When she was 36, Virginia Woolf imagined an older version of herself reading her diaries:
If Virginia Wool at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better.
Reading this extract of her diaries ninety-one years years later, it seems that Woolf wrote her diaries with posterity in view. This edition A Writer’s Diary comprise extracts made by Leonard Woolf to “throw light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer.” He writes:
I have been carefully through the 26 volumes of diary and have extracted and now publish in this volume practically everything which referred to her own writing. I have included also three other kinds of extract. The first consists of a certain number of passages in which she is obviously using the diary as a method of practising or trying out the art of writing. The second consists of a few passages which, though not directly or indirectly concerned with her writings, I have deliberately selected because they give the reader an idea of the direct impact upon her mind of scenes and persons, i.e. of the raw material of her art. Thirdly I have included a certain number of passages in which she comments upon the books she was reading.
The third part is compelling. You could have a wonderful time reading through Woolf’s own reading list. Woolf is an epic reader. As Moyra Davey says in her essay The Problem of Reading
Woolf laid out some of her core ideas about books and reading. A great proponent of voracious, indiscriminate reading, everything from “bad” contemporary novels to the forgotten memoirs and letters one discovers buried in secondhand bookstores. Woolf would concur with Calvino that to really appreciate the classics one must come at them from the vantage point of contemporary literature. It is only then that one can experience “a complete finality about [the classics] . . . a consecration [that]. . . we return to life, feeling it more keenly and understanding it more deeply than before.”
More than anything reading these extracts has given me an appetite to read the full set of diaries. Whilst you get the sense that Woolf has an eye to posterity, there is an intimacy and candour that enables you to see how life may have looked to this unusual woman.
Woolf and her Bloomsbury set were undoubtedly elitist and moved in the typically restricted social circles of 1920’s London. Her thoughts on reading Ulysses, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” The “underbred, not only in the obvious sense” is revealing. Occasionally this restricted, and frequently to Woolf, suffocating view produces moments of laugh-out-loud humour:
Brafani: three people watching the door open and shut. Commenting on visitors like fates-summing up, placing. A woman with a hard aquiline face-red lips-bird like-perfectly self-satisfied. French pendulous men, a rather poor sister. Now they sit nibbling at human nature. We are rescued by the excellence of our luggage.
Given its writer and subject A Writer’s Diarycould not fail to be fascinating. These diaries go further though in placing you right into the emotional roller-coaster of being Virginia Woolf. They are an impeccable preparation for a deeper reading of the novels. For me, even in extracted form, these diaries exceed the insight and sheer enjoyment to be had from the diaries of Robert Musil and André Gide. That is high praise.