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A Series of Selves

How Virginia Woolf’s diaries chronicle the push and pull of her private and public lives.

Central Press / Getty Images

Every so often a book comes along and changes the way you see a classic of literature. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, published between 1977 and 1984, came out decades after Woolf’s death in 1941, and added a stunning lens through which to view her long and dynamic career. Her husband Leonard had carefully edited a volume initially in 1953, one that focused entirely on Woolf’s writing process and avoided personal details, but it was only when Woolf’s diaries were released in their totality that readers gained a precious glimpse inside a complicated mind at work.

University Press of Florida, 408 pp., $84.95

They revealed a Woolf unexpectedly playful and at times mundane: “So now I have assembled my facts,” she wrote on August 22, 1922, “to which I now add my spending 10/6 on photographs, which we developed in my dress cupboard last night; & they are all failures. Compliments, clothes, building, photography—it is for these reasons that I cannot write Mrs Dalloway.” They also reveal a Woolf at times both vicious and shitty: her cattiness, her casual racism. Ruth Gruber, who wrote the first PhD dissertation on Woolf, had a short, pleasant correspondence with her in the 1930s, only to discover, when the diaries were later published, Woolf referring to her dismissively as a “German Jewess” (Gruber was born in Brooklyn). As Gruber would write of the experience, “Diaries can rip the masks from their creators.”

Unlike many writers’ diaries, The Diary of Virginia Woolf has become more than just a gloss on her novels; it is a work of literature in and of itself, a powerful and startling look into the inner life of a woman writer during a dramatic time. “I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great,’” she wrote in 1933. “I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.” Woolf began writing in a diary in 1897, when she was just 14 years old; she would continue on and off again, for the rest of her life; she would write the final entry four days before her death in March 1941. In total, she wrote over 770,000 words in her diaries alone.

“Woolf’s semiprivate diaries serve as the interface between her unconscious and her public prose,” writes Woolf scholar Barbara Lounsberry, an emeritus English professor at Northern Iowa University. Now, over the course of three books, Lounsberry has provided a key to understanding that diary more fully: what it is, how it was made, and how to read it. In Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read (2014), Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read (2016), and now Virginia Woolf, the War Without, the War Within: Her Final Diaries and the Diaries She Read, Lounsberry offers a comprehensive and thorough reading of The Diary of Virginia Woolf and, in the process, has changed how it should be read.

Lounsberry’s reinterpretation starts with the title itself: There is not a diary of Virginia Woolf, but 38 different journals and diaries. Each volume is its own book, each a discrete project started by Woolf with a different purpose and at a different moment in her writing career. This difference is essential. Read as a single, long work, Woolf’s diary might resemble Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: something grand, monolithic, and almost over-bearing, the creation of a holistic and unified author of canonical masterworks. But Woolf, like all of us, was not a single person so much as a cascade of different voices, emotions, personas—all of which complemented and conflicted with one another. By treating her diaries as she composed them—discrete but overlapping, experimental and at times provisional—we come much closer to understanding the person who wrote them.

In 1917, for example, Woolf kept two separate diaries, writing in them concurrently on several occasions. One she began on August 3, 1917, while staying at Asheham House. In this diary, Woolf focused on observations of the natural world, written in short, staccato bursts: “Men mending the wall & roof at Asheham. Will has dug up the bed in front, leaving only one dahlia. Bees in attic chim[ne]y.” This work, Lounsberry notes, “offers Woolf’s field notes for 1917 and 1918: notes of nature and notes of war. It shows her curiosity about the natural world and human labor and foregrounds the natural historian and public historian present in all her diaries but never better exposed.”

Two months later, she began a separate diary: a collaborative project in which Woolf and others could all record their observations. “This attempt at a diary is begun on the impulse given by the discovery in a wooden box in my cupboard of an old volume, kept in 1915, & still able to make us laugh at Walter Lamb,” she wrote on October 8. “This therefore will follow that plan—written after tea, written indiscreetly, & by the way I note here that L. [Leonard, her husband] has promised to add his page when he has something to say. His modesty is to be overcome.” These concurrent diaries, each started at a different place, each with a different aim and purpose, suggest just one of the many ways in which Woolf used the diary form to try out new voices and formal constraints, developing her voice through “a diary more structurally experimental than any of the diaries she read”—and, in the process, creating a masterpiece of interiority.

Lounsberry’s books also serve as a reader’s guide for the diaries themselves. She pays attention to the physical dimensions themselves: “This diary is too small to allow of very much prose,” Woolf complains of the diary she used in 1897, which measured 5.5 by 3.5 inches. It was exactly the kind you give to a 14-year-old girl: leather-bound, with a lock and key, a form she quickly outgrew. Later, Woolf would bind the journals herself, and in at least one prepped her work by drawing a vertical red line along the left margin of each page. Still, they often varied in size and length. “The small size of the Asheham diary,” Lounsberry notes, “may have invited compression,” referring to the rapid, clipped style that defines it.

The other major thread through these books is not just the diary Woolf wrote, but the diaries she read: Lounsberry keeps careful track of the diaries by other writers she read, and their effect on her own writing. As a teenager, Woolf devoured Samuel Pepys’s 1.25 million word diary in twelve days; Pepys, along with Fanny Burney, Walter Scott, and James Boswell, would be a major influence in Woolf’s own diary writing; and throughout her writing career she would constantly borrow ideas from other diarists. From Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, for example, Woolf got the idea “to experiment and to collaborate” with a diary, leading to the Hogarth House diary with its multiple authors. She was, Lounsberry contends, “more steeped in diary literature than any other well-known diarist—and likely even since.”

We are used to literary works responding to one another: Ulysses rewrites The Odyssey, Wide Sargasso Sea imagines a story adjacent to Jane Eyre. But these are published works speaking to other published works. Woolf’s dialogue with other diarists is different. A diary is a private monologue by one writer, made public posthumously (in Pepys’s case, centuries after it was written), and Woolf is responding in turn in her own private setting.

Never, though, entirely private. Even from a young age, Woolf seems to know her diaries may someday be read by others: “I have made the most heroic resolution to change my ideas of calligraphy in conformance with those of my family,” she writes in 1899, recognizing even then that she wants her private thoughts to someday be read by others. She also reread her own diaries, a process Lounsberry charts throughout all three books, one that further enriches them as “she constantly rereads it with a critical and curious eye.”

Traditionally, Woolf’s diaries have been divided in half. There are her mature diaries, comprised of the five volumes that were published between 1977 and 1984. These begin with 1915, the year her first book, The Voyage Out was published, as though to emphasize that they are the thoughts of a published writer, and not just some unknown young girl. Those earlier diaries eventually appeared, in a far more edited form, in 1990, in a volume titled Passionate Apprentice. Lounsberry rejects this split for a tripartite structure: Her first book focuses on her early, experimental diaries, through 1918; the second, the diaries of her high modernist years (through 1929); and the third, the diaries of her final decade, when she struggled with her final masterpieces The Years, Three Guineas and Between the Acts, while trying to ward off depression as the world collapsed with the march of fascism.

Lounsberry’s first volume is perhaps the most interesting, when Woolf is most actively experimenting with what a diary is and can be. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, are both accomplished, but relatively unadventurous, formally speaking, opting for generic conventions of the nineteenth-century realist novel. It wouldn’t be until 1922’s Jacob’s Room that she would begin radically experimenting with what the novel could be. But with her diaries, by contrast, she had already been radically experimenting for decades, trying out new forms, incorporating what she was learning from Pepys and Boswell and turning these lessons to new ends.

The middle years, the years of Woolf’s greatest successes, when writing came fastest to her, correspond with her leanest diary years—as long as she could effortlessly turn writing into paid work and novels, she had less need for a private well of secret thoughts. Her “Spare, second diary stage” is perhaps the least revealing of the three, for the simple reason that much of her best writing went into her 1920s masterpieces: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and Orlando (along with A Common Reader and the flood of essays and other work from this period).

By the third volume, Woolf’s creative process is running aground: The Waves, despite its brilliance, doesn’t come easily, and the stubborn 1937 novel The Years nearly defeats her altogether. More and more, she turns to her diary to write free of the constraints that her public persona has foisted on her. (“Oh what a grind it is embodying all these ideas, she writes on March 18,1935, “& having perpetually to expose my mind, opened & intensified as it is by the heat of creation to the blasts of the outer world.”) In these years, Lounsberry suggests, a battle “plays out across Woolf’s diaries: her fierce fight for freedom.”

In the late diaries, what’s left out is as important as what’s written down. Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell left to fight in the Spanish Civil War on June 7, 1937; Woolf learned of his death on July 20. For the next two weeks, Woolf doesn’t touch her diary; finally, 17 days after news of his death, she writes, “Well but one must make a beginning. Its [sic] odd that I can hardly bring myself, with all my verbosity—the expression mania which is inborn in me—to say anything about Julian’s death.” If these private diaries once offered her a way to put her secret thoughts into words, by the late 1930s these thoughts are now beyond words. Increasingly, these lacunae define her late diaries, as the war and her own internal demons overtake her.

Lounsberry’s books are methodical, at times plodding, working forward chronologically through each diary, interspersed with whatever diary Woolf was reading at the time. At times it feels more archival than anything else. Her target audience is primarily other Woolf scholars, of course, but there’s something here for all fans of Woolf’s diaries, as well as anyone interested in how a woman writer navigates the role of public and private writing. As modernist scholar Elizabeth Podnieks argues, “many women wrote their diaries by keeping up a pretense that they were private, while intending them to be published at a later date. In this way they could communicate to an audience thoughts and feelings that were too personal or controversial to be revealed through their fiction, but which they wanted, and needed, to convey.” Woolf is an almost paradigmatic example of this, offering a variety of catty, quotidian, and sometimes mean-spirited selves that contradict the image formed by her carefully-sculpted works. Rather than treat the diaries solely as the behind-the-scenes key to the novels, these books instead chronicle the push and pull of her private and public writing, offering a fuller picture of Woolf’s life.

With luck, they’ll also spur a longer conversation about reevaluating Woolf’s diaries. And perhaps—U.S. and U.K. copyright laws notwithstanding—we might see stand-alone editions in the future: the Asheham Natural History Diary, the Cornwall Diary of 1905, the sketchbook of 1903. Barbara Lounsberry has done for Woolf’s diaries what the diaries once did for Woolf’s novels, and what all great literary criticism seeks to do: It takes a canonical work of literature and offers an entirely new way of seeing it.