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More than fiction, Woolf's diary was the pinnacle of her art

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume V, 1936-1941, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 416 pp. $19.95. I have been thinking about Censors. How visionary figures admonish us. . . . If I say this So & So will think me sentimental. If that . . . will think me Bourgeois. All books now seem to me surrounded by a circle of invisible censors. Hence their selfconsciousness, their restlessness. . . . Did Wordsworth have them? I doubt it. I read Ruth before breakfast. Its stillness, its unconsciousness, its lack of distraction, its concentration & the resulting ``beauty'' struck me. As if the mind must be allowed to settle undisturbed over the object in order to secrete the pearl.Monday, Aug. 7, 1939

If any writer ever embodied this distraction, restlessness, and inability to ``settle,'' that writer was Virginia Woolf herself. It could be argued, indeed, that the diary rather than the novel was her natural medium. Woolf's ability to fasten upon snatches of thought, scraps of dialogue, moments of perception and to weave from them a tapestry combining the private and public, society and solitude, gossip and introspection make her diary as richly luminous as her fiction. Woolf was also a marvelous observer of character, but she could not invent the kind of fully rounded characters found in the mainstream of the best English fiction. This failing detracts from her novels, but does not impair her diary.

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Here, for example, is a passage from Woolf's diary depicting the society hostess Sibyl Colefax (which Woolf later used in her essay ``Am I a Snob?''):

She talked in a scattered nervous way, like a hen fluttering over the edge of an abyss. . . . Nor could I always distinguish between the pose . . . & the genuine gallantry. She has been too long exposed to artificial light to do without it. She is like a bat in a bright room when she is in darkness. . . . I mean when she is alone, without the stimulus & direction of other peoples views she is uncertain. Flounders. With us it is just the opposite.Friday, Oct. 30, 1936

This is not so much a character as a brilliant observation of a character, an observation that also functions as an evaluation and critique. While we might have reservations about a novelist who portrays characters only as they appear in the narrator's eyes, we scarcely expect a diarist to do more than render his or her own impressions with the precision and vividness that Woolf displays here.

In recording her impressions of what would be the last five years of her life, Woolf was as sensitive to public events as to private and personal affairs. Like a seismograph needle, her diary registers every nuance from the slightest tremor of private life to the massive jolts of the bombings that damaged the Woolfs' residence at Mecklenburgh Square and shattered the quiet of their home in the countryside. Writing drains her (during this period she produced ``The Years,'' ``Three Guineas,'' a biography of Roger Fry, and ``Between the Acts,'' in addition to a number of journalistic articles). Social life also drains her, although she finds it as irresistible as writing.

Woolf's sensitivity was often expressed as irritability. An acutely perceptive critic of other writers, she loathed being criticized. She wondered why praise cheered her less than censure demoralized her. Yet this vulnerable woman's own critical work was fueled by the spirit of vituperation. Sensitivity and sharpness are two sides of one blade, and the thinner the skin, the sharper the cutting edge.

Woolf wrote her novels as a kind of prose poetry: They are poetic insofar as they are filled with exquisite perception. But the same imaginative weakness that prevented her from inventing character might also have prevented her from becoming a poet of the first rank. And Woolf cared only about being of the first rank. The same critical weapons that she turned against rivals were turned with even greater force against herself. Indeed, this powerfully penetrating and corrosive mind could spurn the very idea of structure:

Little boys making sand castles [she remarks in her entry for Nov. 18, 1940]. This refers to H[erbert] Read; Tom Eliot; Santayana; [H. G.] Wells. Each is weathertight, & gives shelter to the occupant. But I am the sea which demolishes these castles.

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Woolf confesses she cannot like Read's ``sand castle'' because she sees it as the product or appendage of its builder, whom she does not like.

I have the double vision. I mean, as I am not engrossed in the labour of making this intricate word structure I also see the man who makes it. I should say it is only word proof not weather proof.

Woolf is unable to imagine a structure or creation that is larger or better than her own image of the person who created it. ``I make these notes,'' she added, ``but am tired of notes . . . I want something sequacious now & robust.'' She often wished in her diary for ten more years in which to write, even though she and Leonard had plans to kill themselves in the event of a Nazi invasion. Reading her dairy, disjointed though it is in parts, it is hard to believe in her suicide. ``The army is the body: I am the brain. Thinking is my fighting,'' she wrote.

Writing was also her fighting. She was never to attain the concentrated, unselfconscious beauty she admired in Wordsworth. The sensors of consciousness, the censors of self-consciousness did not allow her mind to settle undisturbed over the object to secrete the pearl.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.