Eighty years ago today, ‘with this very nib-ful of ink’, Virginia Woolf finished a first draft of her most experimental novel, The Waves. It is ‘full of holes and patches’, she tells her diary, and needs ‘re-building’. A few days later, she wants to begin cutting out ‘masses of irrelevance and clearing, sharpening and making the good phrases shine. One wave after another.’
Virginia was the second daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, the first editor of the National Biography. The family, very well connected in literary circles, lived in Hyde Park Gate but had a country home at St Ives in Cornwall. Woolf’s mother died when she was 13 and her father died ten years later. Both these losses precipitated mental breakdowns which left the young Virginia psychologically fragile for the rest of her life. She settled in Gordon Square with her sister Vanessa and her brother Adrian, and subsequently married Leonard Sidney Woolf. The Woolfs and their many literary friends became known as the Bloomsbury Group.
In 1917, Virginia and Leonard launched the Hogarth Press, which published their own works as well as those by other literary and artist figures, such as T S Eliot, Laurens van der Post, Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell. Two years later, they bought Monks House in Rodmell, East Sussex. It was there, and in the 1920s, that Virginia wrote most of her novels, such as To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). It was also during the 1920s that she had a long-term affair with Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson.
According to the Wikipedia biography, the onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to a biography of her late friend Roger Fry all contributed to a growing depression. On 28 March 1941, she put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home, and drowned herself. Further biographical information is available from Kirjasto, The Modernism Lab (Yale University), and The Virginia Woolf Society.
Although she did not write a diary every day, Virginia Woolf was a committed diarist. She began keeping a journal in 1915 and continued to do so until a few days before her death. Extracts were published for the first time in A Writer’s Diary by The Hogarth Press in 1953. The extracts were chosen by Leonard Woolf specifically to reflect his wife’s life as a writer. In the introduction, though, he talks more generally about Virginia’s diary, and says: [It] gives for 27 years a consecutive record of what she did, of the people whom she saw, and particularly of what she thought about those people, about herself, about life, and about the books she was writing or hoped to write.’
A much fuller (and more faithful - Leonard had made Virginia’s prose more formal than it was) version of the diary was published by The Hogarth Press in five volumes during the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were edited by Anne Olivier Bell, the wife of Woolf’s nephew, and were much acclaimed at the time. Apart from being beautifully written in their own right, they also provide a first-hand account of the revered Bloomsbury Group, and an excellent insight into a writer’s creative processes. See The Diary Junction for links to a few online extracts.
Here, though, are two extracts from A Writer’s Diary, the first taken from exactly 80 years ago today, when Virginia was finishing a first draft of The Waves, a novel that would prove to be her most experimental (Project Gutenberg Australia has the etext freely available).
29 April 1930
‘And I have just finished, with this very nib-ful of ink, the last sentence of The Waves. I think I should record this for my own information. Yes, it was the greatest stretch of mind I ever knew; certainly the last pages; I don’t think they flop as much as usual. And I think I have kept starkly and ascetically to the plan. So much I will say in self-congratulation. But I have never written a book so full of holes and patches; that will need re-building, yes, not only re-modelling. I suspect the structure is wrong. Never mind. I might have done something easy and fluent; and this is a reach after that vision I had, the unhappy summer - or three weeks - at Rodmell, after finishing The Lighthouse. (And that reminds me - I must hastily provide my mind with something else, or it will again become pecking and wretched - something imaginative, if possible, and light; for I shall tire of Hazlitt and criticism after the first divine relief; and I feel pleasantly aware of various adumbrations in the back of my head; a life of Duncan; no, something about canvases glowing in a studio; but that can wait.)
And I think to myself as I walk down Southampton Row, ‘And I have given you a new book.’ ’
1 May 1930
‘And I have completely ruined my morning. Yes that is literally true. They sent me a book from The Times, as if advised by Heaven of my liberty; and feeling my liberty wild upon me, I rushed to the cable and told Van Doren I would write on Scott. And now having read Scott, or the editor whom Hugh provides, I won’t and can’t; and have got into a fret trying to read it, and writing to Richmond to say I can’t: have wasted the brilliant first of May which makes my skylight blue and gold; have only a rubbish heap in my head; can’t read and can’t write and can’t think. The truth is, of course, I want to be back at The Waves. Yes that is the truth. Unlike all that I begin to re-write it, or conceive it again with ardour, directly I have done it. I begin to see what I had in my mind; and want to begin cutting out masses of irrelevance and clearing, sharpening and making the good phrases shine. One wave after another. No room. And so on. But then we are going touring in Devon and Cornwall on Sunday, which means a week off; and then I shall perhaps make my critical brain do a month’s work for exercise. What could it be set to? Or a story? - no, not another story now . . .’