Usually, when I read an author from start to finish, I try to avoid biography. It isn’t that I believe biography doesn’t or couldn’t inform my study of their work, but I prefer to take the work on its own terms first. I chose not to do this, however, with my Virginia Woolf read, mainly because her journals are so detailed, and really, they are as significant a contribution to her oeuvre as her fiction writing. (I have not taken on her essays or letters… yet. I’m tempted to integrate them now, especially as she consistently references both her reading and her critical writing.)
I’ve just finished Volume One of her diaries, which covers 1915 to 1919. What strikes me first and foremost about her diary writing is how different it is, on the whole, from her fiction. She has a very sharp and perceptive mind, that is evident in both, but she must have worked extremely hard to maintain her particular style in fiction. All writers have a “style,” of course, but Woolf was experimenting and so she breaks with traditional narrative structures and chronologies, even rhythms of language and thought. And then when you read her diary and see how concise it is, how succinct and detail-oriented her personal narration was—and I can only assume that personal narration is a writer’s most natural and instinctive voice—it only serves to highlight the affect of her fiction style.
The other thing I find interesting is that before reading her diaries, I might have been inclined to put her in the mad-genius category. This is a category of artist I am wary of because I do not believe that genius requires madness. To be fair, it is also a stereotype that is often imposed upon an artist by others and while some might enjoy the label there are those who fight it. I admit that I was curious to see how Woolf negotiated this tension, or whether it was even an issue for her in her lifetime. So it is curious to me that there is very little self-reflection upon her depressive tendencies, at least in these early diaries, even after the long depression she suffered between 1915 and 1917, during which she could not write at all. The first few months of entries written after this illness are markedly different from her usual journaling style, but she does not comment on the lapse herself except obliquely, and only on a few rare occasions.
I don’t know how frequently Woolf lost herself completely to depression—perhaps it began to happen more often or maybe she writes more about it as she grew older. I’ll be curious to see how the subject evolves throughout her diaries. I know about, but haven’t yet read her essay “On Being Ill” and I suspect she concentrates her thoughts here (another reason to order her complete essays!)
Going back to where I started, I’m happy to find that reading her diaries doesn’t interfere in any way with the experience of reading her fiction. It is easy to maintain a line between the two forms, and there is just so much to admire in her diaries – character portraits, anecdotes, thoughts on writing, exquisite descriptions of nature.
I do wonder about one thing, however, and maybe some of you know: do Woolf scholars believe that Woolf wrote her diaries knowing they would be public some day? How personal are they?