Friday, January 13, 2012

Virginia Woolf – ‘Selected Diaries’

To begin the new year with a Friday the 13th. Which does not seem inappropriate, coming to the end of these diaries, which retract when all is not well, like the almost-blank pages in the bleakest section of Paradoxical Undressing. 1936 is not a fun read, as Virginia battles against mood swings to get a handle on writing her novel The Years. Gaps extend to months, indicating the absence of mind, control, awareness, identity, interest. She writes to her future self:
A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down – and Lord knows the truth. (p. 362)
Her attitude towards The Years seems to fluctuate daily between pride and despair, her critical judgement flails, becomes unreliable. Likewise the three months of 1941, before her suicide, are scant of detail, covered in just four pages in this edited version. I knew about the suicide, of course, reading books from my mother’s shelves as a teenager – To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Orlando (I liked the first two a lot – the latter hardly at all), but that small clutch of volumes misled me, perhaps, into assuming that she had died young, rather than on the verge of her 60s. The titles of her books after The Waves are all new to me, and so – except for A Room of One’s Own – is Virginia Woolf the writer of non-fiction.

Leaving aside the sad fact which overwhelms the tail end of the diary, they are – perhaps because they fight so hard – life afirming in the main. There are even jokes; here is Virginia getting her hair cut short in 1927:
Mr Cizec has bingled me. I am short haired for life. […] In front there is no change; behind I’m like the rump of a partridge. (p. 226)
In fact, the diary is so incredibly quote-friendly, let’s not waste any more time.
all descriptions of music are quite worthless, and rather unpleasant; they are apt to be hysterical, and to say things that people will be ashamed of having said afterwards. (p. 12, 1915)
Tea at Spikings, with some of the upper classes; who looked like pet dogs threatened with a cold bath. They were talking of the scarcity of motor cars. (p. 22, 1917)
I’ve numbers of old clothes in my dirty clothes basket – scenes, I mean, tumbled pell mell into my receptacle of a mind, and not extracted till form and colour are almost lost. (p. 102, 1920)
In my heart, too, I prefer the nondescript anonymous days of youth. I like youthful minds; and the sense that no one’s yet anybody. (p. 117, 1920)
never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having. (p. 156, 1923)
On T. S. Eliot:
I am a little bored indeed, and could wish that poor dear Tom had more spunk in him, less need to let drop by drop of his agonised perplexities fall ever so finely through pure cambric. (p. 161, 1923)
I love the clutter an excitement of other people’s houses. (p. 161, 1923)
these curious intervals in life – I’ve had many – are the most fruitful artistically – one becomes fertilised – think of my madness at Hogarth – and all the little illnesses – that before I wrote To the Lighthouse for instance. Six weeks in bed now would make a masterpiece of Moths. (p. 266, 1929)
I use my friends rather as giglamps: there’s another field I see; by your light. (p. 284, 1930)
The new electric boiler in and boiling our bath water this morning. The King of Belgium killed mountaineering. (p. 349, 1934)
More on T. S. Eliot, first quoting him:
I begin to see that our generation – yours and mine, Virginia, owed, a great deal to our fathers’ religion. And the young, like Julian, who are brought up without it, will never get so much out of life. We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits. (p. 351, 1934)
Then this:
A story about a party to entertain the [Herbert] Reads. Tom bought fireworks; sugar that dissolved and let out small fish; and chocolates that he thought were full of sawdust. ‘They’re very greedy,’ he said, ‘and by mistake the chocolates were full of soap. They set on me … And it was not a success.’ (p. 377, 1935)
But its odd, how near the guns have got to our private life again. I can quite distinctly see them and hear a roar, even though I go on, like a doomed mouse, nibbling at my daily pages. (p. 395, 1936)
On Gide’s diaries:
An interesting knotted book. Its queer that diaries now pullulate. No one can settle to a work of art. (p. 457, 1939)
And weeded this morning. And was very happy – the moment can be that: only there’s no support in the fabric, there’s no healthy tissue round the moment. Its blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., one’s certainly happy. (p. 479, 1940)

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