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An invaluable guide to the art and mind of Virginia Woolf, drawn by her husband from the personal record she kept over a period of twenty-seven years. Included are entries that refer to her own writing, others that are clearly writing exercises; accounts of people and scenes relevant to the raw material of her work; and comments on books she was reading. Edited and with a Preface by Leonard Woolf; Indices.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.91(d)|
About the Author
VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882–1941) was one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. An admired literary critic, she authored many essays, letters, journals, and short stories in addition to her groundbreaking novels.
Date of Birth:January 25, 1882
Date of Death:March 28, 1941
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Sussex, England
Read an Excerpt
Monday, August 4th
While waiting to buy a book in which to record my impressions first of Christina Rossetti, then of Byron, I had better write them here. For one thing I have hardly any money left, having bought Leconte de Lisle in great quantities. Christine has the great distinction of being a born poet, as she seems to have known very well herself. But if I were bringing a case against God she is one of the first witnesses I should call. It is melancholy reading. First she starved herself of love, which meant also life; then of poetry in deference to what she thought her religion demanded. There were two good suitors. The first indeed had his peculiarities. He had a conscience. She could only marry a particular shade of Christian. He could only stay that shade for a few months at a time. Finally he developed Roman Catholicism and was lost. Worse still was the case of Mr. Collins — a really delightful scholar — an unworldly recluse — a single-minded worshipper of Christina, who could never be brought into the fold at all. On this account she could only visit him affectionately in his lodgings, which she did to the end of her life. Poetry was castrated too. She would set herself to do the psalms into verse; and to make all her poetry subservient to the Christian doctrines. Consequently, as I think, she starved into austere emaciation a very fine original gift, which only wanted licence to take to itself a far finer form than, shall we say, Mrs. Browning's. She wrote very easily; in a spontaneous childlike kind of way one imagines, as is the case generally with a true gift; still undeveloped. She has the natural singing power. She thinks too. She has fancy. She could, one is profane enough to guess, have been ribald and witty. And, as a reward for all her sacrifices, she died in terror, uncertain of salvation. I confess though that I have only turned her poetry over, making my way inevitably to the ones I knew already.
Wednesday, August 7th
Asheham diary drains off my meticulous observations of flowers, clouds, beetles and the price of eggs; and, being alone, there is no other event to record. Our tragedy has been the squashing of a caterpillar; our excitement the return of the servants from Lewes last night, laden with all L.'s war books and the English review for me, with Brailsford upon a League of Nations, and Katherine Mansfield on Bliss. I threw down Bliss with the exclamation, "She's done for!" Indeed I don't see how much faith in her as woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact, I'm afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; and the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too. And the effect was as I say, to give me an impression of her callousness and hardness as a human being. I shall read it again; but I don't suppose I shall change. She'll go on doing this sort of thing, perfectly to her and Murry's satisfaction. I'm relieved now that they didn't come. Or is it absurd to read all this criticism of her personally into a story?
Anyhow I was very glad to go on with my Byron. He has at least the male virtues. In fact, I'm amused to find how easily I can imagine the effect he had upon women — especially upon rather stupid or uneducated women, unable to stand up to him. So many, too, would wish to reclaim him. Ever since I was a child (as Gertler would say, as if it proved him a particularly remarkable person) I've had the habit of getting full of some biography and wanting to build up my imaginary figure of the person with every scrap of news I could find about him. During the passion, the name of Cowper or Byron or whoever it might be, seemed to start up in the most unlikely pages. And then, suddenly, the figure becomes distant and merely one of the usual dead. I'm much impressed by the extreme badness of B.'s poetry — such of it as Moore quotes with almost speechless admiration. Why did they think this Album stuff the finest fire of poetry? It reads hardly better than L. E. L. or Ella Wheeler Wilcox. And they dissuaded him from doing what he knew he could do, which was to write satire. He came home from the East with satires (parodies of Horace) in his bag and Childe Harold. He was persuaded that Childe Harold was the best poem ever written. But he never as a young man believed in his poetry; a proof, in such a confident dogmatic person, that he hadn't the gift. The Wordsworths and Keatses believe in that as much as they believe in anything. In his character, I'm often reminded a little of Rupert Brooke, though this is to Rupert's disadvantage. At any rate Byron had superb force; his letters prove it. He had in many ways a very fine nature too; though as no one laughed him out of his affectations he became more like Horace Cole than one could wish. He could only be laughed at by a woman, and they worshipped instead. I haven't yet come to Lady Byron, but I suppose, instead of laughing, she merely disapproved. And so he became Byronic.
Friday, August 8th
In the absence of human interest, which makes us peaceful and content, one may as well go on with Byron. Having indicated that I am ready, after a century, to fall in love with him, I suppose my judgment of Don Juan may be partial. It is the most readable poem of its length ever written, I suppose: a quality which it owes in part to the springy random haphazard galloping nature of its method. This method is a discovery by itself. It's what one has looked for in vain — an elastic shape which will hold whatever you choose to put into it. Thus he could write out his mood as it came to him; he could say whatever came into his head. He wasn't committed to be poetical; and thus escaped his evil genius of the false romantic and imaginative. When he is serious he is sincere: and he can impinge upon any subject he likes. He writes 16 cantos without once flogging his flanks. He had, evidently, the able witty mind of what my father Sir Leslie would have called a thoroughly masculine nature. I maintain that these illicit kinds of book are far more interesting than the proper books which respect illusions devoutly all the time. Still, it doesn't seem an easy example to follow; and indeed like all free and easy things, only the skilled and mature really bring them off successfully. But Byron was full of ideas — a quality that gives his verse a toughness and drives me to little excursions over the surrounding landscape or room in the middle of my reading. And tonight I shall have the pleasure of finishing him — though why considering that I've enjoyed almost every stanza, this should be a pleasure I really don't know. But so it always is, whether the book's a good book or a bad book. Maynard Keynes admitted in the same way that he always cuts off the advertisements at the end with one hand while he's reading, so as to know exactly how much he has to get through.
Monday, August 19th
I finished by the way the Electra of Sophocles, which has been dragging on down here, though it's not so fearfully difficult after all. The thing that always impresses me fresh is the superb nature of the story. It seems hardly possible not to make a good play of it. This perhaps is the result of having traditional plots which have been made and improved and freed from superfluities by the polish of innumerable actors and authors and critics, till it becomes like a lump of glass worn smooth in the sea. Also, if everyone in the audience knows beforehand what is going to happen, much finer and subtler touches will tell, and words can be spared. At any rate my feeling always is that one can't read too carefully, or attach enough weight to every line and hint; and that the apparent bareness is only on the surface. There does, however, remain the question of reading the wrong emotions into the text. I am generally humiliated to find how much Jebb is able to see; my only doubt is whether he doesn't see too much — as I think one might do with a bad modern English play if one set to work. Finally, the particular charm of Greek remains as strong and as difficult to account for as ever. One feels the immeasurable difference between the text and the translation with the first words. The heroic woman is much the same in Greece and England. She is of the type of Emily Brontë. Clytaemnestra and Electra are clearly mother and daughter, and therefore should have some sympathy, though perhaps sympathy gone wrong breeds the fiercest hate. E. is the type of woman who upholds the family above everything; the father. She has more veneration for tradition than the sons of the house; feels herself born of the father's side and not of the mother's. It's strange to notice how although the conventions are perfectly false and ridiculous, they never appear petty or undignified as our English conventions are constantly made to do. Electra lived a far more hedged in life than the women of the mid-Victorian age, but this has no effect upon her, except in making her harsh and splendid. She could not go out for a walk alone; with us it would be a case of a maid and a hansom cab.
Tuesday, September 10th
Though I am not the only person in Sussex who reads Milton, I mean to write down my impressions of Paradise Lost while I am about it. Impressions fairly well describes the sort of thing left in my mind. I have left many riddles unread. I have slipped on too easily to taste the full flavour. However I see, and agree to some extent in believing, that this full flavour is the reward of highest scholarship. I am struck by the extreme difference between this poem and any other. It lies, I think, in the sublime aloofness and impersonality of the emotion. I have never read Cowper on the sofa, but I can imagine that the sofa is a degraded substitute for Paradise Lost. The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful and masterly descriptions of angels' bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror and immensity and squalor and sublimity but never in the passions of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon one's own joys and sorrows? I get no help in judging life; I scarcely feel that Milton lived or knew men and women; except for the peevish personalities about marriage and the woman's duties. He was the first of the masculinists, but his disparagement rises from his own ill luck and seems even a spiteful last word in his domestic quarrels. But how smooth, strong and elaborate it all is! What poetry? I can conceive that even Shakespeare after this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot and imperfect. I can conceive that this is the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution. The inexpressible fineness of the style, in which shade after shade is perceptible, would alone keep one gazing into it, long after the surface business in progress has been despatched. Deep down one catches still further combinations, rejections, felicities and masteries. Moreover, though there is nothing like Lady Macbeth's terror or Hamlet's cry, no pity or sympathy or intuition, the figures are majestic; in them is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion.
Monday, January 20th
I mean to copy this out when I can buy a book, so I omit the flourishes proper to the new year. It is not money this time that I lack, but the capacity, after a fortnight in bed, to make the journey to Fleet Street. Even the muscles of my right hand feel as I imagine a servant's hand to feel. Curiously enough, I have the same stiffness in manipulating sentences, though by rights I should be better equipped mentally now than I was a month ago. The fortnight in bed was the result of having a tooth out, and being tired enough to get a headache — a long dreary affair, that receded and advanced much like a mist on a January day. One hour's writing daily is my allowance for the next few weeks; and having hoarded it this morning I may spend part of it now, since L. is out and I am much behindhand with the month of January. I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year's diary and 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 type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and 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. If Virginia Woolf 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. Already my 37th birthdaynext Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought. Partly for the benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuges will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though I anticipate her protest and agree that it is not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships and their present condition, with some account of my friends' characters; and to add an estimate of their work and a forecast of their future works. The lady of 50 will be able to say how near to the truth I come; but I have written enough for tonight (only 15 minutes, I see).
Wednesday, March 5th
Just back from four days at Asheham and one at Charleston. I sit waiting for Leonard to come in, with a brain still running along the railway lines, which unfits it for reading. But oh, dear, what a lot I've got to read! The entire works of Mr. James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, so as to compare them with the entire works of Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell; besides that George Eliot; and finally Hardy. And I've just done Aunt Anny, on a really liberal scale. Yes, since I wrote last she has died, a week ago today to be precise, at Freshwater, and was buried up at Hampstead yesterday, where six or seven years ago we saw Richmond buried in a yellow fog. I suppose my feeling for her is half moonshine; or rather half reflected from other feelings. Father cared for her; she goes down the last, almost, of that old nineteenth century Hyde Park Gate world. Unlike most old ladies she showed very little anxiety to see one; felt, I sometimes think, a little painfully at the sight of us, as if we'd gone far off and recalled unhappiness, which she never liked to dwell on. Also, unlike most old Aunts she had the wits to feel how sharply we differed on current questions; and this, perhaps, gave her a sense, hardly existing with her usual circle, of age, obsoleteness, extinction. For myself, though she need have had no anxieties on this head, since I admired her sincerely; but still the generations certainly look very different ways. Two or perhaps three years ago L. and I went to see her; found her much diminished in size, wearing a feather boa round her neck and seated alone in a drawing room almost the copy, on a smaller scale, of the old drawing room; the same subdued pleasant air of the eighteenth century and old portraits and old china. She had our tea waiting for us. Her manner was a little distant, and more than a little melancholy. I asked her about father, and she said how those young men laughed in a "loud melancholy way" and how their generation was a very happy one, but selfish; and how ours seemed to her fine but very terrible; but we hadn't any writers such as they had. "Some of them have just a touch of that quality; Bernard Shaw has; but only a touch. The pleasant thing was to know them all as ordinary people, not great men." And then a story of Carlyle and father; Carlyle saying he'd as soon wash his face in a dirty puddle as write journalism. She put her hand down, I remember, into a bag or box standing beside the fire, and said she had a novel, three quarters written, but couldn't finish it. Nor do I suppose it ever was finished; but I've said all I can say, dressing it up a trifle rosily, in The Times tomorrow. I have written to Hester, but how I doubt the sincerity of my own emotion!
Excerpted from "A Writer's Diary"
Copyright © 1982 Quentin Bell and Angelica Garnett.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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