The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. V: 1936-1941 
edited by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie.
Chatto, 402 pp., £17.50, June 1984, 0 7012 0566 0
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Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood 
by Angelica Garnett.
Chatto, 181 pp., £9.95, August 1984, 0 7011 2821 6
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To read Virginia Woolf when young is, or was, to have the feeling of entering a new world, to realise with sudden ecstasy that this was true being, where words and consciousness and the solitary self melted into one. ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,’ wrote Wordsworth of his sister Dorothy. Virginia Woolf gave more than that: she gave, or seemed to give, the pure Private Life, quite separate from the contingent miseries, anxieties and rivalries of adolescence, a free-floating poetic awareness, an otherness wholly and excitingly up-to-date. Such at least was the experience of many young persons in the years following her death; and such still seems to be the experience of young readers who discover her today.

But there is something wrong, very wrong, somewhere: there is contradiction at the heart of it all. Her Diary shows what it is. For its appeal is quite different; to a different audience, a different expectation, a different sensibility. In very few writers does there seem such a gap between the sensibility projected by the art and the atmosphere generated by the personality. The style is the woman, because the woman needed the style, needed to make words for everything and to turn everything into words. All writers do that, and need to do it, and very often their readers who follow them do too. But Virginia Woolf’s relationship with words is particularly direct, like a child’s relation to things. It is this which captures the young and releases them into a whole consciousness of words, words they seem to be writing even as they read them. And yet the writing has nothing behind it – sometimes worse than nothing – and the Diary shows it. Superchild could also be a nasty child.

The paradox is certainly an odd one. Her art releases us, as it were, from school, and from all its banal miseries, anxieties and rivalries. But her Diary reveals that she was herself their source and embodiment. It appeals to just the kind of people and situations from which her art delivered us. She is revealed as the toady and confederate of such people, their semblable and anxious hanger-on, having no nature but the communal one of those on whom she sharpened her malice and whose good opinion she sought. Typical of the kind of school atmosphere Bloomsbury discloses that the two activities were really the same: its boys and girls proved their solidarity, their unified self-approval, by being nasty about each other.

There is, however, pathos in the wretched sense of all this which the Diary too reveals. Her awareness of her own lack of being, except in words, and at the same time her own utter determination to become one of the great ones of the school community and excel in its social and sporting activities – this is what caused Virginia Woolf to feel herself condemned ‘to dance like a cat on hot bricks till I die’. The feeling of depression the Diary arouses is not that of the spectacle of madness, which seems almost peripheral, and certainly not causative of its general atmosphere, but rather that of a sensibility in an impossible situation, unable to achieve any proper self-confidence of its own. It is the sensibility the first novel, The Voyage Out, turned triumphantly into art with the character of Rachel. But this Rachel does not die, as at the end of the novel. Losing that selfhood, she drags on interminably and unchangingly through all five volumes of the Diary.

There is the gossip; the unending need to impress, the unending contempt for those who fail to do so. Rachel Vinrace (significant name), the heroine with whom all we outsiders identify, turns out to have been Head Girl all along. She compiles secret reports, sees that standards are kept up, throws herself into all the school activities. Diffident, defeated, dead she might be in the novel, but the real Rachel Vinrace was determined to succeed in life. The Diary records how she did so, and how she revenged herself on any who doubted her abilities and status as a writer. Katherine Mansfield is both rival and despised friend, a member of the same set, almost alter ego. The compulsion of words united them, and Mansfield’s Journals, like Woolf’s Diary, are a way of practising that compulsion and keeping it in constant exercise. In some degree it is a matter of period and the idea of a feminine style: Gertrude Stein was also laying down words compulsively, and rearranging them like patience cards. More important, it is a matter of trying to make the words add up to somebody. Katherine Mansfield writes in her journal what Virginia Woolf’s Diary continually implies: ‘I must not forget that.’ She must not forget the way the hens looked, and how the rain soaked her thin shoes. A few days before her death Virginia Woolf recorded the haddock and sausage meat. ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’

And the reader also gains a hold. That is or should be the virtue of the business, as if the reader were helping – co-operating – in keeping the thing going, the writers existent. The reader is flattered to be participating, but he also gloats: his own share continues, whereas theirs is over. They have been abandoned by the words with which they gained a hold over the haddock and the sausage. The reader is of course also proud to be in at a death. He knows how all this word business is going to end, and the diarists who needed the words so much did not.

Readers will look in any case in the last volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diary for signs of disintegration and madness, the words spinning out of control. They will not find them. Words had always helped Virginia Woolf to keep a hold on the haddock and the sausage meat, and they continued to do so till the end. She uses them in her usual way on the sights of Brighton, in the month she died, March 1941, and then considers what for her was obviously a totally strange idea: introspection. What is the point of it? Her words are only there for her to see herself as she sees others.

Observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope. I insist on spending this time to the best advantage. I will go down with my colours flying. This I see verges on introspection, but doesn’t quite fall in. Suppose, I bought a ticket at the museum; biked in daily, and read history. Suppose I selected one dominant figure in every age and wrote round and about. Occupation is essential.

Occupation had always been her standby as it had been that of her father, Leslie Stephen. And words provided it. But if the words of the Diary prove one thing it is that, for a creative artist, they were no substitute for introspection. Turning back a volume or two we come to the dinner party in January 1930 with the Harrises. Bogey Harris was apparently quite a character. In her account, unerring as it clearly is, he ceases to be one, as do his womenfolk and the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, ‘an unimpressive man; eyes disappointing; rather heavy; middle-class; sunk; grumpy; self-important; wore a black waistcoat’.

They all called each other Van, Bogey, Ramsay, Eadie, across the table; engaged in governing England ... Bogey has the glazed stuffed look of the well fed bachelor. Is evidently one of those elderly comfortable men of taste and leisure who make a profession of society; a perfectly instinctive snob. Knows everyone; lunches with Lord Lascelles; has taken the measure of it all exactly; nothing to say; proficient; surly; adept; an unattractive type, with all his talk of Lords and Ladies, his belief in great houses; something of a gorged look, which connoisseurs have; as if he had always just swallowed a bargain.

This is much the same kind of person who is met with in The Years, the idea of which was beginning to form in her mind at the time. The novel shows little difference in method from the principle of observation in the Diary itself, and this may have been deliberate policy on her part. She would write as she observed, and in the first plan for The Years, to be called ‘The Pargiters’, she envisaged something ‘leading naturally on to the next stage, the essay-novel’. That is what all her novels are in some sense, even The Waves, and it was in the air from Gide’s synchronisations of the journal with the novel form. After doing a draft of ‘The Pargiters’ Virginia Woolf professed to find, as she put it, that the genius of fiction and of the essay were not compatible, and yet all her writing is essentially of the same kind, the kind suggested so well in her very touching entry on the last day of December 1932.

... why not simply become fluid in their lives, if my own is dim? And to use one’s hands & eyes; to talk to people; to be a straw on the river, now & then – passive, not striving to say this is this. If one does not lie back & sum up & say to the moment, this very moment, stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying? No: stay, this moment. No one ever says that enough. Always hurry. I am now going in, to see L. and say stay this moment.

Her going in to see Leonard, and murmur to him her version of the line from Faust, moves us more than the idea itself. Ever since the Romantics the notion of being a passive recorder, a chameleon, a Proteus of the fire and flood, a vessel of negative capability, had not ceased to beckon like a siren to the aspiring artist. As an ideal it seemed to have everything. Had not Coleridge and Keats seen it in Shakespeare, greatest of exemplars to the English creator in words? They had, and rightly, but a deep misconception nonetheless crept in. The new passivity, the new truth, had made an end of inventiveness. So it might be supposed, so in many sects it was supposed, although in practice a writer of talent went on using his unconscious powers of construction and transformation to create a new thing in art out of what had been experienced in life. The eternal moment might beckon seductively, but the novelist knew it was not his job, in this so seemingly effective direct sense, to record it.

Of course Virginia Woolf was continually being told, in her lifetime, that she could not ‘make things up’, and of course it irritated her. She hated what Forster called the novelist’s ‘faking’ and the death of Rachel in The Voyage Out can be seen as a protest against the way death is managed in fiction. Of the death of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove she wrote in her Diary that ‘There is a great flourishing of silk handkerchiefs & Milly disappears behind them.’ Yet she had no self-confidence, none of the lordly conviction of Henry James or James Joyce; she awaited both reviews and the comments of her friends in a perfect pathos of fear and trembling, and each new attempt at a book was wholly tentative and unsure. Her ideas were all in the form of an attack on existing fictional practice, and only an occasional comment in her Diary reveals her awareness of connection in her own method. ‘In truth the Pargiters is first cousin to Orlando, though the cousin in the flesh: Orlando taught me the trick of it.’ That is very revealing. Orlando may be a ‘fantasy’, but it is just as much a matter of observation – using one’s hands and eyes – as is the novel that was to become The Years. No true imaginative process has occurred. Virginia Woolf simply looked at Vita Sackville-West as she looked at Bogey Harris, however much the former may be dressed up in a style and a fancy. There is nothing to be done with Orlando, beyond seeing her in this way, just as there is nothing to be done with Bogey Harris beyond seeing him at the dinner-table.

Surprising, in view of this, that so perceptive an admirer as Stuart Hampshire should have remarked of the first volume of the Diary that it gave ‘an almost unequalled account of the imagination working’. Is not the impression of a different process, of writing and seeing as a substitute for imagining? Her imagination is enchanted into the paralysis of the eternal moment: there is no feel of its undergoing progression throughout the years of the Diary. The Romantics thought of Shakespeare as the passive creator with no personality of his own, and Keats aspired to the same state, but it would be hard to find two more graphic instances of imagination’s sheer powers of organisation and transformation than are afforded by the plays, the Odes. Going back again to Bogey Harris, what is effective about his presentation, but also very depressing, is the sense of accuracy without the mediation of the introspective mind. He is not created. No more than Bernard and Louis, and the characters in The Years and the rest of her novels, is Bogey Harris transformed into a work of art.

That is his point, she might reply: that is what I am aiming at. ‘Of course this is external,’ she says, as she meditates the Pargiters (‘pargiting’ or ‘pargetting’ is facing with cement the surface of a wall) – ‘But there’s a good deal of gold – more than I’d thought – in externality. Anyhow, what care I for my goose feather bed? I’m off to join the raggle taggle gipsies oh! The Gipsies, I say: not Hugh Walpole & Priestley – no.’ The names show what she was reacting against. It was against characters in books, which formed a convenient target and Aunt Sally, disguising the fact that what she really repudiated was the imaginative and introspective organisation which produced the character as a work of art. ‘If they didn’t feel a thing why did they go and pretend to?’ asks Rachel in The Voyage Out. Her attitude to life is her creator’s attitude to art. For the first time the Romantic doctrines of wise passiveness and negative capability were being pressed to their logical conclusion.

‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi,’ said Flaubert, and the obviousness of the point does not conceal its importance. In the same sense Shakespeare is Hamlet and Falstaff, Desdemona and Miranda; Dickens is Quilp and Mrs Gamp; Anthony Powell is Widmerpool; Henry James is Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond. The character as work of art has the closest possible relation with his creator’s projected being. He is an embodiment of all that is present in his author, but which his author – being the ordinary bundle of responses that sits down to breakfast – can never become. Between them stretches the mysterious factory in which knowledge, self-awareness, observation, humour, love of art, are all hard at work at their business of chemical processing. Virginia Woolf wants to pull down the factory, to operate face to face in the open air. Christopher Isherwood, in some ways her most affectionate and enthusiastic disciple, went through the motions of restating her formula at the outset of some of his own fictions. He is the passive recording camera. Of course nothing could be less true of the process which creates Mr Norris, Sally Bowles, Herr Issyvoo, Christopher himself. But the bow to her method shows both how much Virginia Woolf’s philosophy of creative writing had caught on, and how it was being quietly, probably even unconsciously, set aside in practice. Isherwood’s world is as essentially made up as that of any other good novelist, and it is of course for this reason that it gives the reader so much and such varied satisfaction. Art, thus cunningly made up, ‘makes life, makes interest, makes understanding’, in Henry James’s noble words, and, as he went on, ‘I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of the process.’ Art, in this sense, also makes truth. The truth of art is a question of harmony, and of the deeper kinds of wish-fulfilment which arise out of the artist’s deep and prolonged identification with the character and pattern of the work. Madame Bovary and her fate is Flaubert’s wish-fulfilment in this sense.

For Virginia Woolf wish-fulfilment was in words themselves, that protected her from herself and from society. She could make no harmonious pattern out of either and did not want to. Other diaries, like Isherwood’s again, combine the real and the invented in ways natural to art: the diarist is creating himself, even if unknowingly, in the same way that the novelist is creating his characters in the novel. But there is nothing of that in Virginia Woolf’s. In novels and Diary alike to set down the haddock and the sausage is for her the equivalent of what for other artists would be the metamorphosis of self into a larger social and artistic whole. It makes her and her Diary unique: it creates that world of words which fascinates us when we first read her: it makes that strange contradiction I noticed at the beginning between that world and her ignobly competitive, childishly unattractive self. It is a platitude that the artist is a feeble and dispersed creature in comparison with his creations, and yet the artist is present in his creations, shapes them, makes and remakes himself through them. With her there is nothing to be made – hence no point of contact between herself and the words she depended on. It is this gap which unwittingly fascinates us when young, because we can fill it up ourselves, being the ‘Virginia Woolf’ that she was not. No other writer is so wholly alienated from the works with which she apparently seems so completely identified.

There is a uniqueness here certainly, even a kind of genius, but not one of a kind normally associated with the processes of art. Many readers came to see this in their own way, and she knew they did and resented it. She dreaded the discovery that the Vestal of Bloomsbury, the High Priestess of the new aestheticism, might be seen to have no clothes, at least none of the clothes she had deliberately put on. Desmond MacCarthy’s thoughtful and friendly review of The Years, which ‘as usual depresses me beyond reason’, said she knew ‘nothing of the drama of the will in action out of which stories are made. What an extraordinary, what a fatal, limitation you would say, in a novelist! And yet (it is the mark of the artist to make his limitations also serve his end) she succeeds in being one.’ That is true enough: what is not true is the implicit counter-claim that she was inventing a new form. The form of The Waves is a sham: it is simply her Diary by other means. It is often said that the characters are all aspects of herself, but that is not true either, for she had no self in the sense that the novelist divides his potentiality of being among his dramatis personae. Like Mrs Dalloway or the Pargiters, the voices in The Waves talk about themselves as if they were observations in the Diarist’s world, and the poetry in italics is simply stuck on. The same is true of the figures of the Stephen parents, the Ambroses in The Voyage Out and Ramsays in To the Lighthouse. Many moments of malice and despair in the Diary suggest her awareness that she was not finding any substitute for the ‘force and beauty’ of the old artistic process.

Where fiction was concerned she once had a self – that of Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out, whose illness and death is the most memorable sequence in any of the novels. That self had to die, together with the uses that fiction could make of it, and it was not replaced. The private self, the wraith-like ‘Virginia Woolf’ that beguiles her readers, became the emptiness of the Diary. She was released from the father figures who tyrannise Rachel, but just as rigorously if more subtly controlled by the new kinds of social and aesthetic domination, and by such bogus concepts as Clive Bell’s ‘significant form’. As Diarist, she had an assiduous zest for social goings-on of any kind, and for the places where things were happening. But she had the snob’s fatal lack of independence, of the ability, essential to most good writers, to get on secretly with what they know to be best for them. Having killed the budding heroine of The Voyage Out, she reverted to an earlier and more amorphous condition, the dependence of childhood.

It might be objected that all this is beside the point, that the Diary is a wonderful repository of events and personalities. It is indeed beautifully edited, and the notes and ‘Biographical Outlines’ are as invaluable to students of the period as they are to amateurs of fashion and connection. The appeal is to a world from which the art once seemed to deliver us. That would not matter if it were not for what seems to me the gravest drawback of all. Everything seen and recorded becomes in the process boring, meaningless, uninteresting. That’s life, you might say, but where are we then? It is the function of art to make life delightful, to make eternally memorable and entertaining what in life was boring, transitory, confused, insipid, banal. Dickens and Thackeray and Proust, Scott Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bowen and Anthony Powell – they are all packed with lunches and dinners, balls and parties, which one would much rather not have been at, but which art has contrived to make glorious for us by proxy. Unfair to compare diaries with this? No, because diaries intended for publication (and there is no doubt hers was, as was everything she wrote) give us pleasure in vicarious experience channelled through the diarist’s personality.

The reason hers does not must again be linked with her lack of such a personality. Our pleasure in what a writer describes – ragged and contingent as it may have been at the time – is also our pleasure in getting to know the writer. And we may come to know him all the better if he seems unaware of the fact. In the Diary we get to know neither Virginia Woolf nor the people she meets. There is none of that reflexive concentration on making up a story, a story which shapes the writer for the reader in involuntary depth, and makes the writer the part of the tale which most gives it interest and meaning. Pepys does that, and Rousseau, and Chateaubriand, and Stendhal in La Vie de Henri Brulard, and Newman and Ruskin and Hardy – all the way down to Anthony Powell in his Memoirs and the just published diaries of Barbara Pym. Indeed this contribution to the state of the art by a humbler sister in the fiction business – and appearing posthumously in the same way – might well have aroused Virginia Woolf to envy and admiration.

Even when she was an undergraduate overwhelmed by shyness and silliness, longing to be noticed and loved, falling head over heels for handsome young men, Barbara Pym created herself in her diary; and in so doing creates the people about whom she was absorbed and passionate. They come as much alive in the diary as they were to do later in her novels. What does it is sex, and all it entails, the element absent in Virginia Woolf, though the two women have a remarkably similar view of maleness. ‘There is something maniacal in masculine vanity,’ says Virginia Woolf, noting the antics of Partridges, Stracheys etc (‘stupidity, blindness, callousness, struck me more powerfully than the magic virtues of passion’). But her own magical powers of seeing, and making us see, human creatures driven by their various devils, depend on her detachment. Where Barbara Pym is a willing victim of the emotions and needs she is afterwards so funny about, Virginia Woolf only sees that ‘the truth is people scarcely care for each other. They have this insane instinct for life. But they never become attached to anything outside themselves.’

Yes, the sense of living, which she can get by so vividly and incessantly recording it, is different from that ‘instinct for life’ which plunges the ego into unexamined situations of which it cannot escape the consequences. The Diary is like the business record of a miser, the ledger of a tycoon who, having taken over everything he can, at last plunges to his death from a window on the fiftieth floor. Writing, talking, meeting, the aesthetic life, are a frenetic business activity, devouring every moment of the day. Would Virginia Woolf have been surprised to be told that she had no more time than has a very busy businessman for the life of culture and the mind? Much in the texture of her diary embodies the frenetic routines of the high-powered entrepreneur, the obsessional lunches and dinners and committees, the balance sheets and the being seen at the best places. It would have tickled her sense of humour, no doubt, to have realised that she led about as spiritual a life as a soap manufacturer, that she was no Margaret Schlegel but a Wilcox of Wilcoxes.

There is something unnerving about the way the masterful goes with the helpless, the career woman with the child. This in itself may not be uncommon – a part of human nature: but here it is displayed with the honesty which is a technical aspect of her diary method, an honesty both willed and involuntary. She distrusted Forster but he was intimate as a ‘schoolfellow’, who was not to be shown her Wilcox side; and she enjoyed the way her husband Leonard put them both right, told them what to think about modern politics and the current situation. One of the results of not making up a story about herself is that she does not value her own shrewdness, kindness, humour. They are as inconsequential as her sense of others. None of her views or attitudes, like those on the feminist question, strike one as things which she feels she should feel, responses she owes to herself. Bloomsbury has bequeathed us a special type of bien pensant, but she was certainly not one, and when she tries to be, as in Three Guineas (which Forster, who hated female independence, disliked so much), the tone goes wrong.

This may be because she was really what her friend Desmond MacCarthy used to call a ‘leprechaun’, a being without a sense of moral order, without the endowment to accept or cultivate a responsible social and moral stance. Insatiably sociable as she was, she remained on the outside of the social structure. In contrast with her own, one is struck by the sheer pomposity of other diaries and memoirs of the period, their involuntary tone – as paramount in André Gide as in, say, Harold Nicolson – of helping to run the world, of being confident that one counted in its councils. A leprechaun is an honest being because it lacks the norms and instincts by which honesty is judged and valued, attributed or found wanting. Unlike Dr Johnson’s butcher, Virginia would not have been free of any uneasy sensation if she said or wrote that her heart bled for her country. Uneasy sensations were coincident with dancing on hot bricks and putting the dance into words. There is no contrast in her between an inner life of more or less comfortable egoism, and an outer one of proper utterance and action.

That contrast has been, in general, of immense importance to literature. It is both the principle of incongruity and the basis of storytelling. We make up stories as we make up virtues, conventions, personalities; the goal of art is to give us a deliberate and fascinated consciousness of the artistry in the process. But no more than de Sade could Virginia Woolf ‘imagine virtues for herself’, or imagine a story about herself. Her reputation and that of her Diary – both seem to be ever on the increase – is not entirely due to the academic industry, or to social interest in her world and circle. Her consciousness as a writer still seems exceptionally modern today because of the way she emancipated fiction from its own arts, from the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which was taken as much for granted by readers of Proust and Henry James – of Ulysses too – as by the reader of popular romance. The novelist for whom ‘art makes life, makes interest, makes importance’ is bound to invent a great deal more than he knows, to take the merest crumb or clue of appearance in order to build up, round off and complete a situation, story, character. In her Diary as in her books, Virginia Woolf stuck resolutely to appearances, trying to make words themselves make up for the shortcomings of appearance, its scrappiness and lack of meaning, comprehending no more than she can see and note down – Violet Tree and her sudden death, the women at Brighton, the rash on Leonard’s back which he thought might be to do with his prostate but which the doctor said was caused by new pyjamas, Clive Bell glimpsed for a second at his dining-room window as they leave his house after a lunch-party.

‘One life, one writing,’ as Robert Lowell was to say. Words must be as inconsequential as talk, which she could not have enough of, and yet as imperishable as stones. The anxiety present on every page is: would the paradox succeed? The reputation of Tom and Morgan is higher than her own? Brief despair – will she always be an outsider? Certainly Eliot and Forster had inner and outer selves, a persona which pretended, and an inner art which made life, made interest. And in October 1938 she is lamenting the fact that Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise has called her one of the ‘Mandarins’. Absurdly wide of the mark this now seems, for her vision and method as a writer have proved to be wholly and pervasively democratic. Her ghost is behind TV features, tapes and discussions; her influence instantly recognisable in the impressions of themselves and their situation which beginners send to publishers. Every sort of instant literary art, even the bed descriptions she would so much have disliked, can still call her their inspiration and patron.

And her appeal is still to the young. She still gives them eyes and ears, and enhanced awareness of what Wordsworth in another poem calls ‘the pleasure that there is in life itself’. Even her hesitations reassure them. (‘Have I the power of conveying the true reality? Or do I write essays about myself?’) The immediacy in every phrase still shoots at us – the ding dong of the Rodmell church bells outside the window, coming between her and the words as she writes, and so clambering into the words; the German planes passing overhead and their sound of sawing as she and Leonard lay flat on the grass.

It is significant that she had a secret bond of understanding with Hugh Walpole, whom she patronised in public as everyone else did. And he understood her. She carefully copied out an affectionate letter from him which claimed they were opposite ends of the same stick. He too was a child – ‘half of me is very mature, half has never grown up at all’ – but the ordinary kind who told himself endless stories, while she had a quite different though related genius, a superchild indeed, as he seemed humbly to recognise. In terms of art they had a curious sibling bond – hers sexless, his homosexual – and the same zest for life, always haunted by the fear of losing it – not life, that is, but the zest for it. Although zest is as great as ever, the fear is strong in the last volume of the Diary, as she feels her friends may be losing their appetite for life, and thus for herself and her books. Even Clive Bell. ‘Poor old Clive even, a little on the bare wheels; no blown up tyres. That is to me very ominous – if Clive’s spirits should give way – if he were to give up his enjoyment of life.’ Other friends have a similarly ‘damping’ effect, especially if they express any reservations about what she is writing, if they beat her at bowls, or speak well of other writers.

We are all young some of the time, and she grips us the most when we most feel young, when we are least at home in ourselves and most vulnerable. She enjoyed her sister Vanessa’s resentment of her success, and was fascinated by her niece Angelica, a fascination in which she seems the child and the child the adult. Angelica’s elopement with David Garnett deeply upset her. Angelica Garnett’s book about her childhood, Deceived with Kindness, shows a quite exceptional understanding of the whole environment. Tolerantly and without malice she analyses the ways in which Bloomsbury licensed and indulged the grossest egoisms as if they were the finest flower of civilised and rational behaviour. Of these she was herself the victim.

For her aunt Virginia ‘seeing’ was itself a form of egoism – the pure child’s-eye view – which she contrasts in her Diary with what she calls ‘fiction’. ‘Seeing’ is life, and the awareness of one’s own life is ‘fiction’, a dichotomy more openly dwelt on in the final entries.

On Saturday I ‘saw’; by which I mean the sudden state when something moves one. Saw a man lying on the grass in Hyde Park; newspapers spread round him to keep off the damp. Ought one only to write about what one ‘sees’ in this way? These sights always remain.

Mrs Dalloway ‘sees’ when during her party she looks across into the lighted window of another house, where an old woman is going to bed. Virginia Woolf connects such moments with memories of her mother. This is how to write and it excites her to think of the flattering request by Christopher Isherwood and John Lehmann for a short story for New Writing. But a day or two earlier she had feelings she described as ‘fiction’, when she had a sudden urge to go to Paris and Leonard said he would rather not. ‘I was overcome with happiness ... after twenty-five years can’t bear to be separate ... you see it is an enormous pleasure, being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.’

Then she ‘returns to facts (tho’ this “fiction” is radiant still under my skin)’. One sees why she regarded settled self-satisfactions – always criticised in others – as ‘fiction’, and her ‘seeing’ as life: her own life in writing as such ‘seeings’. The contrast is used in the form of Between the Acts and might have been explored further in later novels. Always immanent in what she wrote, it became more marked with the passing of time, with her worldly and literary success and the solidity of her marriage. Had she lived she might have grown up in her last years and moved us in the more considered ways that older writers do. There is plenty of evidence for this in the last volume of her Diary, even in such a throwaway entry as during that terrible pause in the spring of 1940 before the war got going. ‘Not a sound this evening to bring in the human tears. I remember the sudden profuse shower one night just before the war wh. made me think of all men & women weeping.’ Even that darting birdlike gaze comes to rest in the end on old clichés – sad ones or happy. Like some lady in a Victorian novel or sentimental melodrama she would say to Leonard, ‘Do you ever think me beautiful now?’ in order to hear him say: ‘The most beautiful of women.’

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Vol. 6 No. 17 · 20 September 1984

SIR: In January 1918 Virginia Woolf writes in her Diary (LRB, 6 September) of a small book of verse published by Clive Bell: ‘very pretty and light … He can do his little owl very efficiently.’ The context suggests that this mysterious expression means something like ‘he can perform adequately some not very impressive task.’ Again, in September 1934, of a party at Charleston: ‘They acted: I did my poor old frenzied owl.’ Here the suggestion is that to do one’s owl is to do something not very impressive that is characteristic of one’s self. When Ethel Smyth comes to tea in August 1934 Virginia Woolf reports that she ‘did her owl – who is a red-wattled turkey cock – very vigorously’. The locution seems to have been understood and employed by Mrs Woolf’s friends. So Duncan Grant in February 1932 is reported as saying of Gerald Heard: ‘No, it’s not that he prevents me from doing my little owl.’

The Diary’s admirable editor, who tells us everything else that we want to know, perhaps had not space to comment on the little owl. It seems a useful expression and one that might be revived, if thoroughly understood. I had been haunted for months by the sense that I had once been familiar with the anecdote from which it springs. Memory suggested that it was to be found in some well-known collection of letters: letters, I seemed to remember, of a man, and with some 18th-century atmosphere lingering about it. In a quest for the little owl I turned again to the letters of Cowper, of Gray; and began on Horace Walpole. In vain. Then, thinking that memory might have misled me about the writer’s sex, I went through again the delightful letters of Emily Eden, published by the Hogarth Press and edited by Virginia Woolf’s friend, Violet Dickinson. By this time I was wondering if what did its little owl was perhaps a dog; and I was planning an exploration of Horace Walpole’s pets, Ton-ton and so on, when I was diverted, with no owl in view, to the letters of Edward FitzGerald. And there, in a famous letter, in print since 1895, I found the anecdote that explains all. Writing to Fanny Kemble in April 1879, FitzGerald says that he has finished his self-imposed task of abridging Crabbe’s Tales of the Hall and that once they are printed,

I shall have done my little owl. Do you know what that means? No. Well then: my Grandfather had several Parrots of different sorts and Talents: one of them (‘Billy’, I think) could only huff up his feathers, in what my Grandfather called an owl fashion; so when Company were praising the more gifted Parrots he would say – ‘You will hurt poor Billy’s feelings – Come! Do your little owl, my dear!’ – You are to imagine a handsome hair-powdered Gentleman doing this – and his Daughter – my Mother – telling it.

And so it is I do my little owl.

The delicate consideration shown for the imagined feelings of a pet by the 18th-century John FitzGerald reminds one of Boswell’s story of Dr Johnson and his cat Hodge. ‘ “I have had cats whom I have liked better than this"; and then, as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding: “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed." ’

E.E. Duncan-Jones

Vol. 6 No. 18 · 4 October 1984

SIR: Bit by bit, John Bayley pins down Virginia Woolf (LRB, 6 September). What he has caught is the anorectic personality. ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’ Non-anorectics use their teeth. But Anorexia Nervosa is not a failing in a writer – some of the greatest have suffered from it. Self-deception is.

J. Hevesi

Vol. 6 No. 19 · 18 October 1984

SIR: As one who admires and respects John Bayley, I was sorry to read his review of Virginia Woolf’s Diary (LRB, 6 September). The qualities of good sense, even temper, perceptiveness, charity which normally distinguish his work were markedly absent from this piece. Professor Bayley opens by pointing to the gap between the art and personality of Virginia Woolf, a phenomenon which might have been expected to appeal to an admirer of T.S. Eliot. Yet he proceeds to empty and trivialise the art by reading it entirely through the personality; for him the novels are essentially ‘her Diary by other means’, and that Diary reveals a pretty nasty piece of work ‘having no nature but the communal one of those on whom she sharpened her malice’. No nature? To be distracted by the glare of her biography, to swallow Woolf completely in Bloomsbury is a common failing, but it is dismaying that so uncommon a man as Bayley should make it. His pervasive suggestion that the Diary consists of nothing but accounts of social climbing, Bloomsbury petting and scratching, the feckless recordings of the ‘Head Girl’ is alarmingly partial, taking a part for the whole in a way which is thoroughly, not to say perversely, misleading. ‘Would Virginia Woolf have been surprised to be told that she had no more time than has a very busy businessman for the life of culture and the mind?’ he asks rhetorically. Well, yes, she would, given her pleasure in music, her delight in long walks on the Downs ‘making up the scenes’ of her novels, or her passionate devotion to reading – activities which play a great part in the life recorded in her Diary, though not the bits Bayley notices.

But there is something wrong, very wrong somewhere. Bayley’s caricature of Virginia Woolf is based on a carefully selective reading which ignores that opposite pull, the need for solitude and ‘silence’ which is forcefully expressed throughout the Diary and which is the mainspring of her art. After the ‘very animated summer’ of 1928, for example, she wrote that ‘often down here’ – at Rodmell – ‘I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat … and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality" … this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek.’ This was the entry W.H. Auden characteristically and shrewdly noticed in his review of Virginia Woolf’s Diary, since it identifies just that element of withdrawal, of retreat from the noise and glitter of party-going to explore darker, more hidden mysteries of identity which he recognised as essential to her life as a writer. Most readers of her Diary will, like Auden, see this current as too deep and forecful to be ignored. By ignoring it Professor Bayley is able to slight her work more easily, but in the process he misses most of what is significant and valuable in her art.

In particular, he misses the most interesting thing about the Diary – namely, the tension it reveals between these two sides of Virginia Woolf. Though occasionally he brushes over Woolf’s anxiety about her role in Bloomsbury, Bayley never deepens his attention to consider this as the central and engaging conflict which it is. That conflict between the active, restless, social self which emerged in Bloomsbury and the submerged and silent portion of ‘reality’ does much to define the ‘personality’ Professor Bayley claims she does not have, just as it shapes the art he says she does not possess. One can see this in Mrs Dalloway’s climactic withdrawal from the ‘corruption, lies, chatter’ of her party into the ‘darkened room’ alone, where she meditates on the obscure war veteran’s death; or again in the alternate attraction and repulsion Mrs Ramsay feels for the assembled guests at her dinner. Indeed one of the most striking instances of this tension is that strange part of her career which draws most of Bayley’s attention – that long period in the Thirties culminating in The Years (in its first version, ‘The Pargiters’). It is true that during this period Woolf concentrated on ‘externals’ as part of a ‘deliberate policy’, caught up with the idea of observation and a passive recording of events. However, Professor Bayley skates fast over some pretty thin ice when he vaguely declares that ‘all her novels are in some sense’ like this. In what sense? The fact is that the method she explored in the Thirties was a deliberate reaction to the stance and standard of her previous works, with their expressive and introspective aesthetic. She was determinedly writing against the grain at this time, which is why The Years took her so long to produce, why it brought her so close to collapse and, above all, why, in marked contrast to her earlier novels, there is no penetration to the consciousness of her characters.

All the sensitivity and attention which customarily enliven Professor Bayley’s writing have been switched off in the case of Virginia Woolf. Perhaps this is a generational matter as his review insists: perhaps, that is, to have been young and moved by Woolf around the time of her death bars one from a just appreciation now, at a time when, for mostly factitious reasons, she has become a cult.

Eric Warner
Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Vol. 6 No. 21 · 15 November 1984

SIR Both Eric Warner (Letters, 18 October) and John Bayley (LRB, 6 September) miss the essential point about Virginia Woolf: her manic-depressive illness. This explains the division between her hyperactivity and ‘that opposite pull, the need for solitude and “silence" ’, which, never being integrated in her personality, in turn accounts for the failure of her fiction to link mind and heart. She is either retreating into self or manically trying to escape from it, never therefore discovering it, never therefore acquiring the self-understanding that is a prerequisite for development as an artist. She is always a brilliant adolescent, letting off fireworks in the Diary, then brooding about the surrounding smoke in the novels. She is the heroine of the perpetual adolescent. Is it any wonder she has ‘become a cult’ in our time?

J.V. Stevenson
London SE17

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