Book review: ‘The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1’

‘The Diary of Virginia Woolf volume 1’

I read this first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries many years ago, but never got round to collecting the full set, which has been out of print for some time. Fortunately, all five volumes have now been reissued by Granta, so I decided to start again from the beginning.

Virginia Woolf was a natural diarist, although it took her a time to get going. She herself points out that the diary entries in the second half of what was to become this first volume are more entertaining than the first. But, once she finds her voice in the diary, she seems to unload on to the page. Here’s how Woolf assessed her diary:

it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct & instant shots at my object, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.

This first volume takes us from 1915 to 1919, involving, among many other things, wartime air-raids, suffragettes, trouble finding replacement servants, walks in the countryside, working on book reviews, visits to the music hall, political meetings, purchases of country homes, the typesetting and printing of pages for the Hogarth Press, and lots and lots of opinion and gossip.

Being famously part of an extended ‘set’, Woolf knew an awful lot of people, so her diary contains a bewildering cast of characters. Here lies my only real complaint about this book: its editor, the late Virginia Nicholson, did a wonderful job researching, compiling, and annotating Woolf’s diary entries, and explaining who each character is the first time they’re encountered; but there’s no way of looking up the nicknames and initials Woolf uses in her diary entries. It’s easy to guess sometimes, but not others, especially when the people concerned haven’t been mentioned for some time. Some sort of glossary of nicknames and initials would have been extremely useful.

I enjoyed this first volume of Woolf’s diaries very much indeed, and look forward to working my way through the rest.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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