26 January 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf's diary

Virginia Woolf, 1939
It was Virginia Woolf's birthday yesterday - she was born in 1882.

She kept a journal from 1915 until she died (in 1941). I'm not reading the whole thing (there are volumes and volumes), I'm reading a selection that focuses on what she wrote in her diary related to writing. I do love reading writers' diaries and journals, but there's always a somewhat uncomfortable feeling when you're reading someone else's private writing.

In some of the early pages she wonders what future Virginia will make of these pages when she reads of them - she hadn't imagined another audience for her diary except herself. I had to keep reminding myself of that sometimes when reading - when she says something really snobbish or nasty or vain - it's not really fair to judge someone harshly on the things they write only for themselves (God knows I would hate for people to read my private thoughts! I have left instructions for my journals to be burned unread so no one knows how shallow I really am...), but nevertheless it's hard not to.

I had previously read some of the bitchy things she's said about Katherine Mansfield (as well as some of the admiring things), so I was compared. I did have to put the book down for a bit when I read her thoughts about Don Quixote:
writing was then storytelling to amuse people sitting around the fire without any of our desires for pleasure. There they sit, women spinning, men contemplative, and the jolly fanciful delightful tale is told to them, as to grown up children ... So far as I can judge, the beauty and thought come in unawares: Cervantes scarely concious of serious meaning ... Indeed, that's my difficulty - the sadness, the satire, how far are they ours, not intended.
I have to confess that I haven't actually read Don Quixote (yet), and I know that the time and situation you live in will of course alter how you read a book, but to imply that a book was accidentally good or satirical, and that those childish people in the past couldn't possibly understand or feel quite to anything like the same level as Victorians was pretty infuriating.

Moments like that aside, it's a fabulous book, giving an insight into this particular writer's mind and processes, and her conflicted feelings about wanting her work to be popular, and not caring if it isn't. There are lots of wonderful quotes, like this one more about how she felt about Jacob's Room, her third novel:
There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.
Several years in - by 1926 - she was considering that there could be another audience for her diaries:
But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo [Leonard - her husband] make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little.

Finally, here's a thing that has been floating around the internet lately, the only surviving recording of her speaking:

No comments: