Woolf's 1915 Diary

I’ve started reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary. I am struck by and thankful for her ordinary-ness. She records all the necessary boring bits about life. That is rather refreshing. Of course, she does wind her way to lovely reflections like this:

I know that with the first chink of light in the hall and chatter of voices I should become intoxicated and determine that life held nothing comparable to a party. I should see beautiful people and get a sensation of being on the highest crest of the biggest wave – right in the centre and swim of things.

Or this:

There is a foreign look about a town which stands up against the sunset, and is approached by a much trodden footpath across a field.

The first quote reminds me of her writing, the energy of it. And I suspect as she wrote the sentence, she was no longer writing in her diary. It just has a different feel than her other jottings. And the second is simple, but it strikes me as a fine example of her skill for unique observation.

I tried to read Sylvia Plath’s diary once, (at least I think it was Sylvia Plath…I may be wrong, but this was over ten years ago) and was instantly put off because it read like a novel. It was so perfectly shaped and “written”, with long passages of dialogue and actual scenes. It didn’t feel like a diary at all.

But Woolf’s diary is exactly that. A record for each day of what she did, who she saw, her thoughts and little snippets of conversations. It isn’t at all intimidating. It’s wonderful such a record of her life exists.

I’ve just come across the only mention (in her 1915 diary) of her first novel The Voyage Out. She writes:

We talked about my novel (which everyone, so I predict, will assure me is the most brilliant thing they’ve ever read, and privately condemn, as indeed it deserves to be condemned.

I am very curious if she ever mentions this novel again in any of her later diaries. Why so severe on herself? A considerable amount of time had passed since the novel was accepted for publication and then actually saw publication…is that what made her think it was bad? Or was she always this severe with all of her writing? And did she really mean it?

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

8 thoughts on “Woolf's 1915 Diary”

  1. I think a lot of people are far more critical of their own work – whether art, books, photos, computer programs, or Japanese calligraphy – than others. Perhaps she was one of those people.

  2. I think that kind of intense self-criticism is probably typical of people prone to severe depression, whether the depression is neurological or a result of earlier traumatic experiences.

  3. Lilian’s post helped me understand – and fear – myself a little better. Now I’m curious: if I stop being critical of my calligraphy works will my depression disappear? Or perhaps I have the chicken and the egg out of order here. 🙂

  4. Woolf certainly did have a harsh inner critic – that was partly what made her work so brilliant. But I think the question of harsh inner critics in general is whether those sentiments are tied to our self-esteem and our survival instinct. If we are brought up feeling we have to be brilliant or else we will be worthless and people will despise us and we will no longer be assured a spot on the planet, then there’s always a potential problem with depression. Alas, children in schools nowadays are brought up to think they HAVE to succeed and I do worry about what that will do to them further down the line. But it’s possible to be critical of one’s own work and enjoy good mental health.

  5. Bikkuri – Your calligraphy is beautiful, I’ve loved all the samples you’ve posted for us! Having a tough inner critic is a rough business, even if it does often encourage one to do their very best.

    Stefanie – I suspected as much. It would have surprised me, knowing what I do know about her, if she all of a sudden turned around and started proclaiming her own genius. But I do wonder whether she felt she HAD to talk herself down, because of her past. Or did she genuinely always consider her work no good. I’ll learn more as I read more through her diaries.

    Lilian – Yes, probably, I think you are right. But I do think Litlove has a point, that someone in good mental health can be just as critical of their work. Perhaps that person is able to see both its merits and its flaws, even if he/she focuses on the flaws.

    Litlove – You make a good point and I agree with you. I think it’s important to be able to judge one’s own work, and harshly if necessary, but that should go in the other direction, to be able to pick out where something has succeeded and triumph in that, however small it is. I hope Woolf was able to do this on some level, even if she was never able to openly admit it. She writes about the pure pleasure of writing, and that she doesn’t care what other people think. Hopefully she was able to revel in that feeling from time to time, before the inner critic ruined it all.

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