A Consciousness Of Reality - Virginia Woolf

It is, probably, already too late to hope that someone will write a definitive history of Bloomsbury, that fascinating cultural milieu which formed itself around 1910, exercised its greatest influence during the twenties, and came to an end with the death of Virginia Woolf. There is an excellent account of the intellectual influences from which it was born in a posthumous essay by Maynard Keynes; for its later history we shall have to rely upon the memoirs of David Garnett, which are now appearing in England, and the journals of Virginia Woolf, of which “A Writer’s Diary” (Harcourt, Brace) is, we hope, only the first installment.

Bloomsbury was not a “school” in any literary sense—there is no common Bloomsbury style or subject—nor was it centered on any one salon, like the Holland House set of the nineteenth century, or the Garsington set, to which many of its members also belonged. It included novelists, critics, painters, college dons but, curiously, no important poet (if one counts Virginia Woolf as a novelist) or composer. Nearly all its members had been to Cambridge and came from distinguished upper-middle-class families; i.e., without being aristocrats or large landowners, they were accustomed to efficient servants, first-rate meals, good silver and linen, and weekends in country houses. In rebellion against the rhetoric and conventional responses of their Victorian parents, hating dogma, ritual, and hypocritical expressions of unreal feelings, they, nevertheless, inherited from the Victorians a self-discipline and fastidiousness that made bohemian disorder impossible. “I have,” writes Virginia Woolf—and most of them could have written the same—“an internal, automatic scale of values; which decides what I had better do with my time. It dictates ‘This half hour must be spent on Russian,’ ‘This must be given to Wordsworth.’ Or ‘Now I’d better darn my brown stockings,’ ” and it is characteristic that the word she should find to express her critical reservations about “Ulysses” is “underbred.” Politically a little to the left of center, they all shared a deep distrust of Parties and the State, believing passionately in the supreme importance of personal relations: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” wrote E. M. Forster, and during the spring of 1940, when invasion seemed imminent, Virginia Woolf refused to be distracted from writing her life of Roger Fry: “It’s the vastness, and the smallness, that makes this possible. So intense are my feelings (about Roger); yet the circumference (the war) seems to make a hoop round them. No, I can’t get the odd incongruity of feeling intensely and at the same time knowing that there’s no importance in that feeling. Or is there, as I sometimes think, more importance than ever?”

It was, I feel, a very happy idea to confine the selections from her diary to her reflections on her own career as a writer. Henry James in his notebooks, letters, and prefaces may have said more interesting things about literary technique, but I have never read any book that conveyed more truthfully what a writer’s life is like, what are its worries, its rewards, its day-by-day routine. Some readers, apparently, have been shocked to find how anxious and sensitive Virginia Woolf was about reviews, and how easily commendation of others could make her envious, but most writers, if they are honest, will recognize themselves in such remarks as “No creative writer can swallow another contemporary. The reception of living work is too coarse and partial if you’re doing the same thing yourself. . . . When Desmond praises ‘East Coker,’ and I am jealous, I walk over the marsh saying, I am I,” and even in her reflection on her father’s death: “Father . . . would have been 96 . . . and could have been 96, like other people one has known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine.”

Some of us keep up an air of stoic indifference to reviews, some avoid distress by refusing to read them, but we all care, and for good reasons. Every writer who is original is often doubtful about the value of a work; praise from a critic whom he respects is a treasured reassurance, silence or blame a confirmation of his worst fears: “So I’m found out and that odious rice pudding of a book is what I thought it—a dank failure.” Then there are those critics who have made up their minds, for reasons of jealousy or fashion, about his work before they have read it, and the readers of those critics—rival contemporaries or the ambitious young—who are glad to hear that his work is bad: “I dislike the thought of being laughed at: of the glow of satisfaction that A., B., and C. will get from hearing V. W. demolished.” In Virginia Woolf’s case, the fact that she was a woman was a further aggravation. She belonged to a generation in which a woman had still to fight to be taken seriously as a writer. For her, therefore, good notices and brisk sales meant financial independence and masculine admission of her sex as a literary equal; when she writes, “I’m out to make £300 this summer by writing and build a bath and hot-water range at Rodmell,” she is thinking of the satisfaction it will give her, as a wife, to contribute substantially to the family budget.

Sensitive as she was to attacks, she was never too vain to deny any truth there might be in even the most prejudiced: “The thing to do is to note the pith of what is said—that I don’t think—then to use the little kick of energy which opposition supplies to be more vigorously oneself. . . . To investigate candidly the charge; but not fussily, not very anxiously. On no account to retaliate by going to the other extreme—thinking too much.

These selections from Virginia Woolf’s diary begin in the last year of World War I, when, in spite of it, England still seemed to be pretty much the same country it had been before 1914, and end, a few days before her death, in the darkest days of World War II, when her London house had been destroyed by bombs and the future of England was problematic: “A kind of growl behind the cuckoos and t’other birds. A furnace behind the sky. It struck me that one curious feeling is, that the writing ‘I’ has vanished. No audience. No echo. . . . We live without a future. That’s what’s queer: with our noses pressed to a closed door.”

At the beginning, her literary reputation is just established—“I get treated at great length and solemnity by old gentlemen.” During the twenties, she is universally admired; then, in the thirties, the wiggings start—she is bourgeois, oversensitive, out of date, and so on—and then she dies before she could become (what may well be the most painful fate of all) a sacred cow of whom everyone speaks in tones of hushed and bored reverence, but not before she has finished “Between the Acts,” which, in my opinion, is her masterpiece.

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