Reflections on Virginia Woolf’s diary
Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, so I decided to read her diary.
The least I can say is that it’s quite different from what I had imagined, and this surprise led me to write this article.
I read the French version (the version translated by Colette-Marie Huet and Marie-Ange Dutarte) and couldn’t find the complete original version, that’s why some of the following extracts are in French. I didn’t want to translate them into English and disrespect the original version.
Should “A writer’s diary” be considered a diary?
In my opinion, a diary is supposed to contain things that one likes to keep to oneself. But in Virginia Woolf’s diary, she seems to restrict herself.
She limits herself, as if her diary shouldn’t really be about her feelings.
She sometimes talks about them, but it’s always really subtle.
Each text is accompanied by a date and the diary is written like a ‘record of (almost) every day’ from 1915 to 1941. But it’s still different from a diary.
“Comme cela m’intéresserait que ce journal puisse devenir un jour un vrai journal intime : m’offrir la possibilité de constater les changements, de suivre le développement des humeurs. Mais pour cela il faudrait que j’y parle de l’âme, et n’en ai-je pas banni l’âme quand je l’ai commencé ? Ce qui se passe, c’est que toujours, lorsque je m’apprête à écrire ce qui concerne l’âme, la vie s’interpose”
(19 February 1923)
In this extract, she says that she would like her diary to be a real one: in fact, she’d like to talk about her moods and how they change. So she’d have to talk about her soul…But when she started writing this diary, she decided not to talk about it. Why did she decide that? Well, this question leads us to the second part of this article.
Did Virginia Woolf want her diary to be read?
At one point, Virginia Woolf writes: “Je confesse que son style expéditif et décousu, si souvent incorrect grammaticalement, et qui réclamerait bien des corrections m’a plutôt consternée. Je voudrai dire à la personne, quelle qu’elle puisse être, qui lira ceci que je suis capable d’écrire beaucoup mieux et que je ne consacre pas beaucoup de temps à ce journal, et je lui interdis de le montrer à qui que ce soit.”
In this extract, she apologises for her writing style and tells the person who might read her diary that she’s capable of being better at writing and that whoever reads her diary shouldn’t show it to anyone else. It clearly means that she didn’t want people to read her texts…But in that case, why didn’t she talk more about her feelings? She could have been freer.
Well, it’s more complicated than that. Actually, there’s a huge contradiction.
Indeed, we can find moments when she says that her diary will be used to write a book or her memoirs, so we can consider it as a ‘support’.
“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. I dare say there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little. God knows.” (20 March 1926)
“I may as well make a note I say to myself: thinking sometimes who’s going to read all this scribble? I think one day I may brew a tiny ingot out of it — in my memoirs.” (19 February 1940)
The fact that she saw her diary as the support of a future book may explain why she limited herself. Perhaps she wanted to use her diary but didn’t want people to know how she really felt during her lifetime.
But…another ambiguity makes me question my own thinking.
Virginia Woolf’s opinion on people
One of the first things that surprised me when I started reading her diary was how often she talks about people (friends, acquaintances, family, and sometimes strangers). She talks about their personalities, their lives, their appearance, their jobs, and the relationship she has with these people.
She sometimes even narrates, with great skill, the conversations she has with them.
It’s definitely a big part of her diary, as if she’s constantly observing people. And I have to say it’s quite captivating. She talks more about them than about herself. Even though talking about the people around you is a kind of self-portrait.
“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.” (20 January 1919)
In some cases, I saw a facet of Virginia Woolf that I didn’t know.
A Virginia Woolf who is sometimes mean, even jealous (and she seems to realize how judgmental she can be).
I wouldn’t like to meet that Virginia Woolf.
For example, in the following extract, she talks about how she can’t help feeling superior when she thinks of ugly, poor and useless women. But the end of the sentence makes us think that she’s quite envious of them.
“Je ne puis m’empêcher de me montrer supérieure, envers les femmes laides, pauvres, utiles, et puis elles rebondissent, heureuses comme des grillons, et deux fois plus capables que moi.” (23 May 1921)
On the contrary, she’s sometimes hard on herself, as if she’d like to be someone people would appreciate.
“Mais c’est curieux ces comparaisons qui vous viennent au fil de la lecture d’une biographie. Je constate toujours qu’il n’y aurait guère de bien à dire de moi.”
(2 September 1929)
At other times, she appears very kind.
I think that one of the most moving texts is the one in which she talks about Katherine Mansfield, after the latter’s death. Even though they were rivals, we can feel a pure admiration and respect for her.
Generally speaking, this amount of sharing leads to three possibilities:
— Was it because she didn’t want her diary to be published that she allowed herself to talk so much about others?
— Or didn’t she care?
— Or did she care but still want to talk about them?
For example, in May 1940, she used the capital letters A and B to talk about Angelica and her lover, as if she wanted to keep this thing secret…but if her diary was to be private, she wouldn’t have to be discreet, would she?
We definitely can’t say that Virginia’s diary is disrespectful, yet I think that it’s always a little bit weird to be mentioned in a diary. In fact, I would have loved to see the reactions of the people she wrote about.
I think Virginia really cared about them, that’s why she wrote about them so much. And she still wanted her diary to be the basis for a book.
Anxiety & suicide
I know I said that she seemed to restrict herself. But her diary subtly shows how depression and anxiety were present in her life.
Virginia Woolf started writing her diary in 1915. Between February 1915 and August 1917, she went through a huge depression during which Leonard, her family, some nurses and doctors took care of her. We can see that the first texts after her depression are different from the others, almost as if they had been written by another person.
And page after page, her diary shows that she’s slowly coming back to life.
In October 1940, as the war was getting closer and closer, Virginia said that she didn’t want to die.
“I said to L.: I don’t want to die yet. The chances are against it. But they’re aiming at the railway and the power works.They get closer every time.”
(2 October 1940)
Virginia killed herself on 28 March 1941, and I thought that her diary would clearly tell us what led to her suicide. But again, it’s hard to find some clues in it. She was mentally ill, many of her loved ones had died, and the ongoing war must have brought her much despair. Those elements certainly drove her to suicide, but we’ll never truly know what was going on in her head.
In fact, in her diary, there’s an alternation between moments when she wants to die and moments when she’s really happy.
Maybe I’m stupid, but I think it’s hard to discern her fate in her writings.
“ Car il est bien clair que ces misères sont de toutes petites misères sans importance, et qu’on ne trouverait pas une femme plus foncièrement heureuse que moi dans le quartier ; que je suis la plus heureuse des épouses, le plus heureux des écrivains et, je le prétends, l’habitante la plus aimée de tout Tavistock Square. Si je fais le compte de mes chances, elles sont assurément plus nombreuses que mes chagrins, même quand j’ai tous ces moucherons dans l’oeil.” (15 May 1929)
“Toujours est-il que j’ai bénéficié d’une période de joie enivrante et j’entends bien ne pas la payer de ce noir désespoir qui m’est habituel. J’entends bien maîtriser ce fantôme intempestif…celui qui traîne toujours ses ailes mouillées dans le sillage de mes triomphes. Je me montrerai très prudente, très habile -comme je le suis en ce moment où j’écris sans forcer, pour éviter un mal de tête. Oublier son moi pour aller courir dehors en exultant d’une joie ou en riant d’un rire impersonnel…telle est l’ordonnance absolument infaillible et toute simple.”
(31 December 1932)
It was hard to read her diary because the closer you get to the end, the more you don’t want it to stop. When I started reading the diary she wrote in 1931, I thought, “she has 10 years left”.
She probably didn’t know that, but we do, and that’s terribly sad.
Regarding her anxiety and depression, it would take me more than one article to say everything I’d like to say, so I’m gonna focus on the main points.
First of all, it seems that writing is both a cure and one of the causes of her depression. In her diary, she often shows how writing is good for her practice but also for her well-being. When she’s not feeling well, her diary seems to be her lifebelt.
According to her diary and the books I bought when I visited Monk’s House (one of them was written by Claire Masset — National Trust), she also found inspiration in her mental illness. She felt it was something she could write about and that’s what she did. As if her writing was sometimes dependent on her madness.
But I consider that writing also caused her anxiety and depression. At the beginning (and it’s quite normal given the evolution of her career), she barely talks about her texts but, year after year, she starts to do so. And we witness everything: how the ideas come into her mind, her progress, her schedule, her doubts, the struggles she faces, and the anxiety she feels every time one of her books is published.
This is fascinating, especially when you know the books she’s talking about.
“ I am back from speaking at Girton, in floods of rain. Starved but valiant young women-~that’s my impression. Intelligent, eager, poor; and destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine and have a room of their own.” (27 October 1928)
As I said, she also talks about the difficulties she faces when writing her books. She talks about things like the difficulty of writing when the words don’t come, the sales of her books or how reviews can affect her, even though she seems to gain more confidence over time.
When someone says something negative about what you’ve created, it causes despair that seems to last for weeks. In contrast, something good will cause a joy that will only last a few days. Virginia seems to often experience that, and it’s something I totally get.
“Il me faut mentionner ici, pour y revenir plus tard, que le pouvoir créateur qui bouillonne d’une manière si plaisante quand on s’attaque à un nouveau livre, se calme au bout d’un certain temps, et que l’on avance alors d’un pas plus mesuré. Les doutes s’insinuent. Puis on se résigne. La résolution de ne pas céder, le sentiment qu’un dessin va surgir, permettent, plus que tout autre chose, de poursuivre. Je suis un peu inquiète. Comment mener à bien ce que j’ai en tête ? Dès qu’on se met au travail on est pareil à un promeneur qui pénètre en pays connu. Je ne veux rien écrire dans ce livre que je n’aie plaisir à écrire. Mais écrire est toujours difficile.” (8 May 1920)
“Je sais pourquoi je suis déprimée ; c’est cette mauvaise habitude que j’ai d’imaginer la critique que j’aimerais avoir avant de lire la critique telle qu’elle est.” (5 May 1927)
As we read her feelings, we’d like to tell her how good her books are, even though she certainly wouldn’t believe us.
Some of her books, especially “The Waves”, led her to depression because she was afraid they wouldn’t be understood and appreciated. Then writing was both good and bad for her.
The love between Leonard and Virginia, and Virginia’s relationship with Vita
Before reading her diary, I already knew how much Virginia and Leonard loved each other. It’s one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve ever known.
They truly loved, respected and supported each other.
Arguments seemed rare and short-lived.
Leonard played a big part in her life, and I’m sure that Virginia’s life and career wouldn’t have been the same if she hadn’t married him.
Their love was pure. And her diary proves that very often. It’s even more interesting to have Virginia talking about their relationship.
“Mais j’ai été heureuse de rentrer à la maison, et de sentir que ma vie véritable reprenait ; autrement dit la vie avec L. Solitaire n’est pas tout à fait le mot qui convient ; ma personnalité semble résonner au loin dans l’espace lorsque L. n’est pas là pour en éclore toutes les vibrations. Voilà qui n’est pas écrit d’une manière bien intelligible, mais le sentiment est étrange en soi — on dirait que le mariage est la confirmation de l’instrument ; et la musique de l’un sans celle de l’autre vous pénètre comme celle d’un violon privé de son orchestre et de son piano.”
(2 November 1917)
They met through mutual friends, with whom they formed the Bloomsbury Group. In 1912 they married, although Virginia was reluctant at first.
They never had children. It is said that Leonard didn’t want to have kids because he thought that motherhood would affect Virginia’s health.
Their relationship wasn’t ‘ordinary’ (I can’t think of the right word) as Virginia Woolf is said to have had sexual problems, yet nothing stopped them from loving each other.
“Non, je ne suis pas allée à Paris. Cela mérite quelques mots. M’étant réveillée à 3 heures du matin, j’ai décidé de passer le week-end à Paris. Je suis allée jusqu’à consulter les heures de train, à m’informer d’un hôtel auprès de Nessa.
Puis L. dit : “Je n’aimerais autant pas.”. Alors le bonheur m’envahit. Puis nous avons fait le tour du square comme deux amoureux. Au bout de vingt-cinq ans nous ne pouvons supporter d’être séparés. Et puis j’ai fait le tour du lac dans Regent’s Park. Et oui…c’est un plaisir immense, voyez-vous, que d’être désirée, d’être une épouse. Et notre mariage est si réussi.” (22 October 1937)
Leonard, like Virginia, was culturally and politically engaged. Both were intelligent and interesting people, which made them many friends.
And it’s easy to understand why. I think a lot of us would have liked to know them personally.
More than just being her lover, Leonard (named L. in her diary) was one of the reasons she held on and tried to fight depression for many years.
“Nous discutions de l’origine de mon nouvel accès de mélancolie, et je fus rassurée d’une manière adorable par L., si bien qu’assise là maintenant je me sens bien et en sécurité, ramenée une fois de plus à ce degré de confiance qui me permet de vivre.” (3 December 1918)
He really cared about her. He did everything he could to help her, and I think that at times it’s even close to a form of dependency. Sadly, his love and care didn’t prevent Virginia from killing herself. On 28 March 1941, she committed suicide, but before doing so, she wrote a suicide note to Leonard, in which she said, once again, how important he was to her:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
Gosh, this letter gives me chills every time I read it.
During her lifetime, Virginia had a brief affair (followed by a long friendship) with a famous writer and grande dame named Vita Sackville-West.
There’s a film about their love story, but I haven’t watched it yet.
In her diary, Virginia often talks about Vita. We can feel that she had a kind of admiration for her, and I bet it was reciprocal.
“Orlando” was even inspired by Vita.
Even though their affair is now well known, Virginia’s diary doesn’t say much about it.
Virginia Woolf deeply loved London. We can feel it when reading her diary. But for this part, I’ve decided to talk about one of her most famous homes: Monk’s House.
Even though the house wasn’t perfect, they bought it in 1919.
“Nous possédons Monks House (c’est la première fois, ou presque, que j’écris un nom que j’espère écrire des milliers de fois, avant d’en avoir fini avec lui pour toujours).” (3 July 1919)
At first, they only went there during weekends, and on holidays like Christmas and Easter. When the Second World War arrived, they started to live there permanently.
I went to Monks House last year and it was just amazing to see it for myself.
What I felt there was exactly what I had imagined when reading her diary.
I ‘saw’ the moments she shared with Leonard there, their pets, the constant quietness, their simple yet lovely routine, the fantastic gardens, the place where she wrote some of her best books (To the light house, Orlando, A Room of one’s own…). It was amazing and I can’t wait to visit this place again.
What made me smile, by reading her diary, was the moment when she visited Shakespeare’s gardens, because that’s exactly what I felt when I visited her house: not seeing her directly but feeling her and Leonard in every corner of the house and garden.
“All the flowers were out in Shakespeare’s garden. “That was where his study windows looked out when he wrote The Tempest,” said the man… I cannot without more labour than my roadrunning mind can compass describe the queer impression of sunny impersonality. Yes, everything seemed to say, this was Shakespeare’s, had he sat and walked; but you won’t find me, not exactly in the flesh. He is serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating round one; yes; in the flowers, in the old hall, in the garden; but never to be pinned down….”
When she started writing her diary, the First World War was going on.
When she committed suicide, it was the Second World War.
What is really disturbing in her texts is the description of her feelings during the Second World War: anger, sadness, fear, doubt, and worry are increasingly present. It upsets her more and more (and we totally understand why).
As I said earlier, this war was probably one of the elements that drove her to suicide, as she may have thought that she and Leonard wouldn’t survive it.
I wish Virginia Woolf had lived longer, written more books and spent more years with Leonard.
I’m glad I’ve read her diary because I feel like I know more about her, even though I’m pretty sure there’s a lot she didn’t write about.
To end this article, I’d say that this book makes me see her differently: she’s now one of the greatest imperfect human beings I would have liked to meet.