Virginia Woolf began to keep a regular diary in 1915, and continued to do so till a few days before her death.
Virginia Woolf was born in London in 1882, she was the daughter of the critic Sir Leslie Stephen. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, and together they founded the Hogarth Press. Her first novel, The Voyage Out was published in 1915 after which she wrote twenty other books. She died at Rodmell, Sussex, in 1941. Just a brief synopsis of her life.
The diaries were extracted by Leonard Woolf and the extracts he pulled basically relate to her writing. I think anyone taking a writing course would benefit from reading A Writer's Diary. It reveals her process for writing, how writing filled her life and took the place of many unfulfilled dreams and became her solace and sanctuary, what she gave her life to. Writing a book became like giving birth and since she was denied children her books became her children. Not only was she able to write a book but she knew all about editing, publishing, printing, book binding, packaging and shipping. So right from the thought to the finished distributed product.
1920 Monday 25th October
Why is life so tragic like a strip of pavement over an abyss ... It's having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old ...Unhappiness is everywhere; just beyond the door; or stupidity which is worse, still I don't pluck the nettle out of me.
Writing was their income so quite often there is reference to the need of the success of a book. Also a recurring theme is growing old and how she felt about that.
1923 Wednesday 15th June
I went to Golders Green and sat with Mary Sheepshanks in her garden and beat up the water of talk, as I do so courageously, so that life mayn't be wasted.
I like her reference here to "beat up the water of talk" it truly expresses how I'm sure we have all felt at different times.
Thursday 30th August
I should say a good deal about The Hours and my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment. Dinner!
In the evening after dinner Virginia would read or sit and embroider. She always had a list of books that she was working on.
Monday 15th October
I've been feeling my way into it - up till last August anyhow. It took me a year's groping to discover what I call my tunneling process, by which I tell the past by installments, as I have need of it.
I like the above passage as it reveals a small part of how she went about writing.
1924 Monday 26th May
London is enchanting. I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet, it seems, and get carried into beauty without raising a finger. the nights are amazing, with all the white porticos and broad silent avenues. and people pop in and out, lightly, divertingly like rabbits; and I look down Southampton Row, wet as a seal's back or red and yellow with sunshine, and watch the omnibuses going and coming and hear the old crazy organs. One of these days I will write about London, and how it takes up the private life and carries it on, without any effort. Faces passing lift up my mind; prevent it from settling as does in the stillness at Rodmell.
This passage builds such a picture in ones mind of a 1924 spring in London, it makes me think about my grandma who lived in London at Golders Green and would talk about travelling on the omnibuses, this was her London.
Sunday 3rd August
Yes I'll run through the rain into the house and see if Clarissa is there.
Saturday 1st November
If one could be friendly with women, what a pleasure - the relationship so secret and private compared with relations with men. Why not write about it? Truthfully? As i think , the diary writing has greatly helped my style; loosened the ligatures.
Tuesday 18th November
What I was going to say was that I think writing must be formal. The art must be respected. this struck me reading some of my notes here, for if one lets the mind run loose it becomes egotistic; personal, which I detest. At the same time the irregular fire must be there; and perhaps to loose it one must begin by being chaotic, but not appear in public like that, I am driving my way through the mad chapters of Mrs. D. My wonder is whether the book would have been better without them. But this is an afterthought, consequent upon learning how to deal with her. always I think at the end, I see how the whole ought to have been written.
Saturday 13th December
I am now galloping over Mrs. Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start, which is more or less what I did with the V.O.; a good method, I believe, as thus one works with a wet brush over the whole, and joins parts separately composed and gone dry. Really and honestly I think it the most satisfactory om my novels (but have not read it cold-bloodedly yet). The reviewers will say that it is disjointed because of the mad scenes not connecting with the Dalloway scenes. And suppose there is some superficial glittery writing. But is it "unreal"? Is it mere, accomplishment? i think not. and as I think I said before, it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world.
When you read her biography it gives you insight as to why she may have added the mad scene, what in her life experience prompted her to do so, because in truth so much of what she wrote was what she had experienced, lived and on the page she could expunge it.
Wednesday 6th January
I revised Mrs. D., the chillest part of the whole business of writing, the most depressing - exacting. The worst part is at the beginning (as usual) where the aeroplane has it all to itself for some pages and it wear thin.
While on vacation at La Ciotat
1925 Tuesday 8th April
The Hotel Cendrillon is a white house with red tiled floors, capable of housing perhaps 8 people. and then the whole hotel atmosphere provided me with many ideas; oh so cold, indifferent, superficially polite, and exhibiting such odd relationships; as if human nature were now reduced to a kind of code, which it has devised to meet these emergencies, where people who do not know each other meet and claim their rights as members of the same tribe. As a matter of fact, we got into touch all round; but our depths were not invaded. But L. and I were too too happy, as they say; if it were now to die etc. Nobody shall say of me that I have not known perfect happiness, but few could put their finger on the moment, or say what made it.
This reminds me of Room With A View by E. M. Forster an interesting comment on happiness. Took my mind back to last year sitting sipping a cocktail in Lahaina, Maui looking at the sea it was that kind of moment.
Thursday 14th May
The Truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.
Thursday 18th June
No, Lytton does not like Mrs. Dalloway, and, what is odd, I like him all the better for saying so, and don't much mind. What he says is that there is a discordancy between the ornament (extremely beautiful) and what happens (rather ordinary - or unimportant). This is caused, he thinks, by some discrepancy in Clarissa herself: he thinks she is disagreeable and limited, ... I think there is some truth in it, for I remember the night at Rodmell when I decided to give it up, because I found Carissa in some way tinselly.
I thought exactly the same on reading Mrs. Dalloway, you always are on the edge thinking that some profound truth or happening will take place and she turns out to be limited and shallow.
1926 Saturday 20th March
But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; He could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them. I think; and then burn the body.
The fact is Leonard Woolf kept everything, later publishing much of it.
A visit with Thomas Hardy and his wife
Sunday 25th July
"E. M. Forster takes a long time to produce anything - 7 years," he chuckled. all this made a great impression of the ease with which he did things. "I daresay far from the Madding Crowd would have been a great deal better if I had written it differently," he said. But as if it could not be helped and did not matter.
Thursday 23rd June
This diary shall batten on the leanness of my social life. Never have i spent so quiet a London summer. It is perfectly easy to slip out of the crush unobserved. I have set up my standard as an invalid and no one bothers me. No one asks me to do anything. Vainly, I have the feeling that this is of my choice, not theirs; and there is a luxury in being quiet in the heart of chaos.
1928 Friday 4th May
Also the "fame" is becoming vulgar and a nuisance. It means nothing; yet takes one's time. Americans perpetually. Croly; Gaige; offers.
Wednesday 7th November
I think I may say that I am now among the well known writers. I had tea with Lady Cunard - might have lunched or dined any day. I found her in a little cap telephoning. It was not her atmosphere - this of solitary talk. She is too shrewd to expand and needs society to make her rash and random which is her point. Ridiculous little parakeet faced woman; but not quite sufficiently ridiculous. I kept waiting for superlatives; could not get the illusion to flap its wings.
And the egotism of men surprises and shocks me even now. Is there a woman of my acquaintance who could sit in my armchair from 3 to 6:30 without the semblance of a suspicion that I may be busy, or tired, or bored; and so sitting could talk, grumbling and grudging, of her difficulties, worries; then eat chocolates, then read a book, and go at last, apparently self-complacent and wrapped in a kind of blubber of misty self-salutation? Not the girls at Newnham or Girton. They are far too spry; far too disciplined. None of that self confidence is their lot.
Yes it's happened to all of us hasn't it? If I sit at one more business luncheon and all they talk about is sports and American Football.
1933 Thursday 24th August
What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in and found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read forever.
1934 Monday 7th August
A rather wet Bank Holiday. Tea with Keynes. Maynard had had teeth out but was very fertile. For instance: Yes, I've been 3 weeks in America. an impossible climate. In fact it has collected all the faults of all the climates. this carries out my theory about climate. Nobody could produce a great work in America. One sweats all day and the dirt sticks to one's face. The nights are as hot as the days. Nobody sleeps. ..."So to German politics." They're doing something very queer with their money. I can't make out what. It may be the Jews are taking away their capital. Let me see, if 2,000 Jews were each to take away 2,000 - Anyhow, they can't pay their Lancashire bill. Always the Germans have bought cotton from Egypt, had it spun in Lancashire; it's a small bill, only 1/2 million, but they can't pay. Yet they're buying copper all the time. What's it for? Armaments no doubt.
I found this comment about the weather in America so true and interesting comment on Germany, buying cotton from Lancashire and what was going on, remember 1934.
A visit to the Tower of London
1935 Wednesday 27th March
The sergeant major barked and swore. All in a hoarse bark: the men stamped and wheeled like - machines; then the officer also barked; all precise, inhuman, showing off. A degrading, stupefying sight. But in keeping with the grey walls, the cobbles, the executioner's block. People sitting on the river bank among old cannon. Steps etc. very romantic; a dungeon like feeling.
Is it any wonder that on leaving these people have psychological problems degrading, stupefying, yes that does sum it up.
Tuesday 9th April
"And Virginia, you know I'm on the Committee here," Said Morgan. "and we've been discussing whether to allow ladies" - It came over me that they were going to put me on: and I was then to refuse: "Oh but they do," I said. "There was Mrs. Green." .... The veil of the temple - which, whether university or cathedral, academic or ecclesiastical, I forget - was to be raised and as an exception she was to be allowed to enter in. ... No: I said while very deeply appreciating the Hon. ... In short one must tell lies, and apply every emollient in our power to the swollen skin of our brothers' so terribly inflamed vanity. Truth is only to be spoken by those women whose fathers were pork butchers and left them a share in the pig factory.
Thursday 9th May
Sitting in the sun outside the German Customs. A car with the swastika on the back window has just passed through the barrier into Germany. L. is in the customs. I am nibbling at Aaron's rod. Ought I go go in and see what is happening? A fine dry windy morning. The Dutch Customs took 10 seconds. This has taken 10 minutes already. The windows are barred. Here they came out and the grim man laughed at Mitzi (their pet marmoset) But L. said that when a peasant came in and stood with his hat on, the man said this office is like a church and made him move it. Heil Hitler said the little thin boy opening his bag, perhaps with an apple in it, at the barrier. We become obsequious - delighted that is when the officer smiles at Mitzi - the first stoop in our back
Hitler kept a list of people who he would round up as soon as he invaded Britain and the Woolfs were on it.
1937 Sunday 4th April
Maynard thinks The Years my best book: thinks one scene, E. and Crosby, beats Tchekov's Cherry Orchard ...
Wednesday 23rd June
It's ill writing after reading Love for Love - a masterpiece. I never knew how good it is. And what exhilaration there is in reading these masterpieces. this superb hard English! ... But enough - I went shopping, whitebait hunting, to Selfridges yesterday and it grew roasting hot and I was in black - such astonishing chops and changes this summer - often one's caught in a storm, frozen or roasted. As I reached 52, a long trail of fugitives - like a caravan in a desert - came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen. I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, though no one seemed surprised. ... flying - impelled by machine gun in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock Square ... clasping their enamel kettles. A strange spectacle.
Must see if I can find a copy of this book.
1939 Thursday 29th June
What a dream life is to be sure - that he should be dead, and I reading him: and trying to make out that we indented ourselves in the world; whereas I sometimes feel it's been an illusion - gone so fast; lived so quickly; and nothing to show for it, save these little books. But that makes me dig my feet in and squeeze the moment.
Here she is referring to the death of Roger Fry who she wrote a biography of.
Monday 7th August
Oh and I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, and the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure; but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; and to detect every one of the gradual stages toward death which is a tremendous experience and not as unconscious, at least in its approaches, as birth is.
1940 Thursday 30th May
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 work 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.
Saturday 22nd June
This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk. On the down above Baydean I found some green glass tubes. The corn was glowing with poppies in it. ... We pour to the edge of a precipice ...
Friday 26th July
But it's an incredibly lovely - yes lovely is the word - transient, changing, warm, capricious summer evening.
Saturday 31st August
Now we are in the war. England is being attacked. I got this feeling for the first time completely yesterday; the feeling of pressure, danger, horror. The feeling is that a battle is going on - a fierce battle. May last four weeks. Am I afraid? Intermittently. The worst of it is one's mind won't work with a spring next morning. Of course this may be the beginning of invasion. A sense of pressure. Endless local stories. No - it's no good trying to capture the feeling of England being in a battle. I daresay if I writ fiction and Coleridge and not that infernal bomb article for U.S.A. I shall swim into quiet water.
The war weighed heavily on her mind. Also they knew something of what was happening to Jews in Germany. Leonard was Jewish and they had spoken of a suicide pact if the Germans were to invade. I think this put the idea of suicide to the forefront of her mind. Plus she had half heatedly attempted suicide before. I also doubt if Leonard would have gone through with it.
Monday 16th September
Great air traffic all night. Some loud explosions.
Tuesday 17th September
No invasion. ... We found a young soldier in the garden last night, coming back. "Can't I speak to Mr. Woolf?" I thought it meant billeting for certain. No. Could we lend a typewriter? Officer on hill had gone and taken his. So we produced my portable. Then he said: "Pardon sir. Do you play chess?" He plays chess with passion. So we asked him to tea on Saturday to play. He is with the anti-aircraft searchlight on the hill. finds it dull. Can't get a bath. A straight good natured young man. Professional soldier? I think the son, say of an estate agent or small shopkeeper. Not public school. Not lower class. But I shall investigate. "Sorry to break into your private life" he said. Also that on Saturday he went to the pictures in Lewes.
Most countries have a class, social strata system, I remember it clearly and Virginia Woolf definitely fit into the upper class, public school, which for those of you not brought up in Britain actually means private school. I find the above comment most interesting, everybody slotted into their defined cubby holes.
Sunday 29th September
A bomb dropped so close I cursed L. for slamming the window.
1941 Sunday 8th March
Just back from L.'s speech at Brighton. Like a foreign town: the first spring day. Women sitting on seats. A pretty hat in a teashop - how fashion revives the eye! And the shell encrusted old women, rouged, decked, cadaverous at the teashop. The waitress in checked cotton. No: I intend no introspection. I mark Henry James' sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope. I insist upon spending this time to the best advantage. I will go down with my colors flying. This I see verges on introspection; but doesn't quite fall in. Suppose I bought a ticket at the Museum; biked in daily and read history. Suppose I selected one dominant figure in every age and wrote round and about. Occupations is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it's seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.
This is the last entry in A Writer's Diary.
I had started to read this book several years ago, but it was not the right time. I found V.'s diaries to be very soul searching. I think writing thoughts that one never totally gels in one's mind, but she did and wrote them.
Her last photo with a professional photographer, Gisele Freund.