The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1920-1924

Too much happens in this lovely volume for a succinct recap, and really why should I deprive you of the joy of sinking into those long ago years yourself? It is here in February 1922 that she writes the infamous “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” A few sentences later, she declares she won’t live to see 70 (she is 40 at the time). In August, “There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; & that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.” In October, “At forty I am beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain—how to get the greatest amount of pleasure & work out of it. The secret is I think always to contrive that work is pleasant.”

In July 1922, she asks herself what is worth while? “Only feeling things for yourself—”.

August 1922: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life—one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain.”

Working on Mrs. Dalloway, she begins to feel her stride. “At last, I like reading my own writing. It seems to me to fit me closer than it did before.” (A November entry proposes to call it the “10th of June, or whatever I call it.” but Dalloway Day is celebrated on the 17th of June?)

June 1923 has a lovely entry describing sitting with Mary Sheepshanks in her garden “& beat up the waters of talk, as I do so courageously, so that life mayn’t be wasted… Somehow, extraordinary emotions possessed me. I forget now what… It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Often it is connected with the sea & St Ives.”

Her plan to move back into London gains force and in her diary she dreams of not having to catch trains back to Richmond but to go hear music, “or have a look at a picture, or find out something at the British Museum, or go adventuring among human beings.” By February 1924 the plan has become a reality as 52 Tavistock Square is acquired. An initial hesitation about being disturbed by street sounds is soothed as she realizes that “it’s just as noisy here [in Richmond], if one listens, as it can possibly be in Tavistock Square. One gets into a habit of not listening. Remember this sage advice.”

In August 1924 she notes the effect of Leonard telling her about Germany’s reparations: “Lord what a weak brain I have—like an unused muscle… Sometimes I think my brain & his are of different orders. Were it not for my flash of imagination, & this turn for books, I should be a very ordinary woman.” (She then goes on to lay out her plan of finishing the Common Reader and Mrs Dalloway, reading Medea and Plato. This is no weak brain.)

She starts to understand what the diary is for: “It strikes me that in this book I practise writing; do my scales; yes & work at certain effects. I daresay I practised Jacob here,—& Mrs D. & shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, & old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V.: everything—more than I can think.”

“Thinking it over, I believe its getting the rhythm in writing that matters. Could I get my tomorrow mornings rhythm right—take the skip of my sentence at the right moment—I should reel it off; —there is a good deal in this which I should like to think out; its not style exactly—the right words—its a way of levitating the thought out of one—”

In December 1924 she writes “At Christmas I must write & ask Lytton if I may dedicate the common reader to him. And thats the last of my books to be dedicated, I think.” Indeed it was, until Orlando’s inscription to Vita four years later.

Since I was curious, here are the dedicated books:

  • Voyage Out: to L.W.
  • Night and Day: to Vanessa Bell
  • Common Reader: to Lytton Strachey
  • Orlando: to V. Sackville-West.