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Virginia Woolf's Modernist PathHer Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read$

Barbara Lounsberry

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062952

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062952.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Virginia Woolf's Modernist Path

Barbara Lounsberry

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Virginia Woolf's diary is her longest, her longest sustained, and her last work to reach the public. The Introduction presents the book’s main argument, the new view that Woolf entered a secondstage as a diarist (after her first experimental stage)—that of her mature, spare, modernist diaries of 1918 to 1929. Woolf deliberately curbs her number of diary entries per year in this second stage, pushing the periodic diary about as far as it can go and still convey a life. The Introduction also documents Woolf’s increasingly inward turn across the 1920s and her continued modernist experiments with form, especially with the fragment. A diary’s inherent oppositions, its “symmetry … of discords” (Woolf’s diary phrase) allowed Woolf to explore a string of paradoxes: continuity and discontinuity, motion and stasis, impersonal and personal time. The insights of the great French diary theorist Philippe Lejeune are used to undergird the book’s argument that diary-writing now becomes a way of life for Virginia Woolf, “life insurance” that brings high returns. The Introduction also previews the book’s second major insight: the heretofore unexplored role of other diaries in Woolf’s revered modernist works.

Keywords:   Philippe Lejeune, diary theory, diary form, fragments, discords, discontinuity, diary stages, time

A diary is not only a text: it is … a way of life, of which the text is merely a trace or by-product.

So says French diary theorist Philippe Lejeune (268). By July 1918, diary-keeping has become a way of life for Virginia Woolf. She started as an early teen, trying to keep a daily journal in a small, brown, leather diary with a lock and key. The year was 1897. Thirty-seven handwritten diary books follow across her days—until four days before her suicide in March 1941. These books are the doorway to her fiction and nonfiction. They also show Woolf to be one of the world’s great diarists, in fact, “the Shakespeare of the diary,” as diary scholar Anna Jackson dares to suggest (Diary Poetics 151).

Woolf’s first twelve diary books are strikingly experimental. Not one resembles another.1 In these first dozen journals (covering ages fourteen through thirty-six), Woolf tries travel diaries, a natural history diary, diaries with titled entries and book-like tables of contents—and even an occasional life diary. This experimental first diary stage leads to the years 1917 and 1918: Woolf’s most intensive years of diary-writing. She keeps two diaries now, a country diary and a city diary, and writes in both diaries on seventeen days. Has any other diarist done this?

In July 1918—as my volume opens—she brings her city diary to the country, a telling move. Within four months the country diary fuses with the city diary, creating the ideal “Country in London” state Woolf first envisioned at age twenty-one in her pivotal 1903 diary. The country, for Woolf, stands for nature, the unconscious, and the female, while the city embodies culture, the conscious mind, and the male (PA 177–79). These domains join. A crisis occurs in November 1918 that leads to a new audience and purpose for the diary, and with it the start of Woolf’s second stage as a diarist: her mature, spare modernist period, 1918 to 1929. Woolf’s own crisis mirrors what Pericles Lewis calls the crisis of representation (in both form and content) that defines the modernist period with its multiple, often competing, movements (xviii).

(p.2) The pared number of entries most clearly marks Woolf’s second (modernist) diary stage. Her experimental first diary period, from 1897 to 1918, harbors her greatest number of entries per year. Her tiny first extant diary offers 309 entries across 1897. Her first diary as a professional writer delivers 135 entries through the first five months of 1905 (before it abruptly stops). Her 1917–1918 country diary, the Asheham House natural history diary, contains 143 entries across fourteen months.

For the year 1919, however, Woolf writes just sixty-six diary entries, followed by sixty-three entries in 1920. In September 1920, she records taxing T. S. Eliot “with wilfully concealing his transitions. He said that explanation is unnecessary. If you put it in, you dilute the facts. You should feel these without explanation” (D 2: 67–68). From that date to the end of the year, Woolf toys with elision in the conversations she records. In May 1921, a year for which she writes just fifty-one diary entries, Woolf reports a talk with John Maynard Keynes during which the economist asks her about her second novel, the 1919 Night and Day. “[B]ut don’t you see you must put it all in before you can leave out,” she explains (D 2: 121). In 1922 she writes just forty-six diary entries; in 1923 (31 entries), 1924 (31), 1925 (32), 1926 (51), 1927 (33), 1928 (30), 1929 (35). In her second diary stage Woolf strips the periodic diary down—presses it about as far as it can go and still convey a life. Some might point to busy days to explain the scaled-back number of entries; however, Woolf was busy throughout her professional life. Sparse entries allow her to escape the diary’s greatest traps: daily dullness and numbing repetition. Instead, she can explore the fragment, the art of concision, the rhetoric of brevity.

Beyond leanness, Woolf’s middle diaries also display the modernist inward turn. Vincent Sherry calls the interior Woolf’s “most readily identifiable modernist provenance” (258). In her important March 9, 1920, diary entry, Woolf writes: “In spite of some tremors, I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it—suited the comfortable bright hour after tea; & the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable” (D 2: 24). Her earth (or geological) tropes—“worked through the layer of style … less pliable”—suggest that she now seeks to probe more deeply into herself and her world, that she is ready to address matters less pliable, “comfortable,” and “bright.”

She tells her September 1923 diary, “I am perhaps encouraged by Proust to search out & identify my feelings, but I have always felt this kind of thing in great (p.3) profusion, only not tried to capture it, or perhaps lacked skill & confidence” (D 2: 268). She is growing in both skill and assurance and will increasingly try to capture interior states. She tries, in fact, a month later when she describes a night of psychic terror that descends without summons and holds her painfully in its grip. In September 1926, she records parallel morning anguish: “[T]ossing me up. I’m unhappy unhappy! Down—God, I wish I were dead” (D 3: 110). In late July 1926, she traces in her diary “a whole nervous breakdown in miniature” as she tries to understand the workings of “My own Brain” (D 3: 103).

Alongside inner feelings and “State[s] of Mind” (D 3: 110), Woolf’s middle diary stage exhibits her dodges and feints as she tries to net her soul. In this book I trace Woolf’s development as a diarist from 1918 to 1929 and also reveal the importance of others’ diaries to her creative life—something never before shown. As will be seen, others’ diaries particularly encourage Woolf to explore her soul: Barbellion’s famous Journal of a Disappointed Man, for instance, read in April 1920. James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to Corsica, read in 1923, endorsed exploration of the soul, and in June 1924, Woolf reviews Stendhal’s early journals. Their passionate focus on the soul likely triggered her willingness that June, and after, “to cancel that vow against soul description” and probe “the violent moods of [her] soul” (D 2: 304).

As Drew Patrick Shannon notes, Woolf’s “discussion of ‘the soul’ versus ‘life’ in the diary … directly relates to her predicament as a professional writer: how can ‘life’ and ‘the soul’ coexist on the page? How to keep ‘life’ from swamping ‘the soul’?” (36). However, Jürgen Schlaeger reminds us of the value of the inner search: “Whenever the conscious mind sets about extending its control over its own subconscious or unconscious hinterland, that hinterland seems to compensate its losses in territory by an uncanny growth in depth and sophistication” (22). This happens to Woolf in her second stage, her diary a key part.

Woolf’s middle diaries reveal the crucial role of Vita Sackville-West in Woolf’s highly productive 1920s—the diary nuances now fully probed. The diary documents in 1922 and 1924 that Vita initially rattles Woolf’s aplomb. However, at the end of 1925 Vita rescues Woolf—or Woolf seizes on Vita as rescue (as she has done before with other women)—from what Woolf calls her “wounded & stricken year” (D 3: 52). From 1926 to 1929, the diary reveals Woolf in literary flood as she rides the “ardour & lust” of creation (D 3: 129). Her favored diary figure of the early 1920s, the interior mine to be tunneled, becomes a gushing oil well.

Formal experiment—another modernist focus—occurs alongside the taut inward turn. Woolf never stops her play with diary form, from her first leather (p.4) diary “ever … scornful of stated rules!” to her final poignant push in 1940 for a meatier diary (PA 134; D 5: 255). Woolf’s diary—more than any of her other works—reveals that she was always a modernist in the sense of making her work “new.” Although settling in 1919 into her mature diary style, Woolf still fiddles with form. Her 1920 diary is a diary of conversations—in many styles. Her 1923 diary is distinguished by six play scenes. Her 1926 diary turns outward in May and June to become a diary of the General Strike and then turns inward in the fall for eleven brief titled “State of Mind” pensées—probes of the boundaries between sense, thought, and art. In 1927, she begins a two-and-a-half-year experiment with a loose-leaf diary meant to “snare a greater number of loose thoughts” (D 1: 228).

Few people keep loose-leaf diaries, according to Lejeune, who surveyed 583 diarists in 1987 and 1988. At least 90 percent of those surveyed used bound diary books rather than loose pages (176). Woolf’s interest in loose-leaf diaries from late 1918 onward reveals her rare mind as well as her modernist wish to catch discontinuous, stray, or “loose thoughts.” Lejeune believes the bound diary book gives most diarists what they seek: “the assurance of continuity” (176). (This will be true for Woolf, too, in 1929.) Loose-leaf diaries, in contrast, foreground detachment and accentuate the diary’s inherent fragility. As Woolf prepares to “let [her]self down into [her] mind” from 1927 to 1929, to embark on a period of “lonel[iness]” and separation, to become more poetic in order to write The Waves, the detached leaves of her loose-leaf diary physically aid (and enact) the break (D 3: 219).

A diary invites its writer to explore a string of paradoxes, a fact that gives the diary its potential richness and power.2 The diary’s intrinsic oppositions, or—to use Woolf’s own 1908 diary words—its “symmetry … of infinite discords,” explain her lifelong attraction to the form (PA 393). Lejeune defines a diary as a “ series of dated traces” (61). Any diary offers fragmented traces of life, yet, in sum, an accumulative approach to truth and life. Lejeune calls the diary the “art of the fragment,” a phrase Woolf seems to endorse when she calls her 1920 diary a “mosaic” (325; D 2: 42). She rereads her previous entries—a constant behavior that allows her to make her diary artful—and then adds the important absent “pieces.” As Peter Lowe notes of the fragments in Woolf’s final novel Between the Acts, fragments “are not necessarily the alternative to harmony but rather, if we could but see or hear it, traces of that harmony itself” (12). Woolf herself writes in an essay that “the only way (p.5) of getting at the truth [is] to have it broken into splinters by many mirrors and so select” (E 6: 238).

Fragments, additionally, resist any single, dominating narrative. Instead they offer a series of contingent states. Woolf’s diary allowed her to experiment semiprivately with nonlinear narration, to search beyond accepted patterns of order and significance. This was practice for her modernist works. Diary entries, and the blank space around them, together form a productive opposition for both the diary writer and the diary reader. For the writer, each new blank page invites invention—even verbal improvisation. The disjoining of serial plot into single, vignette-like instants accentuates the writer’s power to create. Each time, the blank page can offer something new.

The diary reader becomes engaged, too, in the creative terrain formed from the intermittent life traces. On the one hand, the date on each entry “creates a sincerity effect,” Lejeune explains: “It sucks you in” (87). The date anchors the entry to a specific time (and often place), fostering reader credulity. Diary readers then begin unconsciously—they can hardly help themselves—to fill in imaginatively the vacant space between entries. What may have occurred? Work? Illness? Travel? What is suggested but not said?

Gaps in time and space invite the diary reader to think of alternatives—just as they do the diary writer. Additionally, while the diary dates “suck [readers] in,” they create, paradoxically, a Brechtian “alienation” as well, which, as it happens, also invites thought. As Rachael Langford observes, each date draws the reader’s attention to the diary as a text and, therefore, pulls the reader back from total immersion in the life, creating the distance Bertolt Brecht sought to promote thought (102).

A related fruitful paradox involves the motion fostered by separate, seemingly static, entries. As noted above, a diary’s dates both draw readers in and keep them at a thoughtful distance: the dates establish both continuity and discontinuity, the reader in constant imaginative activity and flux. The entries themselves supply a further form of continuity amid discontinuity. The diary gives structure to the diarist’s days. It orders life’s disorder —another paradox—or at least tries to do so.

“Life needs discontinuity and renewal,” Lejeune asserts (183). A diary supplies both. An entry ends, but then comes a new entry. A rhythm of discontinuity-yet-renewal occurs that reflects life’s regular renewals and answers Woolf’s own persistent need for movement and change. As she writes poetically in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway: “[W]aves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, (p.6) until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all” (39).

For brief periods, Lejeune explains, the diary “sculpts life as it happens” (173). Diarists become caught up in the movement as they sculpt, “moving along with it, emphasizing certain lines and directions, transforming this inescapable drift into a dance” (182). “Writing a diary is ‘progressive,’” Lejeune insists: “[I]t advances with the moving front of life…. [I]t is always on the very crest of time moving into unknown territory” (208).

Lejeune believes the preference for loose-leaf pages (or for the indefinite space of a computer file used by today’s cyber-diarists) reveals the diarists’ wish to avoid death. Such diarists “escape both the obligation of filling in and the need to stop” at a last page (190). As hinted above, Woolf’s diaries—looseleaf or bound—allowed her constant play with the paradox of time, another modernist preoccupation. In Mapping Literary Modernism: Time and Development, Ricardo J. Quinones argues that the Renaissance’s creative heights grew from the productive tension between the predictive and innovative sides of time (7). The nineteenth century, in contrast, saw the “overwhelming triumph” of mechanism and prediction and the “almost total suppression” of the innovative side of time (7). Modernisms’ obsessive experimentalism rose in revolt. Quinones suggests that “we can detect … the felt need to right the balance, to correct the damage, to revive the innovative along with the predictive aspect of time and then, when the innovative seems excessive or even menacing, to reassert the roles of reasonable intelligence and orderly occurrence” (230). Woolf’s diary, and any diary, restores the balance between time as predictive and time as innovative. It serves as the ideal point of departure for her modernist art.

“The diary is a wager on the future,” Lejeune insists (324). As such, diary-keeping is a life-affirming, life-assisting act and way of life. Although a diary is often thought to be a struggle against time, Lejeune suggests it is “actually based on a prior yielding to time (which is atomized, exploded, reduced to moments)” (170). The diary assists the diarist’s personal growth across time. “I lay by provisions for a future writer, and leave traces for a future adult whom I am helping by recording his history, someone who will later help me better understand the confusion I’m experiencing,” Lejeune explains. “We are helping each other across time…. The current identity that it is the diary’s purpose to create and define will one day become part of the unforeseeable identity, one which it will have given rise to and which will judge it” (334, 324). One thinks of Woolf’s “Elderly Virginia,” whom she creates at the start of 1919 and her second diary (p.7) stage (D 1: 234). Elderly Virginia not only encourages her younger diary self but also will use the diary for further public art.

“[L]ife is difficult for all of us,” Lejeune takes as his basic premise, yet he points out that life “also provides an infinite number of outlets, passions, and imaginative behaviors” to assuage life’s blows—diary-writing being only one such behavior but most often a helpful one (313). The diary acknowledges in its overall structure the relentless march of impersonal chronological time but answers it with the haphazard, personal, compressed or extended time of the disparate entries. (One thinks of the striking of Big Ben versus the unfolding scenes in Mrs. Dalloway.) Facing inevitable death, each diarist enacts to a greater or lesser degree the desperate drive of Holocaust ghetto diarists, whose diaries, as Langford and Russell West note, “restore substantiality to an existence officially reserved for obliteration” (9). In A Book of One’s Own, Thomas Mallon makes the point more gently: “[T]he accumulated past makes the shrinking future more bearable” (xv).

The eighteenth-century diarist Nicolas Rétif de la Bretonne kept 366 separate diary books—one book for each day of the year, including leap year. Each book became a diary of one date over many years. This original behavior reveals many diarists’ wish. “To me the future is a deep, frightening abyss that I dare not sound,” Bretonne wrote. “[B]ut I am doing what people do when they are afraid of the water: throwing a stone into it…. I toss another stone into the future, knowing that the river of time, flowing along, will eventually leave it high and dry” (Lejeune 90).

In the end, the annual diary (as Woolf’s diary becomes in her second diary stage) is “an annual life insurance,” as Lejeune explains: “[B]y writing today, you prepare yourself to be able to live tomorrow, and to piece together, in a predetermined framework of writing, the story of what you will have lived. All journal writing assumes the intention to write at least one more time…. The diarist is protected from death by the idea that the diary will continue” (188–89).

Diary reading and rereading also propitiates time. What the diarist bets on, “if there is any bet,” Lejeune suggests, “is escaping death by building up traces and hoping to be reread…. The diary no longer leads to the contingency of an absurd ending, but toward the transcendence of one or several future rereadings. You don’t imagine it finished; rather, you see it reread (by yourself) or read (by another)” (209, 191).

Virginia Woolf regularly rereads her diary, and she voraciously devours others’ diaries across her life. In the following pages, I trace Woolf’s development as a diarist across her middle, modernist stage—something never as yet attempted (p.8) in-depth. I offer close readings of each of Woolf’s thirteen middle diary books, treating each (1) as a work of art in itself; (2) as it relates to her other diaries; and (3) as it intersects with her public works (letters and published essays, reviews, fiction and nonfiction). This method lays bare Woolf’s development as a diarist and—a bonus—as a public writer as well. It reveals, as never before, Woolf’s steady march toward diary art (and beyond) in her middle diary stage.

A last new insight this book conveys is the crucial role of other diaries in Woolf’s creative life. In his mammoth 2014 volume The Novel: A Biography, Michael Schmidt calls Woolf “among the best-read writers of the twentieth century” (640). As I’ve noted elsewhere, she was more steeped in diary literature than any other well-known diarist before her—and likely even since. In the following pages, I examine fourteen key diaries Woolf read from 1919 to 1929 that helped shape her public prose. “[W]e return texts to their contexts in order to understand them more precisely,” Michael H. Whitworth explains (10). Woolf herself understood the, perhaps unusually intense, role reading played in her work. “I ransack public libraries,” she told her 1921 diary, “& find them full of sunk treasure” (D 2: 126). We watch as she absorbs this scattered treasure into her mind’s “compost heap” and see it emerge transformed into art. The following pages thus reveal the influence of others’ diaries on Woolf’s modernist prose.

From her first diary book to her last, Woolf treats her diary as a living entity: as a fragile, but breathing, “life.” In her second diary stage, as this volume will show, her diary becomes increasingly hardy and sure-handed—although it can also signal coming illness. Woolf sought in others’ diaries the natural human voice and also suggestive life traces beyond her own that she could transform into art. Others’ diaries refresh Woolf and “replenish … [her] cistern” (D 3: 33). By their very existence, they prove life beyond death.

Diary-writing becomes now a way of life for Woolf. If a diary is life insurance, Woolf’s policy in her middle stage delivers high returns.


(1.) See my Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014).

(2.) Ricardo J. Quinones notes that “paradoxes seem to abound in Modernism” (105). Additionally, as Rachael Langford and Russell West observe, the diary’s conventions are “uneasily balanced” between the private and the public, between the self and events, between “the spontaneity of reportage and the reflectiveness of the crafted text,” in short, between historical and literary writing (8). This made the diary a challenging and attractive form for Woolf.