The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1936-1941

It seems appropriate that it’s a grey drizzly morning when I finally close the pages of this last volume. I’ve gently sipped at this diary for the past four months, admittedly dragging my feet for the last few weeks not wanting to get to March 1941.

I am prepared for it as I head to the end, we all know what’s coming. And this project of reading everything she wrote chronologically has prepared me better than anything I could have comprehended. I’ve been with her all these years, and with the onset of the second world war, the nightly bombing raids which destroyed their London flat and sent all their possessions scavenged from the wreckage (thankfully including all volumes of the diary) stowed in barns across the village, it makes sense. Her deteriorating mental condition is completely understandable when there is no future to look forward to. But up to the last entry, what a romp, what a delight it has been! Thank god Leonard disobeyed her injunction to destroy all her papers. This five-volume series of diaries is one of the most magnificent documents in the history of literature.

I have dozens of markers glittering along the pages noting things I wanted to remember here, but I’ll start at the end and work backwards:

24 December 1940: “By shutting down the fire curtain, though, I find I can live in the moment; which is good; why yield a moment to regret or envy or worry? Why indeed?”

She envisions what death by German bombing would feel like (Oct 2, 1940): “I shall think—oh I wanted another 10 years—not this—& shant, for once, be able to describe it. It—I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light,—painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so—Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness—& then, dot dot dot”

Relieved to have the servant gone and cooking for herself: “Domestically, a great relief & peace, & expansion, it’ll be tomorrow, into merry kitchen harum scarum ways.”

Thinking again of what death by German bombing would be like (Aug 28, 1940): “It wd have been a peaceful matter of fact death to be popped off on the terrace playing bowls this very fine cool sunny August evening.”

In July: “So, the Germans are nibbling at my afternoon walks.”

General feeling of unease during the war: (June 1940) “I mean, there is no “autumn”, no winter. We pour to the edge of a precipice … and then? I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.”

22 June 1940: “I would like to find one book and stick to it. But can’t. I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. I feel oughtn’t I to finish off P.H.: oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety and recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk…. The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work. And now dinner to cook. A role. Nightly raids in the east and south coast. 6, 3, 22 people killed nightly.”

May 30, 1940: “And was very happy—the moment can be that: only theres no support in the fabric—if you see what I mean, as Charlie Sanger used to say—theres no healthy tissue round the moment. It’s blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., ones certainly happy.”

August 7 1939: “Oh & I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, & the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; & to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, & not as unconscious at least in its approaches, as birth is.”

July 30, 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it will books, as a sponge with water.”

Jan 18, 1939: “I am going walking & adventuring going to see pictures of an afternoon; & often come face to face, after tea, at odd moments, with the idea of death & age. Why not change the idea of death into an exciting experience?—as one did marriage in youth?”

Watching the world march into war (Sept 22, 1938): “The prospect of another glissade after a minor stop into abyss. All Europe in Hitler’s keeping. What’ll he gobble next?”

Sept 17, 1938: “Just as in violent personal anxiety, the public lapses, into complete indifference. One can feel no more at the moment.”

June 23, 1937: “Its ill writing after reading Love for Love—a masterpiece. I never knew how good it is. And what exhilaration there is in reading these masterpieces. This superb hard English! Yes, always keep the Classics at hand to prevent flop.”

The radio after the King died only allowed official pronouncements, and so “if you turn it on you only hear the ticking of a vast clock” (Jan 1936).