Book of a lifetime: A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

From The Independent archive: Maggie Gee on the intimacy and clarity of the great modernist’s diaries

Friday 13 May 2022 21:30
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<p>Sometimes a foreglimpse of her suicide ripples across these pages</p>

Sometimes a foreglimpse of her suicide ripples across these pages

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.”

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