Search This Blog

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Books - Selected Diaries - Virginia Woolf

Star rating – 9/10

I know I don’t usually review older books without good reason here, but I have been pondering of late what makes a good diary, in this age of blogging and Twitter, and wondered if a celebrated diarist such as Virginia Woolf held any clues for our modern budding writers.

I should also state from the outset that I am not a particular fan of Woolf’s work, having only read a couple of her novels in my teens, and not really been tempted back for more since. But after taking up this edited selection of her copious diaries, I soon discovered that that did not really matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this window on her world, and found it a very good pointer as to what really makes a great diary/tweet/blog.

The first of her secrets is to include the domestic, trivial, and mundane detail that at the time must have seemed fairly inconsequential. But for me it is these small details that add a rich depth to the writing, and often hint at the historical context which is so much more fascinating when viewed from the perspective of someone actually living though it, than reading a historical account after the fact. The relationship Woolf had with her live in cook of 18 years, Nellie, is one of the domestic highlights. Both women seem to comfortably fit the title of ‘drama queen’ - with countless stormings out and promised sackings, followed by inevitable regrets and forgiveness. Woolf does not seem to have been particularly nice to her servants, but then she was an affluent writer living a very comfortable existence once her career had taken off. Her attitude was probably perfectly normal for her time and class, not that that makes it any better.

And the way she recounts the historical detail is superb, interlaced as it is with the minutia of her life. We are taken though the First World War Armistice, the General Strike, the rise of Hitler and the death of King George V followed by her own take on the abdication crisis, all of which make compelling reading.

And of course she lets us in on the world of the Bloomsbury set, with their endless round of lunches, dinners, parties and discussions. It really must have been a fascinating existence to have almost daily conversations and debates with such luminaries as T.S. Eliot (who gave them a reading of his new poem – The Wasteland), E.M. Forster, Vita Sackville West, and Maynard Keynes to name but a few. To have such access to and friendships with writers, politicians, economists must have been very exhilarating. But often Virginia is simply exhausted with the endless social whirl of it all – preferring instead to beat a hasty retreat to her beloved house in the country.

Her relationship with her husband Leonard is obviously central to her being, although she doesn’t go into their more intimate dealings, save to mention once early on in their marriage that ‘some antics ended the day.’ It is clear though that as time goes on she totally relies on his support, and especially his criticism of her literary works as she finishes each one. If Leonard feels they are up to standard then she is palpably relieved.

And the process of writing does seem from these diaries to have been an arduous and exhausting one for Virginia. ‘Few people can be so tortured by writing as I am’ she complains to her diary companion. Each work seems to sap the strength from her literally. She was a very frail creature, beset by nervous breakdown, depression, headaches and influenza throughout the nearly 30 year period which these diaries span.

And you do get the sense that keeping a diary helped her get through many of her trials and tribulations, except of course, it did not save her from committing suicide at the end of the period she was keeping it. Earlier on the diary is witty and light in many places, but as it hurtles towards the inevitable conclusion it becomes a much sadder affair.

She did not reckon much to Manchester when she visited in 1921 with its streets all the same, and dowdy depressed looking women, and not a scrap of romance. I will even forgive her this southern prejudice for having given us such an entertaining, informative and sumptuous peek into her world – with all its highs and lows. If you want to find out the secrets of keeping a great diary – look no further than Virginia – she would have been a keen blogger I am absolutely sure.

No comments:

Post a Comment