Viriginia Woolf: Great Miseries and Great Joys



Viriginia Woolf's diaries are her last major work to be printed. They cover the years from 1915 to her death in 1941. Four volumes have already appeared, taking the story down to 1936; a fifth and final volume, from which the following excerpts are taken, will be published later this year.

In 1936 Virginia Woolf turned 54. It was the year of her struggle to revise and complete ''The Years,'' a struggle rewarded by that novel's unexpected success; she was to follow it up with her biography of the art critic Roger Fry and her last novel, ''Between the Acts.'' At the same time she continued to lead a full social life, though she was oppressed both by the darkening political situation and by her own inner distress.

As the editor of the diaries, Anne Olivier Bell, observes, they deal with ''daily delights and daily exasperations, great miseries and great joys.'' And once they are available in their entirety, many readers will want to echo the judgment of Quentin Bell, in his introduction to the first volume, that they constitute a masterpiece.

In the excerpts that follow a number of minor deletions have been made for the sake of clarity and continuity.

Virginia Woolf spent the summer of 1936 revising ''The Years,'' work that brought her close to nervous collapse.

Thursday 11 June
I can only, after 2 months, make this brief note, to say at last after 2 months dismal & worse, almost catastrophic illness - never been so near the precipice to my own feeling since 1913 - I'm again on top. I have to re-write, I mean interpolate & rub out most of The Years in proof. But I cant go into that. Can only do an hour or so. Oh but the divine joy of being mistress of my mind again! Now I am going to live like a cat stepping on eggs till my 600 pages ( of proof correcting ) are done. I think I can - I think I can - but must have immense courage & buoyancy to compass it.

Sunday 21 June

After a week of intense suffering - indeed mornings of torture - & I'm not exaggerating - pain in my head - a feeling of complete despair & failure - a head inside like the nostrils after hay fever - here is a cool quiet morning again, a feeling of relief; respite: hope.

Everything is planned, battened down. I do 1/2 an hour down here; go up, often in despair. lie down; walk round the square: come back do another 10 lines. Always with a feeling of having to repress; control. Sat in the square last night. Saw the dripping green leaves. Thunder & lightning. Purple sky. A very strange, most remarkable summer. New emotions: humility: impersonal joy: literary despair. I am learning my craft in the most fierce conditions. Really reading Flaubert's letters I hear my own voice cry out Oh art! Patience. Find him consoling, admonishing. I must get this book quietly strongly daringly into shape.

A meeting with Christopher Isherwood in 1937. ''Morgan'' or ''M'' was E. M. Forster. 

Sunday 21 February

Isherwood & Sally (Chilver) last night. I(sherwoo)d rather a find: very small red cheeked nimble & vivacious. We chattered. He lives in a pension at Brussels; is heir to an E(lizabe)than house near Manchester; & likes my books. The last put some colour into my cheeks. He said Morgan & I were the only living novelists the young - he, Auden, Spender I suppose - take seriously. Indeed he admires us both I gathered warmly. For M.'s books he has a passion. ''I'll come out with it then Mrs Woolf - you see, I feel youre a poetess: he does the thing I want to do . . . a perfect contraption.'' But I was satisfied with my share of the compliment wh. came very pat in these days of depression. Auden & he are writing away together. He does the prose, A. the poetry. A. wants innumerable blankets on his bed; innumerable cups of tea; then shuts the shutters & draws the blinds & writes. Id. is most appreciative merry little bird. A real novelist, I suspect; not a poet; full of acute observations on character & scenes.

In the autumn of 1938 Virginia Woolf was at work on her biography of Roger Fry, though she was increasingly distracted by the buildup to what was to be the Munich crisis. 

Monday 5 September
Its odd to be sitting here, looking up little facts about Roger & the M(etropolitan) M(useum). in New York, with a sparrow tapping on my roof this fine September morning when it may be the 3rd Aug 1914 . . . What would war mean? Darkness, strain: I suppose conceivably death. And all the horror of friends . . . All that lies over the water in the brain of that ridiculous little man. Why ridiculous? Because none of it fits. Encloses no reality. Death & war & darkness representing nothing that any human being from the Pork butcher to the Prime Minister cares one straw about. Not liberty, not life . . . merely a housemaids dream. And we woke from that dream & have the Cenotaph to remind us of the fruits. Well I cant spread my mind wide eno' to take it in, intelligibly. If it were real, one cd. make something of it. But as it is it merely grumbles, in an inarticulate way, behind reality. We may hear his mad voice vociferating tonight. Nuremberg rally begun: but it goes on for another week. And what will be happening this time 10 days? Suppose we skim across, still at any moment, any accident may suddenly bring out the uproar. But this time everyone's agog. Thats the difference. And as we're all equally in the dark we cant cluster & gossip; we are beginning to feel the herd impulse: everyone asks everyone, Any news? What d'you think? The only answer is, wait & see.

Saturday 10 September
I dont feel that the crisis is real - not so real as Roger in 1910 at Gordon Square, about which I've just been writing; & now switch off with some difficulty to use the last 20 minutes that are over before lunch. Of course we may be at war this time next week. Seven ships are mobilised today. The Papers each in turn warns Hitler in the same set grim but composed words, dictated by the Govt. presumably, that if he forces us we shall fight. They are all equally calm & good tempered. Nothing is to be said to provoke. Every allowance is to be made. In fact we are simply marking time as calmly as possible until Monday or Tuesday, when the Oracle will speak. And we mean him to know what we think. The only doubt is whether what we say reaches his own much cumbered long ears. (I'm thinking of Roger not of Hitler - how I bless Roger, & wish I could tell him so, for giving me himself to think of - what a help he remains - in this welter of unreality.) All these grim men appear to me like grown up's staring incredulously at a child's sand castle which for some inexplicable reason has become a real vast castle, needing gunpowder & dynamite to destroy it. Nobody in their senses can believe in it. Yet nobody must tell the truth. So one forgets. Meanwhile the aeroplanes are on the prowl, crossing the downs. Every preparation is made. Sirens will hoot in a particular way when there's the first hint of a raid. L(eonard) & I no longer talk about it. Much better to play bowls & pick dahlias. They're blazing in the sitting room, orange against the black last night.

Tuesday 13 September

No war yet anyhow. Hitler boasted & boomed but shot no solid bolt. Mere violent rant, & then broke off. We listened in to the end. A savage howl like a person excruciated; then howls from the audience; then a more spaced & measured sentence. Then another bark. Cheering ruled by a stick. Frightening to think of the faces. & the voice was frightening. But as it went on we said (only picking a word or two) anti-climax. This seems to be the general verdict. He darent cross the line. Comes up to it & stands bawling insults. Times very scathing & sarcastic. How can people stand this nonsense? Negotiations to go on, under threat that he will use force if &c.

An evening with T. S. Eliot. 

Monday 19 December
The last dinner of the year was to Tom Eliot last night. Physically he is a little muffin faced; sallow & shadowed; but intent (as I am) on the art of writing. His play - Family Reunion? - was the staple of the very bitter cold evening. (The snow is now falling: flakes come through my skylight: I am huddled in my red rain jacket, opportunely given by L.) It has taken him off & on 2 years to write, is an advance upon Murder; in poetry; a new line, with 3 stresses; ''I dont seem popular this evening'': ''What for do we talk of cancer again'' (no: this is not accurate). When the crisis came, his only thought was annoyance that now his play would not be acted.

Tom said the young don't take art or politics seriously enough. Disappointed in the Auden- Ish(erwoo)d. He has his grandeur. He said that there are flaws in the new play that are congenital, inalterable. I suspect in the department of humour. He defined the different kinds of influence: a subtle, splitting mind: a man of simple integrity, & the artists ingenuous egotism. Dines out & goes to musical teas; reads poems at Londonderry house; has a humorous sardonic gift which mitigates his egotism; & is on the side of authority. A nice old friends evening.

Early in 1939 the Woolfs went to visit Sigmund Freud, who had left Vienna the previous summer after the Nazi takeover with the help of Princess Marie Bonaparte, and who had been living in London since the previous September. Also present at the meeting were Freud's daughter Anna, herself a leading psychoanalyst, and his son Martin, whose novel ''Parole d'Honneur'' was published later that year.

''Adrian'' was Virginia Woolf's brother Adrian Stephen, who was a psychoanalyst; among the friends she mentions, Dr. Marie Stopes was a pioneer advocate of birth control, and the Princesse de Polignac, nee Winaretta Singer, was a noted patron of the arts who had inherited an immense fortune from her father's sewing-machine patents.

Sunday 29 January
Yes, Barcelona has fallen: Hitler speaks tomorrow; the next dress rehearsal begins: I have seen Marie Stopes, Princesse de Polignac, Philip & Pippin, & Dr Freud in the last 3 days, also had Tom to dinner & to the Stephens' party.

Dr Freud gave me a narcissus. Was sitting in a great library with little statues at a large scrupulously tidy shiny table. We like patients on chairs. A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkeys light eyes, paralysed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert. On Hitler. Generation before the poison will be worked out. About his books. Fame? I was infamous rather than famous. didnt make $:50 by his first book. Difficult talk. An interview. Daughter & Martin helped. Immense potential, I mean an old fire now flickering. When we left he took up the stand What are you going to do? The English - war.

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