Reading Virginia Woolf during the pandemic

An ongoing collection of relevant quotes from VW as I read my way through her oeuvre. Updated daily.

I never felt anything like the general insecurity.

Aug 12, 1914; Letter to Ka Cox

Well—I wonder what we shall do. I’d give a lot to turn over 30 pages or so, & find written down what happens to us…. At this moment, I feel as if the human race had no character at all—sought for nothing, believed in nothing, & fought only from a dreary sense of duty.

Jan 15, 1915; Diary

The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be.

Jan 18, 1915; Diary

I saw a beautiful woman in the Bus; who could hardly contain her laughter because a great military gentleman was thrown on to her lap, like a sack of coals, which seemed to tickle her greatly, & the more she laughed, the nicer I thought her. About one person in a fortnight seems to me nice—most are nothing at all.

Jan 28, 1915; Diary

keep well, and dont think that life is a thing to be thrown up into the air like a ball, which I’m sure is your present frame of mind.

Feb 12, 1916; Letter to Ka Cox

It is wonderful how entirely detached from sanity the aristocracy are; one feels like a fly on the ceiling when one talks to them.

March 26, 1916; letter to Duncan Grant.

we want to do so many things. Why can’t one be turned back and live everything over again, perhaps rather more slowly?

March 27, 1916; letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies

I saw Lytton yesterday, who told me he had heard that you and Duncan and possibly others had all got influenza at Wissett. I should be very grateful if anyone who hasn’t go it would send a line to say how you are. I hear Clive had it, and Adrian too, and Nellie went for a holiday and was in bed with it all the time; and Ott’s got it… I saw Ka, who seems rather feeble still. I do hope you are all right. Please dont start a move with the germs still in you.

Oct 9, 1916; letter to Vanessa

If Shakespeare were to awake now! The thought of what he would see in the sky and on the earth is at once appalling and fascinating.

December 21, 1916; review in the TLS

The spring season is full of disease; and a small break in your life might keep you healthy for a year.

March 23, 1917 letter to Vanessa

But oh dear, how little one believes what anyone says now. I feel we’ve sunk lower than ever before this summer.

September 9, 1917 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis

The K. Shuttleworths advertise the birth of a [posthumous son] with the statement “His Perfect Gift” a good title for an Academy picture, or a Mrs Ward novel, & rather a terrible testimony to the limelight now desired by the rich upon their sacrifices.

October 9, 1917; Diary

The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison with it… “business goes on as usual” so they say.

October 22, 1917; diary

I suppose to Philip [Leonard’s war-wounded brother] these days pass in a dream from which he finds himself detached. I can imagine that he is puzzled why he doesn’t feel more.

December 12, 1917; diary

The streets remind me of Cambridge streets. People walk down the middle. This is partly because of the queues waiting to buy at Liptons. One has some difficulty in keeping on the pavement, & the motor buses are always grazing people’s sides.

December 15, 1917; diary

“A very interesting state of things—”
“And what’s going to happen?”
“No human being can foretell that.”

January 3, 1918; diary noting Leonard’s response to reading the latest news from Russia

Everything is skimped now. Most of the butchers shops are shut; the only open shop was besieged. You can’t buy chocolates, or toffee; flowers cost so much that I have to pick leaves, instead. We have cards for most foods… Suddenly one has come to notice the war everywhere.

January 5, 1918; diary

There are food riots & strikes at Woolwich, & the guards have notice to march there at any moment, & fire on the people, which their own Woolwich regiments would refuse to do.

January 21, 1918; diary

How are you? Influenza, [Dr] Craig told me, poisons the nervous system, and nourishment is the only way to get rid of it. Do take milk and ovaltine. I have 2 glasses a day.

January 29, 1918; letter to Vanessa

But when a crisis happens, scarcely anyone meets it naturally; either they’re too composed & prosaic, or the other extreme.

April 6, 1918; Diary

Influenza, which rages all over the place, has come next door.

July 2, 1918; Diary

Rain for the first time for weeks today, & a funeral next door; dead of influenza.

July 10, 1918; Diary

… the extra-ordinary number of coffins one sees about. Coffins at luncheon, coffins as I come back from London; and the gentleman next door is dead of the influenza.

July 15, 1918; Letter to Vanessa

The time passes, with proper nights and days, I suppose, but one seems to float through them in a disembodied kind of way here. For one thing we’ve been practically alone, which has a very spiritual effect upon the mind. No gossip, no malevolence, no support from one’s fellow creatures. I can’t think why one doesn’t spend the whole year in this way.

August 18, 1918; Letter to Ottoline

… avoiding London, because of the influenza—(we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since the Black Death, according to the Times…)

October 28, 1918; Diary

The general state perhaps is one of dazed surfeit; here we’ve had one great relief after another; you hear the paper boys calling out that Turkey has surrendered, or Austria given up, & the mind doesn’t do very much with it; was the whole thing too remote & meaningless to come home to one, either in action or in ceasing to act?

November 9, 1918; Diary

Taxicabs were crowded with whole families, grandmothers & babies, showing off; & yet there was no centre, no form for all this wandering emotion to take. The crowds had nowhere to go, nothing to do; they were in the state of children with too long a holiday. … in everyone’s mind the same restlessness & inability to settle down, & yet discontent with whatever it was possible to do.

November 12, 1918; Diary

Ray [Stratchey], who is standing for Parliament as a Coalition candidate, says that if ever she were tempted to hoard food, now would be the time. The Lower classes are bitter, impatient, powerful, & of course, lacking in reason.

November 21, 1918; Diary

Not Woolf, but related. From society hostess Lady Aberconway who decamped from London to North Wales at the outbreak of WW2: “… all my past life – everything that has happened before last September [1939], seems to me these days like a tiny picture seen through the wrong end of a telescope …”

I bought my first (and probably last) ebook

Very exciting day here—I finally found a reason to purchase an ebook. The Virginia Woolf listserve parried a question about how best to search for a subject across all of her volumes of essays, diaries, and letters, and the brilliant Stuart Clarke weighed in with a simple answer: “Buy this for a pittance through Kobo.” For $1.99 I now have an electronic, searchable copy of her complete works. Not only the aforementioned diaries, letters, and essays, but also all the novels, biographies, and other works. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Naturally I have no plans of actually attempting to read any of these 15,581 pages on a screen (over 4M words!), but I can search for terms across all volumes and pinpoint which print book to pluck off the shelf to read her opinions of Herman Melville, Montaigne, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Butler, etc. as I myself am rubbing elbows with them. This removes from my list of possible chores the creation of an uber-index that pulls together all of the indexes from the other volumes.

Here are her thoughts about Gertrude Stein:

Monday [24 August 1925]

Sept 16, 1925

June 2, 1926

Addendum I’m not sure where else to put— Stuart’s cautions about the ebook:

I have not used the Kobo very much, but, I find it OK. They have rearranged the essays, so that the rediscovered ones in Vol. 6 have been slotted in where they should have been in earlier vols. I agree with Madelyn that “it is useful for searching and then double checking with a reliable print source”. The main problem I have found is with the diary: it is not always
immediately obvious to which year an entry belongs.

Since it is on my phone, I expect to be using it more and more, and the CD-ROM, which cost so much so many years ago, less.

The Voyage Out

I begin the year with the taste of literary champagne on my tongue, re-reading Woolf’s first novel which came out in 1915. Swept away in her brilliant words, like listening to the notes from the choir echoing in a cathedral. The bar is set high for the year, I hope not to dip too low or chase too many scattered ideas.

Rachel dies in the end, but life goes on. Life continues for her fiancee Terence, who has only been engaged to her for a few weeks before a tropical illness overtakes her and pushes her through the veil of the living. Great strange descriptions of Rachel’s fever in the end chapters, and Terence’s own grappling with what matters. But at the finale, St. John stumbles back to the hotel and finds groups of people chatting, playing chess, knitting; in short, life continues even in the shadow of Rachel’s death in the villa on the hill.

Helen and Ridley kick off the book, leaving their children behind in London and joining Helen’s brother-in-law on his ship to Brazil, taking her 24-year-old niece Rachel under her wing on the long voyage. The Dalloways (Richard and Clarissa) are picked up at one port then deposited at another, but not before Richard kisses Rachel and awakens her realization that she knows nothing of life. The rest of the book takes place in a small fictional town near the Amazon, with a hotel full of Englishmen to add zest to the parade of characters and mirrored love stories/engagements.

“The vision of her own personality, of herself as a real everlasting thing, different from anything else, unmergeable, like the sea or the wind, flashed into Rachel’s mind, and she became profoundly excited at the thought of living.” (p 75)

“I don’t think you altogether as foolish as I used to… You don’t know what you mean but you try to say it.” (p 98)

The importance of a room: “Among the promises which Mrs. Ambrose had made her niece should she stay was a room cut off from the rest of the house, large, private—a room in which she could play, read, think, defy the world, a fortress as well as a sanctuary. Rooms, she knew, became more like worlds than rooms at the age of twenty-four. ” (p 112)

Terence, on what he wants to write: “‘I want to write a novel about Silence,’ he said; ‘the things people don’t say. But the difficulty is immense.'”

Lush descriptions of reading

“As he read he knocked the ash automatically, now and again, from his cigarette and turned the page, while a whole procession of splendid sentences entered his capacious brow and went marching through his brain in order. It seemed likely that this process might continue for an hour or more, until the entire regiment had shifted its quarters, had not the door opened…” (p 95)

“Far from looking bored or absent-minded, her eyes were concentrated almost sternly upon the page, and from her breathing, which was slow but repressed, it could be seen that her whole body was constrained by the working of her mind. At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world. ” (p 112)

“Terence, meanwhile, read a novel which some one else had written, a process which he found essential to the composition of his own.” (p 278)

“‘God, Rachel, you do read trash!’ he exclaimed. ‘And you’re behind the times too, my dear. No one dreams of reading this kind of thing now—antiquated problem plays, harrowing descriptions of life in the east end—oh, no, we’ve exploded all that. Read poetry, Rachel, poetry, poetry, poetry!'” (p 276)

On the river, Terence quotes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a snippet added in 1860: “Whoever you are holding me now in your hand, Without one thing all will be useless.”

Rachel doesn’t like Gibbon’s history:

No, I don’t like it,” she replied. She had indeed been trying all the afternoon to read it, and for some reason the glory which she had perceived at first had faded, and, read as she would, she could not grasp the meaning with her mind.

“It goes round, round, round, like a roll of oil-cloth,” she hazarded. Evidently she meant Hewet alone to hear her words, but Hirst demanded, “What d’you mean?”

She was instantly ashamed of her figure of speech, for she could not explain it in words of sober criticism.

At a church service in the hotel basement, Hirst reads Sappho in Greek:

Early in the service Mrs. Flushing had discovered that she had taken up a Bible instead of a prayer-book, and, as she was sitting next to Hirst, she stole a glance over his shoulder. He was reading steadily in the thin pale-blue volume. Unable to understand, she peered closer, upon which Hirst politely laid the book before her, pointing to the first line of a Greek poem and then to the translation opposite.

“What’s that?” she whispered inquisitively.

“Sappho,” he replied. “The one Swinburne did—the best thing that’s ever been written.”

Mrs. Flushing could not resist such an opportunity. She gulped down the Ode to Aphrodite during the Litany, keeping herself with difficulty from asking when Sappho lived, and what else she wrote worth reading, and contriving to come in punctually at the end with “the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlastin’. Amen.”

Virginia Woolf, the War Without, the War Within: Her Final Diaries and the Diaries She Read

The final installment of Barbara Lounsberry’s valuable contribution to VW scholarship, this book covers Woolf’s diaries from 1929 to 1941 (book one 1897-1918, book two 1918-1929). This look at Woolf’s diaries and the diaries she read was less interesting than the other volumes, although I did pick up recommendations for Alice James’s diary and reinforced the idea I need to eventually finish reading Gide’s diary. As always, Lounsberry does a great job picking apart how the diary influences Woolf’s other published work, her grand exhaustion over The Years, her use of one work to balance out another. Oh! And the Michael Field diaries, the pseudonym of an aunt & niece combo who wrote poetry but who suffered much abuse from the male establishment, by way of Ruskin, giving Woolf much material for On Being Despised.

On being 50:

how possessed I am with the feeling that now, age 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight & undeflected my bolts whatever they are…

Her prodigious appetite for reading:

I want to write another 4 novels… & to go through English literature, like a string through cheese, or rather like some industrious insect, eating its way from book to book, from Chaucer to Lawrence. This is a programme (1932).

And in 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it with books, as a sponge with water”.

Alice James on suicide: “Every educated person who kills himself does something toward lessening the superstition. It’s bad that it’s so untidy… But how heroic to be able to supress one’s vanity to the extent of confessing that the game is too hard.”

Tidbits of the outer world float in, like the shocking discovery of Cook’s travel pamphlets issuing a brochure inviting a “Heil! Summer!” which helped to normalize Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. (See: Petra Rau’s “The Fascist Body Beautiful and the Imperial Crisis in 1930s British Writing.”)

My interest is only increased in setting aside all my attention to the VW project and working my way through her enormous mound of words, piece by piece.

 

Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

This is a volume of use for anyone who has actual access to the notebooks themselves in the Berg collection at NYPL (33 notebooks) or the notebooks at University of Sussex (33 other notebooks) or the single notebook at Yale. Sadly the notebooks themselves are not digitized or collected in any accessible form that I can discover, so I’m left in suspense about VW’s notes on Moby-Dick, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight, or Hemingway’s Men Without Women, among hundreds of other books she kept notes for in these notebooks. Luckily this index of sorts is now available online from Dartmouth, in case I need to make my mouth water about what’s out there.

 

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912

I struck gold by finding all six volumes of VW’s letters at the (now defunct) Logos bookstore in Santa Cruz last year, staggering out to the car with the books stacked up to my chin. A month ago I decided it was time to stop postponing the luxurious treat of diving into her life and began reading the letters, alternating with Vol 1 of her essays to read the finished product of the writing she casually bitched about to her friends in the letters. I plan to continue this, layering in her diaries and completed novels or other books once I reach that point in the timeline where they come in. Immersing myself in the world of Virginia Woolf is the best form of escapism I know.

It would be foolish to try and capture the 30? 40? notations that I tagged in this volume as especially resonating with me. Most of them are about reading and letter writing and the craft of writing and her love of London and her love of nature. Her letters are wickedly, wildly funny, gossipy, brilliant, irreverent, endearing. Her letter to Leonard brutally weighing the pros/cons of marriage is stunning (p 496).

There are some gaspingly gorgeous lines like, “I despair of my brains, which seem to be guttering like a tallow candle.” (p 182) Also “A true letter, so my theory runs, should be as a film of wax pressed close to the graving in the mind…” (p 282) and “… I run to a book as a child to its mother.” (p 274)

“I begin to believe that I shall write rather well one of these days.” (p 368)

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1904-1912

VW started writing journalism (mostly book reviews) in 1904 at age 22 after her father died, determined to make a living by her pen and becoming more and more confident in her writing skills. This volume of early essays collects the work she published in the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, Speaker, Cornhill, and the Academy. Essays that stand out are on Jane Carlyle, Boswell, Henry James, George Gissing, her father (Leslie Stephen), Charles Lamb, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Richard Hakluyt, and scores of obscure women writers.

The best quote I got from this applies to several books that I read and think would be better off as articles: “The ordinary reader… will doubt whether this vagrant air is potent enough to steep three-hundred-and-fifty-odd pages in its fragrance. A magazine article or a sonnet were the proper vessel for such sweetness.”

A Room of One’s Own

I had drinks with a friend last week and mentioned that I’ve been having difficulty finding a book to sink my teeth into, frequently hurling rejects across the room into a return-to-library pile. My friend said that sounded like a scene from A Room of One’s Own, I disagreed, then we determined to investigate the source of the “woman throwing book across room” image without the help of modern search technologies. Anything for a excuse to reread this absolute gem.

I must get this on the calendar for a regular re-read. Along with exploding patriarchal myths, delighting the senses, filling you with wit and laughter, it’s an exhortation to get out and write write write what you know (“the truer the facts, the better the fiction—so we are told”).

But no, there are no scenes of throwing a book across the room. Perhaps my friend was remembering  that Woolf mentions a girl who refused to marry the man of her father’s choosing was liable to be beaten and “flung about the room,” or that upon reading a poorly constructed novel that doesn’t reveal the human condition, Woolf “heaves a sigh of disappointment and says, Another failure.” My friend later emailed that she thought it might be Becky Sharp’s character in Vanity Fair who does the tossing, and Becky herself makes an appearance in Woolf’s list of women  who don’t lack in personality or character.

Something else that jumped out at me on this nth reading was that this work is truly the origin of the Bechdel test. It’s in the section where her fictitious author Mary Carmichael creates two characters (Olivia and Chloe) that talk about something other than men. “I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends…. almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”

I’m in the midst of luxuriating in a leisurely read of Proust and appreciate Woolf’s comments on him in this:

  • “Even so it remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men.”
  • “In our time Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.”
  • “For the reading of these books [La Recherche du Temps Perdu] seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.” (I agree with Woolf—I have only been able to read a few paragraphs of Proust at a time without my heart bursting)

I’d forgotten that she explodes the myth of the starving artist in here as well, at the end, reinstating her demand for £500/year for these women to have the financial security to write. Quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Woolf notes “It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth… the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance… a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”

Reading this in year 2 of McDonald Tr*mp, I enjoyed Woolf’s musing that anger is “somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power… Rich people, for example, are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their wealth.”

Previously documented readings of ROOO in 2016, 2014.

*** UPDATE ***

Apparently it was Becky Sharp who flung books around. Let’s not forget that Thackeray was the father of Virginia’s father’s first wife, e.g. a step-grandfather of sorts.

What did Virginia Woolf read?

I just discovered this incredibly useful resource that has compiled a searchable database detailing the history of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945. Yowza.

Here’s a list of 381 works VW read, pieced together from letters and diaries. Basically, I found this site because I was wondering what her exposure to Dickens was, and was too lazy to page through the indexes of her letters/diaries myself. (And here’s what Dickens was reading.)

I knew Vita Sackville-West was a fan of Proust (“To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend”) and her list of books contains quite a few references to the Frenchman.

Maybe you’re curious what Samuel Johnson read? Or his sidekick, Boswell? Or Carlyle? The great 17th century diarist, Pepys? Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot)? Charlotte Brontë?

This is a rabbit hole I won’t be falling out of anytime soon.

Moments of Being

There was a frenzy of publication of VW’s unpublished works once she died, this collection of memoir writing no exception. This edition is comprised of  Reminiscences (written about Vanessa for her unborn child, Julian, with lots of detail about Julia, their mother ), A Sketch of the Past (100-odd pages written in 1939 in gulps taking a break from writing Roger Fry’s biography), and three pieces VW launched at the Memoir Club—22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I A Snob?

It’s a hodgepodge, and the bits of greatest interest to me are, as usual, around her voracious reading habits. She mines the vein of her complex feelings about her father, rehashes details she can remember about her lovely mother, and gives us rich detail about the daily lives of Victorians and Edwardians, including the existence of a town crier at St Ives that was actually used by one of their guests who lost a brooch, shuffling along with a bell crying “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”

There’s also a phrase that rings particularly true in 2017 w/r/t Vanessa as she rejects George’s efforts to bring her into high society, (emphasis mine):

“But poor George was no psychologist. His perceptions were obtuse. He never saw within. He was completely at a loss when Vanessa said she did not wish to stay with the Chamberlains at Highbury; and would not dine with Lady Arthur Russell —a rude, tyrannical old woman, with a bloodstained complexion and the manners of a turkey cock. He argued, he wept, he complained to Aunt Mary Fisher, who said that she could not believe her ears. Every battery was turned upon Vanessa. She was told that she was selfish, unwomanly, callous and incredibly ungrateful considering the treasures of affection that had been lavished upon her—the Arab horse she rode and the slabs of bright blue enamel which she wore. Still she persisted.

On Leslie Stephen:

Yes, certainly I felt his presence; and had many a shock of acute pleasure when he fixed his very small, very blue eyes upon me and somehow made me feel that we two were in league together. There was something we had in common. “What have you got hold of?” he would say, looking over my shoulder at the book I was reading; and how proud, priggishly, I was, if he gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand. I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat. And I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased, when I cam into the study with a book I had done; and asked him for another.

Later, still trying to understand her relationship with her father:

But from my present distance of time I see too what we could not then see—the gulf between us that was cut by our difference in age. Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age. We were not his children; we were his grandchildren. There should have been a generation between us to cushion the contact. Thus it was that we perceived so keenly, while he raged, that he was somehow ridiculous. We looked at him with eyes that were looking into the future.

Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters Of Virginia Woolf

The selected letters is Joanne Trautmann Banks’s collection of the greatest hits, and this volume does a great service for those of us who are dipping our toes into the letters and not yet ready to read all six volumes. There are also 12 new letters that appeared after the complete collection was released. A remarkable collation giving the breadth and depth of VW’s life in a more easily digestible format. “Gracious child, how you gobble!”

This keeps echoing in my head and has been working as a great incentive to be a good person: “How I adore nice people. What else makes life worth living?” (19 Sept 1937 to Ethel Smyth)

On reading:

  • 30 Oct 1904 to Violet Dickinson; “… the only place I can be quiet and free is in my home, with Nessa: she understands my moods, and lets me alone in them… I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace.”
  • 16 April 1906 to Violet: “I lead the life of a Solitary: read and write and eat my meal, and walk out upon the moor, and have tea with Madge, and talk to her, and then dine alone and read my book, which I might be doing now if I weren’t writing to you.”
  • 21 Aug 1927 to Saxon Sydney- Turner; “Do you agree that one never thinks of Saxon or Barbara singly, but always as the centre of a nest of other objects? this fact has never been observed by the novelists—but my word, what a set of dunderheads and duffers they are! Even Scott has passages of an incredible imbecility. Trollope has gone up in my estimation however. But then, as its all a question of mood, and of what one’s just read, or whom one’s just seen, whats the good of criticism?”
  • 19 Feb 1929 to Vita: “I am sometimes pleased to think that I read English literature when I was young; I like to think of myself tapping at my father’s study door, saying very loud and clear ‘Can I have another volume, father? I’ve finished this one’. Then he would be very pleased and say ‘Gracious child, how you gobble!’… and get up and take down, it may have been the 6th or 7th volume of Gibbons complete works, or Speddings Bacon [Life and Letters of Sir Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding], or Cowper’s Letters. ‘But my dear, if its worth reading, its worth reading twice’ he would say. I have a great devotion for him —what a disinterested man, how high minded, how tender to me, and fierce and intolerable—”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel Smyth: “Nobody but the postman can possibly interrupt me between today and tomorrow. Therefore I am sunk deep in books. Oh yes, I write in the morning—just a little joke [Flush] to boil my years pot: but from 4.30 to 11.30 I read, Ethel. Isn’t that gorgeous?… D’you know I get such a passion for reading sometimes its like the other passion —writing—only the wrong side of the carpet. Heaven knows what either amounts to. My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? Whats this passion for?… oh so may books —doesn’t it break your heart almost to think of me, with this passion, always consumed with the desire to read, chopped, chafed, bugged, battered by the voices, the hands, the faces, the bodily presence of those who are pleased to call themselves my friends? Its like knocking a bluebottle off its lump of sugar perpetually…”
  • 29 July 1934 to Ethel Smyth: “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading. Its a disembodied trance-like intense rapture that used to seize me as a girl, and comes back now and again down here, with a violence that lays me low.”
  • 8 Feb 1936 to Hugh Walpole: “I’m reading David Copperfield for the 6th time with almost complete satisfaction. I’d forgotten how magnificent it is. Whats wrong, I can’t help asking myself? Why wasn’t he the greatest writer in the world? For alas – no, I won’t try to go into my crabbings and diminishings.”
  • 25 June 1936 to Ethel: “I’m almost floored by the extreme dexterity insight and beauty of Colette. How does she do it? No one in all England could do a thing like that.”
  • 1 Feb 1941 to Ethel: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget… They brought down a raider the other side of Lewes yesterday. I was cycling in to get our butter, but only heard a drone in the clouds. Thank God, as you would say, one’s fathers left one a taste for reading! Instead of thinking, by May we shall be – whatever it may be: I think, only 3 months to read Ben Jonson, Milton, Donne, and all the rest!”

On writing:

  • January 1907 to Lady Robert Cecil (Nelly): “I think you ought to write novels: you can write letters which is far harder.”
  • 25 Aug 1907 to Violet: “Never did any woman hate ‘writing’ as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James [whom she had just described as saying ‘My dear Virginia, they tell me… that you… as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century… of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me… that you, that you, that you write in short.’]
  • 22 June 1930 to Ethel Smyth: “And then I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.”
  • 2 June 1935 to Ethel Smyth: “I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicative, but I can only write letters when my mind is full of bubble and foam; when I’m not aware of the niceties of the English language. You dont know the bother it is, using for one purpose what I’m perpetually using for another. Could you sit down and improvise a dance at the piano after tea to please your friends?”
  • June 28, 1936 to Julian Bell: “[re: his piece on Roger Fry] My criticism is; first that you’ve not mastered the colloquial style, which is the hardest, so that it seemed to me (but my mind was weak) to be discursive, loose knit, and uneasy in its familiarities and conventions. However you could easily pull it together. Prose has to be so tight, if it’s not to smear one with mist.”

On dispassionateness:

  • July 1906 to Madge Vaughan: “But my present feeling is that this vague and dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, and find interesting.”

On her brain:

  • Dec 1907 to Violet: “Now my brain I will confess, for I dont like to talk of it, floats in blue air; where there are circling clouds, soft sunbeams of elastic gold, and fairy gossamers – things that cant be cut – that must be tenderly enclosed, and expressed in a globe of exquisitely coloured words. At the mere prick of steel they vanish.”

On not wanting children:

13 May 1908 to Violet: “I doubt I shall ever have a baby. Its voice is too terrible, a senseless scream, like an ill omened cat. Nobody could wish to comfort it, or pretend that it was a human being… the amount of business that has to be got through before you can enjoy it is dismaying.”

On French:

  • 25 Dec 1906 to Violet: “… I think it a virtue in the French language that it submits to prose, whereas English curls and knots and breaks off in short spasms of rage.”

On autobiography:

  • 28 Dec 1932 to Hugh Walpole; “Of all literature (yes, I think this is more or less true) I love autobiography most. In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature—novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me.”
  • 22 Dec 1934 to Victoria Ocampo; “Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favourite form of reading (I mean when I’m incapable of Shakespeare, and one often is)”
  • 5 April 1928 to Ling Su-Hua: “I find autobiographies much better than novels.”

Humorous:

  • 17 July 1935, to Vanessa; “I have been asked to be President of the P E.N Club in succession to [H.G.] Wells: this is about the greatest insult that could be offered a writer, or a human being.

Gertrude Stein:

  • 16 Sept 1925 to Roger Fry: “We are lying crushed under an immense manuscript of Gertrude Stein’s [Hogarth Press pub’d Composition as Explanation in Nov 1926]. I cannot brisk myself up to deal with it – whether her contortions are genuine or fruitful, or only such spasms as we might all go through in sheer impatience at having to deal with English prose. Edith Sitwell says she’s gigantic, (meaning not the flesh but the spirit). For my own part I wish we could skip a generation – skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia adn come out in the open again, when everything has been restarted, and runs full tilt, instead of trickling and teasing in this irritating way.
  • 2 June 1926 to Vanessa: “We were at a party at Edith Sitwell’s last night, where a good deal of misery was endured. Jews swarmed. It was in honour of Miss Gertrude Stein who was throned on a broken setee… This resolute old lady inflicted great damage on all the youth. According to Dadie [Rylands], she contradicts all you say; insists that she is not only the most intelligible, but also the most popular of living writers; and in particular despises all of English birth. Leonard, being a Jew himself, go on very well with her.”
  • 26 May 1938 to T.S. Eliot: “Dear Tom, Whichever Woolf it was, it wasnt this Woolf; but now it is this Woolf – which sounds like a passage from the works of the inspired Miss Stein.

Ambivalence about Stella Benson’s writing:

  • 20 April 1931 to Ethel: “Stella Benson I dont read because what I did read seemed to me all quivering—saccharine with sentimentality; brittle with the kind of wit that means sentiment freezing: But I’ll try again: I’ll think about jealousy.”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel: “And I’m reading Stella Benson: with pleasure…”
  • 12 Jan 1933 to Stella Benson; “I have just finished Tobit and so can say… I like it immensely.”
  • 19 Dec 1933 to Ott; “Did you know Stella Benson? I’m sorry for her death—I think one of these days she might have written something I liked—And I wanted to see her, apart from the dull little man [her husband] who never left her alone for a moment.”

 

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.

Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read

This book by Barbara Lounsberry is an incredibly interesting look at VW’s early diaries, layered in with descriptions of other journals and diaries she was reading during this time (from 1897 at age 15 to mid-1918 at age 36). I read this one closely, carefully, devouring each well-written and non-duplicative footnote, whisking off to the library for Boswell’s journals and making a list of others to imbibe. If I start now, read everything she read, can I possibly hope to attain a fraction of the intelligence she had at age 20? Instead of genius-envy, I have only genius-awe.

Early Diary Influences
This section mainly focused on her 1897 diary and exploring those diaries she was exposed to at the time: Sir Walter Scott, Fanny Burney, Pepys, and William Johnson Cory. Lounsberry asserts that at age 14, Virginia found her “diary parents” in Sir Walter Scott and Fanny Burney, adopting stylistic traits and ways of seeing the world from these notable foremother/fathers. “The influx of influence begins,” says Lounsberry. And we’re off! Burney shows VW how women are treated, but with her happy example bucking the usual “self-abnegation, modesty, and silence present in most English women’s diaries.”

Pepys 1.25 million-word diary is consumed completely in the twelve days leading up to step-sister Stella’s wedding, and Virginia notes in her diary, “My dear Pepys… the only calm thing in the house.”

She reads Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1903. Interestingly, Boswell’s papers only surfaced in 1925 in Ireland, causing a new edition of the Hebrides to be issued in 1936. The footnote quotes the editor of the 1936 version by saying that the version V read in 1903 “remained one of the most indiscreet books ever given to the world (did it not bring its author to the verge of a duel?).” Boswell lets us know that Dr. Johnson favors speedy prose, “I would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy… But, if a man is accustomed to compose slowly, and with difficulty, upon all occasions, there is danger that he may not compose at all, as we do no like to do that which is not done easily…” (emphasis mine). Boswell is also potentially credited with inspiring V to start a reading notebook, one of his 1773 entries noting books he has read: “This is a very slight circumstance, that every man should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what times; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of the mind.” She’ll return to Boswell (and the rest of her mentors) for the rest of her life; in 1934, depressed over Roger Fry’s death, Leonard advises her to read. V reports “I am as slack as a piece of maccaroni: & in this state cant shake off a blackness, a blankness. Now (10 to 1) after writing & beginning to read an old life of Boswell I feel the wheels grinding”.

Embracing the Unconscious
In 1907 V discovers Lady Dorothy Nevill’s Note-books, which Lounsberry nods to as influencing the character of Mrs. Hilbery in Night and Day. V writes a review in 1908 quoting lines from the Note-books: “People of original character and brilliant intellect were undoubtedly more frequently to be met with some thirty or forty years ago than is now the case, when almost every one seems to be cast in a mould of a more or less mediocre kind. Society in old days cannot in any way be compared with the motley crowd which calls itself society today… The general level of conversation in the so-called society of modern days must, of necessity, be low, for society, or what passes for it, is now very large, whilst wealth is more welcome than intellect. Good conversation, therefore, is practically non-existent.” This, speaking of life mid-19th century seems woefully too real to someone in the early 21st century.

Lady Charlotte Bury’s Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting is another source of delight and learning for V in 1908. Lounsberry asserts that V got her conviction that women and women writers were despised mostly from primary sources, including diaries. She includes an excerpt from a letter included in Bury’s Diary written by an apoplectic male writer, so delightful I must quote in full here (“plaguy deal of mischief”!!!):

“I wish [Susan Ferrier] would let such idle nonsense alone, for,… as as rule, I have an aversion, a pity and contempt, for all female scribblers, The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle and the only one they ever use dexterously. I must except, however, their love-letters, which are sometimes full of pleasing conceits; but this is the only subject they should ever attempt to write about. Madame de Staël even I will not except from this general rule; she has done a plaguy deal of mischief, and no good, by meddling in literary matters, and I wish to heaven she would renounce pen, ink, and paper for evermore… In a word, … I hate a blue; give me a rose any day in preference, that is to say, a pretty woman to a learned one. What has made you inflict this long harangue upon me? you will exclaim, and I must beg your pardon for so doing; but the fact is, I am full of the subject, being at the present moment much enraged at Lady [__], for having come out in the shape of a novel; and now, hearing that Miss F is about to follow her bad example, I write in great perturbance of mind, and cannot think or speak of anything else.” — letter from Matthew Lewis to Lady Charlotte Bury, early 19th c.

Lounsberry makes an interesting case that the lack of diary entries signified that V was working productively during that time, not that she was done under by sickness or laziness. V takes several solo trips, including one in August 1908 to Wells in Somerset, where she attempts to continue making progress on her first novel. She’s forced to leave her lodgings after a week, but without regret: “The Close has filled itself with theological students, & I am not sorry to leave. The cheery male voice is as the drone of bluebottles in my ear.” A footnote includes comment that V’s attitude toward the “male” was known to her sister Vanessa, who writes her about her Scotland visit and reports horror after her husband kills three rabbits: “There is an atmosphere of undiluted male here. How you would hate it!”

The Problem of Description
V flirts with travel diaries for a few years but struggles against the too-easy pull to write like a guidebook. “I begin to distrust description… the fault of most of my descriptive writing is that it tends to be too definite… Descriptive writing is dangerous & tempting… It is easy, with little expense of brain power, to make something. One seizes some broad aspect, as of water or colour, & makes a note of it. This single quality gives the tone to the piece. As a matter of fact, the subject is probably infinitely subtle, no more amenable to impressionistic treatment than the human character. What one records is really the state of ones own mind.”

She reads Lady Elizabeth Holland’s journal, Lady Hester Stanhope’s diaries, Mary E. Coleridge’s diary extracts, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early journals (which she defines herself against). I loved the reiteration that surfaced in Emerson to keep a reading journal: “The best of all ways to make one’s reading valuable is to write about it.”

The Diary Coalesces
There’s an unfortunate gap between 1909 and 1915 when V takes up diary writing again (unless there are missing/destroyed diaries for those years). In 1915, she’s now married to Leonard for 2 years and finds the steadiness needed to balance out her routine. During this time she reads the collaborative journals of the Goncourt brothers, Mary (Seton) Berry’s journals, Stopford Brooke’s diaries.

Roger Fry: A Biography

Finally read Virginia Woolf’s carefully balanced biography of her friend Roger Fry. She was hampered somewhat by the restrictions of having to please his sisters and friends and not include any scandalous material (like her sister’s love affair with him) which has illuminated Frances Spalding‘s more recent bio.

Fry sounds like rather an interesting old chap, pushing forward into Post Impressionism but still wrangling with a more traditional painting style of his own. He marries another artist, Helen, to the dismay of his Quaker parents who want nothing more than him to be hard-working and successful in the more common business aspects; Helen “goes mad” and is shut up in an asylum for nearly 30 years before kicking the bucket.

Fry gets more and more confident as a critic, and is tapped by JP Morgan to be the director of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, but Fry initially resists because he doesn’t want to leave England and he sees that Morgan had no real appreciation for art. On Morgan: “I don’t think he wants anything but flattery. He is quite indifferent as to the real value of things. All he wants experts for is to give him a sense of his own wonderful sagacity… The man is so swollen with pride and a sense of his own power that it never occurs to him that other people have any rights.” Fry signs on with an amended contract that allows him to spend most of the year in London, only traveling to NYC for three months of the year, but then acting as their buyer in Europe for the remaining months. Apparently there was quite a struggle with Morgan about whether pieces would be purchased for his private collection or for the museum.

Fry didn’t quite like America, “the contrasts are amazing… I sometimes wonder whether this society isn’t drifting back to sheer barbarism…. the trouble is that no one really knows anything or has any true standard. they are as credulous as they are suspicious and are wanting in any intellectual ballast so that fashion and passing emotions drift them anywhither.” He did meet Mark Twain at a dinner and liked him tremendously, though.

Back in London, he becomes estranged from the position and either quits or is let go after a battle with Morgan over a painting. He then takes up his previous life of lectures and writing, traveling all over Europe to look at pictures, to study them so he can go back to London and talk about them all winter.

I’m petering out my enthusiasm here, but could probably do a re-read at some point if investigating VW’s notes on writing biography.