Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Diary of Virginia Woolf - Volume 1

'Something interesting happens every day' are words spoken by Virginia Woolf that my son and I have taken to heart and turned into a question that we ask each other every day. It started in the summer when I was reading The Diary of Virginia Woolf - Volume 1: 1915-19, part of my ongoing Woolf-and-Bloomsbury-group phase. They appear in a short documentary, The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf, in the bonus material of The Hours (2002) DVD (towards the end, at minute 24). One interviewee was the late Nigel Nicolson, the son of Woolf's closest friend Vita Sackville-West. He talks about his childhood memories of Woolf, about the questions she would ask about events of the day, and how she would encourage keeping a diary because 'something interesting happens every day'.

For those who thrive on the thrill of a good plot in novels, perhaps reading diary entries with everyday descriptions of, for example, the weather doesn't sound interesting. I think one has to be intrigued by any kind of life writing to enjoy such books. In the case of Woolf's diaries, it helps to be a fan of her work. My idea was to end my evening reading with one or two entries from Volume 1 but I always read more. What I found fascinating is how she observes people and her surroundings. The precise descriptions sometimes feel like poetry, especially when she describes the weather or the changing of the seasons. Then there is life during the Great War, which interested me. 'Happily the weather is turned cloudy; spring blotted out, but one must sacrifice spring to the war' (p. 128 - 15 March 1918).

The diaries, five volumes, were edited by Anne Olivier Bell (wife of Quentin, the son of Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell). There are footnotes for those who want to know more about the people and events Woolf writes about. The first volume covers the years 1915 to 1919. 'My writing now delights me solely because I love writing & dont [sic], honestly, care a hang what anyone says. What seas of horror one dives through in order to pick up these pearls—however they are worth it' (p. 20 - 16 January 1915). After six weeks of entries the diary stops in February 1915, when Woolf slid into madness, right before the publishing of her first work, The Voyage Out, in March 1915. Sadly, two years before she had tried to commit suicide. Because of her mental problems there is silence until 1917 when she starts again with brief entries. In the autumn the entries get longer but it isn't until in 1918 that the diary takes off and becomes an essential part of her life. In January 1919 she writes:
I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just reread my years diary & am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest typewriting, if I stopped & took thought, it would never be written at all; & the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap. (pp. 233-34)

On the back cover: The Monk's House kitchen entry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home in Rodmell

In April 1919, Woolf writes a long entry where she contemplates on her diary writing:
I got out this diary, & read as one always does read one's own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. ... But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. ... What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds & ends without looking them through. (p. 266)
I am currently waiting for a copy of Volume 2: 1920-24 to arrive in the mail, looking forward to picking up where I left off. For those of you who aren't into diaries but are interested in her life, there is a biography called Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee, which I intend to read when I'm done with all the five volumes of the diaries. Lee is one of the interviewee in the aforementioned documentary.

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