon – and I will be late with my usual round up as I am away for a few days. Not sure what chance if any I will have for blogging – so if I go a little quiet – you know why.