Book Of A Lifetime: A Writer's Diary, By Virginia Woolf

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The Independent Culture

I first read Virginia Woolf when I was an undergraduate longing to write novels; she was not yet part of the canon or the course. I bought her early novel, Jacob's Room, and fell in love with its vivid, vanished past. Now, many decades later, after writing my first non-fiction book, a memoir called My Animal Life, I admire the very different Woolf of the Diaries, which face in the opposite direction to Jacob's Room – towards the future she would never see and the briefer, faster idiom of our own time, the era of texts and emails. I love the intimacy and clarity of this voice, and tried for a similar directness myself in My Animal Life, taking the reader into the secrets of my heart.

When a selection from her diaries first appeared as A Writer's Diary in 1953, a dozen years after Woolf's death, they had been edited by her husband, Leonard, into a much more formal kind of prose than she actually wrote. In reality, as her pen flashed oblique blue-black or purple script across large blank sheets of paper, Woolf characteristically abbreviated names, used the '&' symbol, and preferred dashes to semi-colons or full-stops, as we discovered from Anne Olivier Bell's fuller and more faithful 1977 text. Leonard aimed to choose passages which illuminate Woolf's literary practice, yet daily life and humour constantly break in. His selection ends with Woolf grappling with depression and household duties after finishing Between the Acts (a novel subsequently hailed as her best but which she feared was a failure): "one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down."

She is said to be a snob: she isn't, in the deepest sense, because she is interested in everyone and everything. When she is hurt or unhappy she strikes a glancing blow at someone, but these are just surges of the uncensored mind; retrospective moral policing is pointless. She also spills over with pleasure and fascination at the doings of her fellow human beings – for example, the closeted gay novelist Hugh Walpole's afternoon visit in which he told her all the details of homosexual London life. She is sometimes child-like and touching, as when she reflects on Leonard saying that he would like to die before her because, in effect, he loves her more. "To be needed" makes her happy. Sometimes a foreglimpse of her suicide by drowning ripples across these pages, light as willow leaves over water – as early as January 1915, she describes how, on a walk, she was "cut off by the river, which rose visibly, with a little ebb & flow, like the pulse of a heart". But her writing also blazes with the sunlight that brands its image on her retina. Three months before she died, in 1941, she wrote "Still frost. Burning white. Burning blue. The elms red... the downs in snow. Asheham Down, red, purple, dove blue grey...What is the phrase I always remember – or forget. Look your last on all things lovely."

Maggie Gee's 'My Animal Life' and 'My Drive' are published by Telegram