Trained to silence
- The Sickle Side of the Moon: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1932-1935 edited by Nigel Nicolson
Hogarth, 476 pp, £12.50, September 1979, ISBN 0 7012 0469 9
- Leave the Letters till we’re dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. VI, 1936-41 edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman
Hogarth, 556 pp, £15.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 7012 0470 2
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. III: 1925-1930 edited by Anne Olivier Bell
Hogarth, 384 pp, £10.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 7012 0466 4
- Virginia Woolf by Michael Rosenthal
Routledge, 270 pp, £7.95, September 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0189 4
- Virginia Woolf’s Major Novels: The Fables of Anon by Maria DiBattista
Yale, 252 pp, £11.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 300 02402 9
Having read some of Henry Brewster’s letters to Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel that she found them ‘very witty, easy, well written, full of sparks and faces and shrewdness’, though she admitted that she got ‘a little tired of the lunches and dinners and Pasolinis and Contessa this and that’. Most important, however, the letters lacked intimacy. ‘I want more – now what is it? – just saying things as they come into one’s head. I cant catch him off his guard. But thats, it may be, because he writes so well.’
Reading Virginia Woolf’s own letters from the period 1932-35 gives much the same impression. It is as if the very freedom and fluency with which she writes allow her to evade intimacy, to protect herself from deeper and more open communication. Perhaps, even in conversation with her friends, she did not allow herself to be caught off her guard. It is difficult to imagine, on the basis of these letters, just what she actually talked about or her tone and manner of talking on the many different social occasions that are recorded here. She sometimes notes what other people said, but somehow gives the impression that she was herself present only as an observer. One guesses that she was both self-effacing and voluble, throwing up verbal screens to protect herself from exposure. In the new volume of her diary we can read about a holiday in Cassis where she and Leonard had stayed at a hotel with several other English people. The hotel exhibited ‘such odd relationships: as if human nature were now reduced to a kind of code, which it has devised to meet these emergencies, where people who do not know each other meet, and claim their rights as members of the same tribe. As a matter of fact, we got into touch all round; but our depths were not invaded.’ It was, she says, a time of perfect happiness.
In her letters she seems to devise for each correspondent a particular code that allows her to write safely fast. To Ottoline Morrell she wrote:
Do you think people ... do write letters to be published? I’m as vain as a cockatoo myself; but I dont think I do that. Because when one is writing a letter, the whole point is to rush ahead; and anything may come out of the spout of the tea pot. Now, if I thought, Ottoline will put this letter in a box, I should at once apply the tip of my finger to the end of the spout.
But the metaphor is a misleading one. If, in her letters, the words flow freely, this is because they are a very shallow stream. They chatter, flatter and flirt, politely inform or courteously withhold. But they rarely contemplate or analyse. There are far fewer letters here which directly and openly communicate at any deep level than there are in previous volumes. She is now rarely caught off her guard.
Her letters often suggest that she is playing parts. They are revealing in that they tell us which parts she chose to play. With Vita Sackville-West she played a rather childish game, simulating intimacy by adopting animal personae. ‘Well, my faithless sheep dog’ and ‘Yes, my clever colly,’ she wrote. She had earlier enjoyed playing the lover with Vita, and had come as close with her as with anyone to acting like her namesake in The Waves by living through her body (‘Jinny, honest, an animal’). But the only way she had of coping with the part of Jinny was to domesticate the animal, to dress it up in fur and nursery names. For Vita she was Potto, the rather pathetic, neglected lemur, needing to be touched but not invaded. Physical intimacy could thus be bounded and rendered harmless. In the years of these letters the quality of her relationship with Vita changed; the passion went out of it. They had to negotiate the transition to a more distant, less demanding fondness – a process that seems to have made Virginia uncomfortable and nervous. But the verbal games continued, and they become less attractive than ever, the tone more false, the posturing more dishonest: ‘Potto said he was drawing you a picture – 3 robin red breasts against the moon – but its still unfinished. (Did you know that he has taken up art, to cure his heart? Neglect broke it.)’
With Ethel (her ‘uncastrated cat’) her relationship was more adult, had less fantasy in it, but also much less affection. She seemed to tolerate Ethel rather than like her. She had been bowled over by Ethel’s vitality and openness, but could now scarcely stand the violence of her intrusions. The letters show the relationship sometimes verging on disintegration; it survived because of Ethel’s generosity and solidity. Virginia was content to receive Ethel’s constant noisy flattery as long as she did not have to give very much in return. Her letters to Ethel, though more intimate than those to anyone else, are cool, always lacking in affection and full of half-concealed ridicule. In the whole of this volume there is remarkably little straightforward expression of affection. Even her fondness for her sister (whom she called Dolphin), which we know was deep and of great importance to her, is rarely openly expressed and is sometimes distorted by a playful, rather unattractive display of sham abandonment (her persona in this case is that of the neglected Billy Goat).
In the later 1930s the tone of her letters to Ethel and Vita (published in the sixth and final volume) shows a significant change. She became more willing to express her affection, more generously supportive and explicit in her attachments. After the publication of The Years in 1937 her edgy, nervous jealousy gave way to a warmer, more placid style. Her letters, less deformed by insecurity, are far more attractive. She gave more and demanded less. When stung (for example, by Vita’s criticism of Three Guineas), she would quarrel rather than collapse. With Ethel she could now be patient and reassuring. In this year, at the age of 55, she seems to have achieved an important breakthrough in her relationships with her women friends. Calmer now, perhaps less driven by fantasy, she seems a gentler, more appealing correspondent.
This transformation coincided with a dramatic change in her relationship with her sister, whose son Julian was killed in Spain in July 1937. His death was an overwhelming tragedy for Vanessa. Virginia was suddenly called upon to support her and protect her in the most terrible of circumstances. She reacted to her sister’s need with immense love and patience and was with her almost daily through the slow months of Vanessa’s grief. The change in her letters to Vanessa is astonishing. She discovered a whole new vocabulary of sustaining love. The letters lost their earlier childishness for ever. The new relationship had its limitations, however. The editor reports that ‘Vanessa told Vita, finding it impossible to say it to Virginia herself, that her only comfort was her sister’s love. “When she is demonstrative, I always shrink away.” No sentence that Vanessa ever wrote reveals more about their relationship.’ The whole experience brought home to Virginia a difficult truth. She wrote to Philip Morrell:
One cant, even at my age, believe that other people want affection or admiration; yet one knows that there’s nothing in the whole world so important. Why is it? Why are we all so tongue tied and spell-bound?
The greater openness with her friends which Virginia achieved so late in her life did not affect a deeper and more lasting reticence. In 1931 she wrote to Ethel perhaps the most revealing thing she ever said in a letter:
For months on first knowing you, I said to myself here’s one of these talkers. They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them. Because everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling – when Lytton seemed to be dying – well yes: I can’t go into that, even now. But to my surprise, as time went on, I found that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I can’t imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano.
The contrast between the intensely private Virginia and the more open, less fragmented Ethel was always a theme of their relationship. In 1940, reacting to Ethel’s autobiography, Virginia wrote: ‘you confess so openly, what I should have hidden so carefully.’ Her letters vividly convey her characteristic mix of volubility and reserve, and the deep divide between her outer and her inner selves. It was the inner self which she felt to be most real: ‘I think action generally unreal. Its the thing we do in the dark that is more real,’ she wrote to Spender. It was very important to her to know that she had the capacity to construct a veneer for herself that would allow her to be among people, to be admired and celebrated. But her anxieties were never entirely stilled: she continued to feel a horror that something might go wrong, that her disguise might be found ludicrous, that the thin veil might be torn apart and leave her exposed. She said in her diary that social life was a matter of people having ‘second selves’. ‘People have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness &c. The fashion world ... where people secrete an envelope which connects them and protects them from others.’
Just as the thing we do publicly is utterly different from the thing we do in the dark, so, for her, writing letters was utterly different from writing fiction. For though the work of fiction is a public and in a sense impersonal thing, it could only be written in a radical privacy that allowed her to touch her hidden, secret self and to draw on its frightening, volcanic energies: ‘I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write.’
The years from 1932 to the end of her life were not very productive for Virginia Woolf. Between 1927 and 1932 she had published To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves, but in the last nine years of her life she published only one novel, The Years (Between the Acts was published after her death). The Years was finished after a terrible struggle which lasted all of five years. A Writer’s Diary reveals how unsure of herself she was over this work, how it dragged on and on and was a constant source of difficulty and self-doubt. It is striking that nothing of this appears in the letters. Though her writing is sometimes mentioned as a problem (‘my book decays upon me like the body of the albatross,’ she wrote to Ethel Smyth), she never tried to lighten the burden by sharing it in her letters. She never discussed the difficulties, the hesitations, the ideas and explorations, with her friends.
In 1936 she took the unprecedented step of sending her manuscript to the printers without showing it even to Leonard. She reworked the book at proof-stage, cutting it from 700 to 420 pages, hating every minute of the work, driving herself close to complete mental collapse (‘I must very nearly verge on insanity,’ she wrote in her diary). When Leonard was eventually allowed to see the book he, for the first time, praised it more highly than he thought it deserved, realising that his wife’s condition was dangerous. None of this agony finds its way into the letters. There was no one she trusted enough to share her confusion and distress.
Her writing and her friendships belonged to two quite separate compartments of her life. In earlier letters[*] she had sometimes written about the problems and the ideas that engaged her when she was writing fiction. She had also allowed herself to express her passion for writing, to convey the thrill of it. But from 1932 her work and her relationships seem flat and unconsoling. Passion seems to have vanished from her life, with the exception of the passion with which she denounced patriarchy and war and her passion for reading: ‘doesn’t it break your heart almost to think of me, with this passion, always consumed with the desire to read, chopped, chafed, hugged, battered by the voices, the hands, the faces, the bodily presence of those who are pleased to call themselves my friends?’
The only book which Virginia Woolf published after 1932 about which she did not feel defensive and uncertain was Three Guineas, though this was of all her books the one which attracted the most uncompromisingly negative, even vicious reactions from some reviewers. In Scrutiny Q. D. Leavis accused Virginia Woolf of being a social parasite and a fascist and defended the view that conversation is ruined by the presence of women. Virginia reacted to the onslaught with quite untypical tranquillity and amusement. One wonders how she would have reacted to Nigel Nicolson’s editorial remarks: his generally reverential attitude suddenly dissolves when he is called upon to comment on her views on women, men and war. He is puzzled as to why Virginia Woolf should have taken up the cause of women since, he says, ‘nothing in her own life quite explains it.’ Her arguments he finds anachronistic, for, by the 1930s, women had, in his judgment, already achieved equality of opportunity in education, the professions and politics.
Nicolson is equally disapproving of Virginia Woolf’s treatment of the other major theme of Three Guineas, war and the causes of war, a theme which was to her a kind of posthumous discussion with Julian Bell about his decision to go to Spain. She suspected his motives and could not find them altogether admirable. Nicolson’s verdict is that ‘she tried to be rational about war, but her emotion got the better of her logic.’ Her arguments about the connections between patriarchy and war no doubt have their weaknesses, but her hatred of the aggressiveness and self-glorification of men is not necessarily unreasonable.
More than anything else the death of friends dominates the last two volumes of her letters. Lytton Strachey died of cancer in January 1932. A few months later Dora Carrington killed herself, the morning alter Virginia and Leonard had talked with her and tried to comfort her. In September 1934 Roger Fry died of a heart attack. These and other deaths affected her deeply, and her letters about them are movingly simple. To Carrington: ‘I find I cant write without suddenly thinking Oh but Lytton wont read this, and it takes all the point out of it. I always put away things in my mind to say to Lytton. And what it must be for you – I wish some time I could see you and tell you about the time, after Thoby’s death, before you knew him, when I used to see him.’ To this extent, her grief released her from her training in silence. Her tone in these letters is much more authentic than at other times. But her letters never begin to convey the real intensity of her distress. In May 1932 she suffered a period of extreme depression. A Writer’s Diary shows just how undermined she was:
Lord how suffer! What a terrific capacity I possess for feeling with intensity – now, since we came back [from Greece], I’m screwed up into a ball; can’t get into step ... wonder how a year or so perhaps is to be endured. Think, yet people do live ... the old treadmill feeling, of going on and on and on, for no reason Lytton’s death; Carrington’s; a longing to speak to him: all that cut away, gone.
On the very same day she wrote to Vita:
Dearest Creature, Are you coming up on Monday? ... Theres only one person I want to see, and she has no burning wish for anything but a rose red tower and a view of hop gardens and oasts. Who can it be? Its said she has written a poem and has a mother, a cow, and a moat. I’m so illiterate – I’ve seen so many people – life offers so many problems and there’s a hair in my pen.
The suffering goes in the diary, and Vita only gets to hear the voice of a cute child.
A rather urgent honesty breaks through in the very few letters in these volumes in which she talks about writing. ‘When a person’s thick to the lips in finishing a book ... its no use pretending that they have bodies and souls so far as the rest of the world is concerned. They turn the sickle side of the moon to [the] world: the globe to the other.’ To Stephen Spender she wrote in more violent terms, suggesting not so much self-absorption as self-demolition: ‘I dont think you can get your words to come till youre almost unconscious; and unconsciousness only comes when youve been beaten and broken and gone through every sort of grinding mill.’ Virginia Woolf found writing necessary partly because talking (and writing letters) inevitably and painfully left so much unsaid. For her, experience was always potentially unmanageable, overwhelmingly speedy, raw and shocking.
As one would expect, one gets a very much richer sense of Virginia Woolf from her diaries than from her letters, and this is certainly true of the most recently published volume. These diaries were written in the far happier and more productive years of 1925-30: a period which extends from the time of the final revision of Mrs Dalloway, through the writing and publication of To the Lighthouse and Orlando, to the writing of the second draft of The Waves. She used her diaries as a painter might use a sketchbook, anxious to preserve ‘some of the myriad impressions which I net every day’. She obviously enormously enjoyed writing these diaries and felt at case with them in a way that she perhaps never did with people. She loved the ‘rush and urgency’ of it, ‘the actual writing being now like the sweep of a brush’. She jotted down swift, witty and vivid accounts of her meetings with famous men (with Hardy, Yeats and Eliot, for example). She also wrote her diary as a way of lifting the burden of oppressive feelings: ‘certainly it is true that if one writes a thing down one has done with it.’ She wrote out her misery after disagreements with Leonard, her jealousy at Vita’s going away with another woman, her protracted and emotionally tormenting dissatisfaction with her servant Nelly. Her mood was often one of great contentment, not least because she had developed with Leonard a relationship which was the safest and most reliable thing in her life – ‘the core of my life’, as she called it. The companionship which they shared, which she never discusses in her letters and only infrequently records in her diaries, is always there, quietly sustaining her. ‘The immense success of our life is I think that our treasure is hid away.’
Most of the content of these diaries that relates directly to her novels was extracted by Leonard Woolf and published in A Writer’s Diary. But there are here published for the first time many remarks and reflections which indicate her deeper responses to life, and which help us to understand what it was for her to be a writer. She found it difficult to integrate her life and her writing. Life tended to contrast with rather than to include writing, for it was experienced as a busy and distracting affair. Her reaction to social life was sometimes exhilaration and curiosity, sometimes exasperation, but there always seemed to be, on the margins of her thought, a vague discomfort and dissatisfaction, as if, however much she felt engaged in company, she wished with some part of herself to be somewhere else. This part of herself was always a source of inner reproof and anxiety.
Life lacks solidity. Feelings or encounters with other people have a quality of unreality. Unless and until they are reflected and written they are insubstantial, incomplete:
the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. This struck me on Reading platform, watching Nessa & Quentin kiss, he coming up shyly, yet with some emotion. This I shall remember; & make more of, when separated from all the business of crossing the platform, finding our bus &c. That is why we dwell on the past, I think.
It was for her a deep and sad paradox that an emotion is only properly real and whole in memory, and that we can only appreciate the whole substance of other people in their absence. Presence and the present always elude us. Only out of our reach, like Albertine asleep, can they be possessed.
In a memoir written after Julian Bell’s death she wrote: ‘nothing is real unless I write it ... I know by this time what an odd effect Time has: it does not destroy people – for instance, I shall think perhaps more truly than I did, of Roger, of Thoby: but it brushes away the actual personal presence.’
There are many versions of this Proustian insight in her diaries: ‘there is no substance in ones friendships ... they fade ... Nothing like a coin is struck & left for ever in one’s possession. People die.’ Some years later, she notes: ‘Eddy has just gone, leaving me the usual feeling: why is not human intercourse more definite, tangible: why aren’t I left holding a small round substance, say of the size of a pea, in my hand; something I can put in a box and look at? There is so little left.’ She could sadly feel about even her close friends, as she felt about herself, that they suffered from a kind of weightlessness: ‘how little our relationships matter; & yet they are so important: in him, in me, something to him, to me, infinitely sentient, of the highest vividness, reality. But if I died tonight, he too would continue. Something illusory then enters into all that part of life.’ She felt herself to be ‘like the shadow passing over the downs’. But, like the emotion which is realised in memory, as it draws things around it and takes on a definite shape, so with other people after they have left: ‘what remains of Eddy is now in some ways more vivid, though more transparent, all of him composing itself in my mind, all I could get of him, & making itself a landscape appropriate to it; making a work of art for itself.’
She was ambivalent about her own lack of solidity, her rather fractured being. Though it could cause her great distress, cause her to sink down in her ‘great lake of melancholy’, she also felt that ‘if I sink further I shall reach the truth. That is the only mitigation; a kind of nobility. Solemnity, I shall make myself face the fact that there is nothing – nothing for any of us.’ She distrusted people who seemed too integrated, too solid, people who could walk in a line through life without coming apart, who could say with Bernard in The Waves: ‘I became a certain kind of man, scoring my path across life as one treads a path across the fields.’ She recorded a visit to Sidney and Beatrice Webb:
those entirely integrated people. Their secret is that they have by nature no divisions of soul to fritter them away: their impact is solid and authentic ... On a steely watery morning we swiftly tramped over a heathy common talking, talking. In their efficiency & glibness one traces perfectly adjusted machinery; but talk by machinery does not charm, or suggest.
Such integrated people have lives that can be ordered into biography or autobiography, since they have coherence and direction. Virginia Woolf felt that, in contrast, her own life was splintered and tumultuous. She read Mrs Webb’s My Apprenticeship and commented: ‘Mrs Webb’s Life makes me compare it with mine. The difference is that she is trying to relate all her experiences to history. She is very rational and coherent.’ The experience moved her to read again her own earlier diaries, to test her own sense of coherence. But there was none. ‘I enjoy almost everything. Yet I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on & say “This is it”?’
She sometimes thought that she might one day write her memoirs, based on her diaries. But it is appropriate that she did not. She left instead these unworked notes, as well as some short autobiographical fragments (published as Moments of Being). She never did submit her own life to writing in ‘the biographic style’, writing which she described in The Waves as consisting of ‘phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives’. The kind of wholeness and order that she searched for she conceived to be at some different level from that of individual life. She tried to find it in writing fiction, writing that was more impersonal and anonymous than autobiography. She achieved integration, though not of herself. Only a few months before her death, she wrote, in Moments of Being: ‘I only know that many of these exceptional moments brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse; they seemed dominant; myself passive ... A blow is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.’
These diaries encourage one to seek out connections between the ways in which Virginia Woolf found her life, her feelings, her relationships, her memories, hard or puzzling, and the strategies she adopted and the innovations she made in her fiction. She rejected the idea that her novels should be organised around the telling of stories, and she rejected traditional ways of representing character and dialogue. She employed a highly elaborate figurative language. Her narrative techniques were boldly original and somewhat mysterious. Many critics have noted these various formal aspects of Virginia Woolf’s art, but few have really attempted to throw light on them by relating them to the question of why she wrote.
Michael Rosenthal’s book makes a very inadequate attempt to examine these issues. He has a thesis, though it is not entirely clear just what it is. In one version of it he states that ‘as an artist Woolf was obsessed with what we can call formal rather than thematic concerns.’ But it is not at all helpful to set up an argument about Virginia Woolf in this way, as if one has to decide whether her commitment was primarily to form or design rather than to theme or substance. For what is really important is the connection between them. This is, I think, true of a great deal of modernist writing – of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet as well as of Virginia Woolf. It puts her in a very peculiar and unnecessarily idiosyncratic light if one believes, as Rosenthal does, that ‘the great modern novels of the 20th century implicate the reader in the lives of their characters as they confront experience’ and that ‘the primitive energy of the story animates most of modern fiction.’ Virginia Woolf felt it necessary to pursue formal experiment and innovation in her fiction because her art focused on certain themes (‘visions’, contradictions, feelings and so on) that she believed could not be explored within the constraints of traditional forms. Her attempts to discover formal techniques that would serve her purposes were protracted and arduous; it is quite wrong to assert, as Rosenthal does, that ‘before there is theme there is already a vision of form, and even after the substance of the novel has been thought out the commitment is always to the design.’
In the most general terms, we can say that in her fiction she wanted not so much to represent or reproduce voices or speech as to create a narratorial presence: one that was not to be identified with a subject or person in the manner of a traditional narrator, but that could speak on behalf, of the fictional characters, and say things they could not say themselves. In To the Lighthouse she wanted to find a narrative technique that would avoid implicating a narrator with a separate identity and would also make possible a multiple perspective, in which things were seen simultaneously from different points of view, none of them strictly identical with the points of view of the characters in the fiction. But she did not start with the appropriate design already worked out and proceed to invent some substance to flesh out this skeleton. Rosenthal’s discussion of To the Lighthouse does not go into questions of formal technique in any detail; having stated his general thesis, he does not enlighten us as to how it works out precisely in relation to any particular text. Two of the most striking formal aspects of the novel are the use of brackets and the use of an enriched form of oratio obliqua. It is by these devices that Virginia Woolf manages to create a quite original narrative technique: a virtual narrator who is everywhere and nowhere, a voice which speaks a supple poetic language yet which belongs to no one. Only a few months before completing the final draft of the novel, she discussed these devices in her diary as experiments and possibilities which she had not yet finally settled on, which she was still very unsure about. The diaries make it quite clear that she often found it hard to marry the formal and the thematic aspects of her novels and that she was often at a very late stage in their composition before she decided on certain crucial issues of form.
Maria DiBattista’s book is altogether more ambitious and more interesting. She has not one thesis but two. The first is that Virginia Woolf’s literary ancestry is ‘fundamentally comic, and it is from the tradition of Sterne and Meredith, Austen and Dickens, all continuers of the Shakespearean, typically British mind, that Woolf’s own art descends.’ This never becomes clear or solid enough to serve its intended purpose of functioning as a key to the Understanding of Virginia Woolf’s fictional art, though it is given useful and illuminating application at particular points in the exposition of some of the novels. Her second thesis is that the ‘philosophy of anonymity’ is the basis of Virginia Woolf’s poetic attitude. This is far more promising, and does connect with the central issues of narrative strategy and voice in her fiction. DiBattista weaves this thesis into her accounts of the particular novels to great effect. Her patient and subtle expositions of the novels are very fine; they pay particular attention to complexities of narrative technique and display in a detailed and convincing way the coherence and power of Virginia Woolf’s symbolism. The great test of such a thesis must be its capacity to illuminate The Waves, the ‘Epic of “Anon” ’, as DiBattista calls it. On this test she succeeds very well, discussing the vexed question of the status of the six ghostly voices of this novel in terms of their being ‘six characters in search of an author to interpret their personalities and substantiate their vague identities’. This ‘author’, however, never appears in person in the novel. The substantiation is performed anonymously, for Virginia Woolf resisted the temptation to create an authoritative narrator who would make sense of everything for us.
The whole of Virginia Woolf’s effort was to create a voice which would transcend the possibilities of individual speech without implicitly depending on the fictional creation of a master-thinker, an individual, unitary consciousness who could achieve in a fiction what no one can achieve in life. She found this a hard struggle and the temptations she had to resist were very real. We can see from the diaries that she found it extremely difficult to find a way of constructing The Waves that would allow her to write freely, and her puzzlement focused on the question ‘Who thinks it?’. ‘One wants,’ she says, ‘some device which is not a trick’, and for many months she wrote adopting provisional devices and then rejecting them, always uncomfortably aware that she was ‘without the least certainty how its to achieve any form’.
We know from the diaries that The Moths, as it was then called, was conceived as a kind of monologue, with a clear central identity, a woman thinking and talking: ‘a mind thinking. Autobiography it might be called’ (May 1929). It was not until many months later, when she was well into the second draft of the novel, that Virginia Woolf hesitantly settled on the form that was to turn out to be the final one: ‘The Waves is I think resolving itself ... into a series of dramatic soliloquies’ (August 1930). In the intervening period, the novel for a while took on a quite extraordinary form, one which is not mentioned by either Rosenthal or DiBattista but which is hinted at by one of the few entries in this volume of the diary relating to The Waves which was not included in A Writer’s Diary and which is now published for the first time. On 4 September 1929 Virginia Woolf noted: ‘I have thought of this device: to put The Lonely Mind separately in The Moths, as if it were a person. I don’t know – it seems possible.’ The diary gives no more information about this quasi-person, The Lonely Mind, but we are very fortunate to be able to witness us appearance and eventual abandonment in J.W. Graham’s edition of the holograph drafts of The Waves.[†] The Lonely Mind in effect registers a stage in the writing of what was to become The Waves at which Virginia Woolf yielded to the temptation to personify her narrator, and in so doing to negate everything for which she worked in her fiction.
The novel in its finished form, in the judgment of DiBattista, ‘formally embraces autobiography and cosmogony’. But this is achieved anonymously, in a non locatable, impersonal voice: there is no answer to the question ‘Who thinks it?’ and from a technical point of view Virginia Woolf’s virtuosity consists in her discovery of a structure for the novel that would ensure that this question remains strictly unanswerable. ‘What’s in the central shadow? I don’t know.’ But in the first draft of the novel we find that there is indeed a central consciousness, functioning as subject and origin of the fiction, and this is the mysterious Lonely Mind, autobiographer and cosmogonist in person. And what a truly amazing invention this figure is. It is an attempted fusion of two distinct identities, the figure of the Writer (female) and that of the Narrator (male). On the one hand, this person, ‘man or woman, it doesn’t matter which,’ sits alone at a table, unsure of herself, but with a writer’s mission to create order out of chaos and to preserve what would otherwise be lost: ‘the lonely person/mind, man or woman, young or aged, the power that centralises what is otherwise lost’. But this creativity is accompanied by loneliness and depression: ‘Let me then feel pressing against me some human hand. Let me feel that all is not blank.’ This is a human figure, ordering but not creating human experience, and longing for human warmth. On the other hand, this mind or person revels in the superhuman power implicitly ascribed to the traditional narrator who is omniscient, omnipotent, megalomaniac even: ‘I am telling myself the story of the world from the beginning.’ He is a demiurge who stands outside human time and human history, who surveys it at will and sometimes even seems to create it. In writing this draft, Virginia Woolf seems not to have been at all at ease with this odd invention, and she found it technically impossible to create a coherent fusion of these two identities. There is an instability of narrative point of view, which oscillates alarmingly between first and third-person positions.
The device is a hopeless but interesting failure which confirms and strengthens Maria DiBattista’s reading of the novel. In more general terms, it offers a fascinating glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s labour as a writer and is an indication of just how interesting the diaries are in relation to the problem of understanding her art. They help to elucidate the connections between what may seem to be purely technical problems and matters of the deepest emotional significance.
[*] The first two volumes, The Flight of the Mind and The Question of Things Happening, have been published in paperback by Chatto at £3.95 each.
[†] Hogarth Press, 1976.