Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Virginia Woolf's Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Barbara Lounsberry is quickly becoming one of my favorite Woolf scholars, what with this look at her diaries from 1918-1929 and her earlier Becoming Virginia Woolf which dips into the early diaries. Once again, she dons her literary detective cap and sets off to pick out the influences of VW’s diaries from other diaries she’s reading at the time, expertly pointing out how these threads show up in Woolf’s finished essays, books, and novels. It’s quite helpful for us armchair quarterbacks (? not the right metaphor, but is there something similar for amateur scholars?) to have her descriptions of the actual source documents themselves, whether they are notebooks turned upside down and repurposed as journals or a tidy collection of loose-leaf papers or journals missing covers perhaps from the 1940 bombing of Woolf’s London home. Also very helpful to have her incisive comments decimate Murry’s release of Katherine Mansfield’s journals, which I suspected in my reading of them. I went back to add in her withering invective at the end of my review of those 1927 Journals. At times Lounsberry overstates her case, like when she announces similarities between journals that are just common sense, not that VW would have picked up those habits from things she read, such as using initials instead of names and talking about happiness.

In the 1919 diary, she continues to be curious and ask questions and begins to write about her own writing and that of others. Her 1920 diary tips her enthusiasm for London, wanting a “city community to complement her country commune” as Lounsberry notes. As VW says: “The ease & rapidity of life in London a good deal impressed me—everything near at hand, to be compassed between lunch & tea, without setting out & making a job of it. Roger, Duncan, Nessa, Clive & so on; I seeing it all much composed & in perspective owing to my outsider’s vision.”

Illness returns in 1921 and she thinks for the first time of making a will. “Sometimes it seems to me that I shall never write out all the books I have in my head, because of the strain.” VW and Katherine Mansfield echo each other in this worry.

In 1926, she reads the diaries of Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship, and is much influenced by it. Lounsberry notes that the main difference between “restless searcher” and “social investigator” defines neatly the difference between VW & Webb. Also in 1926, she read Benjamin Robert Haydon’s journals which she reviewed and identified with. Lounsberry credits Haydon’s 1836 diary entry “if I had £500 a year regularly, never would I cease painting, morning, noon, or night, and never have a debt” for the £500 necessary in A Room of One’s Own. I was struck by the idea of vacancy as a spur to invention—ideas flashing into the mind where a blank spot remains to be filled. Don’t over-describe, but allow for the reader’s mind to flesh out, to participate.

Her 1927 diaries contain evidence that she had accepted her childlessness: “And yet oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness & feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own. This occurred to me at Rodmell; but I never wrote it down.” The pleasure in childlessness returns in her 1928 diary, in a picture of dinner with Maynard Keynes and wife “two couples, elderly, childless distinguished;” and also declaring “I don’t want [children] any more, since my ideas so possess me & I detest more & more interruption & the slow heaviness of physical life & almost dislike peoples bodies, I think, as I grow older; & want always to cut that short & get my utmost fill of the marrow, of the essence.”

Most interesting to me was her take on VW’s reading of Mansfield’s Journal in 1927, a later-discredited version that revealed her hubby Murry making many changes, removing all mention of her disapproval of him. Lounsberry credits this work with giving VW ideas for Orlando about androgyny, passages for The Waves, and even the idea that A Room of One’s Own may have been VW’s private gift to the dead KM. A 1921 entry is cited, “But I bitterly long for a little private room where I can work undisturbed” along with a 1919 letter from KM to Murry: “How I envy Virginia; no wonder she can write. There is always in her writing a calm freedom of expression as though she were at peace—her roof over her—her own possessions round her—and her man somewhere within call. Boge what have I done that I should have all the handicaps—plus disease and an enemy.”

In her 1928 diary she mentions reading Moby Dick and Proust, affirming that she needs to experiment and explore. “At 46 I am not callous; suffer considerably; make good resolutions – still feel as experimental & on the verge of getting at the truth as ever.” Lounsberry does a tremendous job, she has prepared me to drop deeply into the diaries themselves, those books that have sat quietly on my shelves for decades, waiting for my attention.