Virginia Woolf’s Forgotten Diary

Virginia Woolf, wearing a fur stole. Public domain, courtesy of wikimedia commons. On August 3, 1917, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary for the first time in two years—a small notebook, roughly the size of the palm of her hand. It was a Friday, the start of the bank holiday, and she had traveled from London to Asheham, her rented house in rural Sussex, with her husband, Leonard. For the first time in days, it had stopped raining, and so she “walked out from Lewes.” There were “men mending the wall & roof” of the house, and Will, the gardener, had “dug up the bed in front, leaving only one dahlia.” Finally, “bees in attic chimney.” It is a stilted beginning, and yet with each entry, her diary gains in confidence. Soon, Woolf establishes a pattern. First, she notes the weather, and her walk—to the post, or to fetch the milk, or up onto the Downs. There, she takes down the number of mushrooms she finds—“almost a record find,” or “enough for a dish”—and of the insects she has seen: “3 perfect peacock butterflies, 1 silver washed frit; besides innumerable blues feeding on dung.” She notices butterflies in particular: painted ladies, clouded yellows, fritillaries, blues. She is blasé in her records of nature’s more gruesome sights—“the spine & red legs of a bird, just devoured by a hawk,” or a “chicken in a parcel, found dead in the nettles, head wrung off.” There is human violence, too. From the tops of the Downs, she listens to the guns as they sound from France, and watches German prisoners at work in the fields, who use “a great brown jug for their tea.” Home again, and she reports any visitors, or whether she has done gardening or reading or sewing. Lastly, she makes a note about rationing, taking stock of the larder: “eggs 2/9 doz. From Mrs Attfield,” or “sausages here come in.” Though Woolf, then thirty-five, shared the lease of Asheham with her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell (who went there for weekend parties), for her, the house had always been a place for convalescence. Following her marriage to Leonard in 1912, she entered a long tunnel of illness—a series of breakdowns during which she refused to eat, talked wildly, and attempted suicide. She spent long periods at a nursing home in Twickenham before being brought to Asheham with a nurse to recover. At the house, Leonard presided over a strict routine, in which Virginia was permitted to write letters—“only to the end of the page, Mrs Woolf,” as she reported to her friend Margaret Llewelyn Davies—and to take short walks “in a kind of nightgown.” She had been too ill to pay much attention to the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915, or to take notice of the war. “Its very like living at the bottom of the sea being here,” she wrote to a friend in early 1914, as Bloomsbury scattered. “One sometimes hears rumours of what is going on overhead.” In the writing about Woolf’s life, the wartime summers at Asheham tend to be disregarded. They are quickly overtaken by her time in London, the emergence of the Hogarth Press, and the radical new direction she took in her work, when her first novels—awkward set-pieces of Edwardian realism—would give way to the experimentalism of Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. And yet during these summers, Woolf was at a threshold in her life and work. Her small diary is the most detailed account we have of her days during the summers of 1917 and 1918, when she was walking, reading, recovering, looking. It is a bridge between two periods in her work and also between illness and health, writing and not writing, looking and feeling. Unpacking each entry, we can see the richness of her daily life, the quiet repetition of her activities and pleasures. There is no shortage of drama: a puncture to her bicycle, a biting dog, the question of whether there will be enough sugar for jam. She rarely uses the unruly “I,” although occasionally we glimpse her, planting a bulb or leaving her mackintosh in a hedge. Mostly she records things she can see or hear or touch. Having been ill, she is nurturing a convalescent quality of attention, using her diary’s economical form, its domestic subject matter, to tether herself to the world. “Happiness is,” she writes later, in 1925, “to have a little string onto which things will attach themselves.” At Asheham, she strings one paragraph after another; a way of watching the days accrue. And as she recovers, things attach themselves: bicycles, rubber boots, dahlias, eggs. *** Between 1915 and her death in 1941, Woolf filled almost thirty notebooks with diary entries, beginning, at first, with a fairly self-conscious account of her daily life which developed, from Asheham onward, into an extraordinary, continuous record of form and feeling. Her diary was the place where she practiced writing—or would “do my scales,” as she described it in 1924—and in which her novels shaped themselves: the “escapade” of Orlando written at the height of her feelings for Vita Sackville-West (“I want to kick

Virginia Woolf’s Forgotten Diary

Virginia Woolf, wearing a fur stole. Public domain, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

On August 3, 1917, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary for the first time in two years—a small notebook, roughly the size of the palm of her hand. It was a Friday, the start of the bank holiday, and she had traveled from London to Asheham, her rented house in rural Sussex, with her husband, Leonard. For the first time in days, it had stopped raining, and so she “walked out from Lewes.” There were “men mending the wall & roof” of the house, and Will, the gardener, had “dug up the bed in front, leaving only one dahlia.” Finally, “bees in attic chimney.”

It is a stilted beginning, and yet with each entry, her diary gains in confidence. Soon, Woolf establishes a pattern. First, she notes the weather, and her walk—to the post, or to fetch the milk, or up onto the Downs. There, she takes down the number of mushrooms she finds—“almost a record find,” or “enough for a dish”—and of the insects she has seen: “3 perfect peacock butterflies, 1 silver washed frit; besides innumerable blues feeding on dung.” She notices butterflies in particular: painted ladies, clouded yellows, fritillaries, blues. She is blasé in her records of nature’s more gruesome sights—“the spine & red legs of a bird, just devoured by a hawk,” or a “chicken in a parcel, found dead in the nettles, head wrung off.” There is human violence, too. From the tops of the Downs, she listens to the guns as they sound from France, and watches German prisoners at work in the fields, who use “a great brown jug for their tea.” Home again, and she reports any visitors, or whether she has done gardening or reading or sewing. Lastly, she makes a note about rationing, taking stock of the larder: “eggs 2/9 doz. From Mrs Attfield,” or “sausages here come in.”

Though Woolf, then thirty-five, shared the lease of Asheham with her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell (who went there for weekend parties), for her, the house had always been a place for convalescence. Following her marriage to Leonard in 1912, she entered a long tunnel of illness—a series of breakdowns during which she refused to eat, talked wildly, and attempted suicide. She spent long periods at a nursing home in Twickenham before being brought to Asheham with a nurse to recover. At the house, Leonard presided over a strict routine, in which Virginia was permitted to write letters—“only to the end of the page, Mrs Woolf,” as she reported to her friend Margaret Llewelyn Davies—and to take short walks “in a kind of nightgown.” She had been too ill to pay much attention to the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915, or to take notice of the war. “Its very like living at the bottom of the sea being here,” she wrote to a friend in early 1914, as Bloomsbury scattered. “One sometimes hears rumours of what is going on overhead.”

In the writing about Woolf’s life, the wartime summers at Asheham tend to be disregarded. They are quickly overtaken by her time in London, the emergence of the Hogarth Press, and the radical new direction she took in her work, when her first novels—awkward set-pieces of Edwardian realism—would give way to the experimentalism of Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. And yet during these summers, Woolf was at a threshold in her life and work. Her small diary is the most detailed account we have of her days during the summers of 1917 and 1918, when she was walking, reading, recovering, looking. It is a bridge between two periods in her work and also between illness and health, writing and not writing, looking and feeling. Unpacking each entry, we can see the richness of her daily life, the quiet repetition of her activities and pleasures. There is no shortage of drama: a puncture to her bicycle, a biting dog, the question of whether there will be enough sugar for jam. She rarely uses the unruly “I,” although occasionally we glimpse her, planting a bulb or leaving her mackintosh in a hedge. Mostly she records things she can see or hear or touch. Having been ill, she is nurturing a convalescent quality of attention, using her diary’s economical form, its domestic subject matter, to tether herself to the world. “Happiness is,” she writes later, in 1925, “to have a little string onto which things will attach themselves.” At Asheham, she strings one paragraph after another; a way of watching the days accrue. And as she recovers, things attach themselves: bicycles, rubber boots, dahlias, eggs.

***

Between 1915 and her death in 1941, Woolf filled almost thirty notebooks with diary entries, beginning, at first, with a fairly self-conscious account of her daily life which developed, from Asheham onward, into an extraordinary, continuous record of form and feeling. Her diary was the place where she practiced writing—or would “do my scales,” as she described it in 1924—and in which her novels shaped themselves: the “escapade” of Orlando written at the height of her feelings for Vita Sackville-West (“I want to kick up my heels & be off”); the “playpoem” of The Waves, that “abstract mystical eyeless book,” which began life one summer’s evening in Sussex as “The Moths.” There are also the minutiae of her domestic life, including scenes from her marriage to Leonard (an argument in 1928, for instance, when she slapped his nose with sweet peas, and he bought her a blue jug) and from her relationship with her servant, Nellie Boxall, which was by turns antagonistic and dependent. Most of all, the diary is the place in which she thinks on her feet, playing and experimenting. Here she is in September 1928, attempting to describe rooks in flight, and asking,

“Whats the phrase for that?” & try to make more & more vivid the roughness of the air current & the tremor of the rooks wing slicing—as if the air were full of ridges & ripples & roughnesses; they rise & sink, up & down, as if the exercise rubbed & braced them like swimmers in rough water.

But the “old devil” of her illness was never far behind. If, in her diary, Woolf could compose herself, she could also unravel. There are jagged moments. She could be cruel—about her friends, or the sight of suburban women shopping, or Leonard’s Jewish mother. And she felt her failures acutely. In the small hours, she fretted over her childlessness, her rivalries, the wave of her depression threatening to crest.

Her diaries’ elasticity, their ability to fulfill all these uses, is, as Adam Phillips notes in his foreword to Granta’s new edition of the second volume, evidence of “Woolf’s extraordinary invention within this genre.” The Asheham diary was one of her earliest experiments in the form. She was reading Thoreau’s Walden and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals, marvelling at those writers’ capacity for a language “scraped clean,” their daily lives, and their descriptions of the natural world, intensified for the reader as if “through a very powerful magnifying glass.” Yet the life span of her own rural diary was short. In October 1917, upon her return to London, Woolf began a second diary, written in the style of those which preceded her breakdowns. Her Asheham diary she left stowed away in a drawer. (When, the following summer, she reached for the notebook, writing in both concurrently, it was the only time she kept two diaries at once.) In her other diary, the ligatures loosened, and she began developing the supple, longhand style she would use for the rest of her life. Her concision was gone, though her Asheham diary had left its mark. In London, she continued to open each day with her “vegetable notes”—an account of her walk along the Thames, or a note about the weather. And she described everything she saw with the curiosity and precision of a naturalist’s eye.

***

In the long and often fraught history of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, no one has known what to do with such a sporadic notebook, seemingly out of sync with the much fuller diaries that came before and after it. Following Leonard’s selection of entries for A Writer’s Diary, which was published in 1953, work on the publication of her diaries in their entirety began in 1966, when the art historian Anne Olivier Bell was assisting her husband, Quentin Bell, in the writing of his aunt’s biography. As parcels of Woolf’s papers arrived at the couple’s home in Sussex, Olivier—the name by which she was always known—realized the scale of the project, which involved organizing, noting, and indexing 2,317 pages of Woolf’s private writing. She leaped at the chance, “largely,” she later reflected, “because it gave me an excuse to read Virginia’s diary, which I longed to do.” So began nearly twenty years of scholarship, culminating in their publication, in five volumes, by the Hogarth Press, between 1977 and 1984.

It was a laborious process. Working first from carbon copies—which needed to be pieced back together after Leonard had gone through them, with scissors, to make his selections —and later from photocopies (the manuscript diaries were moved in 1971 from the Westminster Bank in Lewes to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library), Olivier set about constructing her “scaffolding”: she took six-by-four-inch index cards, one for each month of Woolf’s life, and recorded on them the dates in that month on which Woolf had written an entry, where she had been, and who she had seen. Olivier spent long hours in the basement of the London Library, consulting the Dictionary of National Biography for details of one of Virginia’s friends, or decaying editions of the Times for a notice about a particular concert at Wigmore Hall. And there were decisions to make. What to do with Woolf at her most unkind, or snobbish? Olivier devised some basic rules for inclusion: she pinned a piece of paper above her desk that read ACCURACY / RELEVANCE / CONCISION / INTEREST. She decided there was little point in upsetting those friends still living, and cut any particularly unflattering descriptions. And Woolf’s Asheham diary—“too different in character” from the other diaries, she noted, and “too laconic”—didn’t merit publishing in full. The second volume, from the summer of 1918, was omitted completely.

This summer, Granta has reissued Woolf’s diaries and billed them as “unexpurgated,” a promise that has caused no small stir among Woolf scholars, who had thought Olivier’s editions were complete. The new inclusions are, in fact, mostly minor: a handful of comments about Woolf’s friends, written toward the end of her life, including an unpleasant description of Igor Anrep’s mouth. Otherwise, Olivier’s volume divisions remain unchanged, her notes and indexes intact; it is as much a reproduction, and a celebration, of her scholarly masterpiece as of Woolf’s diaristic eye. The most significant addition is Asheham. For the first time, Woolf’s small diary—the last remaining autobiographical fragment to be published—appears in its entirety. And yet those readers turning to Granta’s edition for details of Woolf’s country life in 1918 must skip to the end of the first volume, and look for her diary beneath the heading “Appendix 3.”

***

Appendixes can be awkward, unwieldy things. They serve a scholarly function—to present information deemed unsuitable for the main body of a text, like an attachment, or an afterthought. And an appendix is an especially odd place for a diary, putting time out of sequence, disrupting the “current”—as Woolf liked to call it—of everyday life. The remaining paragraphs of the Asheham diary have been relegated behind the main text; they sit quietly, unobtrusively, documenting a life as minute and domestic as before. Returning to the house in 1918, Woolf records her days, the winter melting into spring—the last of the diary, and the war. Out on her walks, she sees “a few brown heath butterflies,” the air “swarming with little black beetles.” She spends afternoons on the terrace, the sun hot, “had to wear straw hat,” and in the evening, she and Leonard sit “eating our own broad beans—delicious.” There are more local intrigues: the coal from the cellar goes missing, a mysterious plague kills the farmer’s lambs. Day by day, she watches a caterpillar pupate. The news is better from France. Still, the German prisoners work in the fields. “When alone, I smile at the tall German.” But her entries are thinning. By September, there is “nothing to notice” on the Downs, or “nothing new.” Even the butterflies are less brilliant—a few tortoiseshells, some ragged blues. Finally, toward the back of the notebook, she lists the household linen to be washed.

Her attention had begun shifting elsewhere. In London, she was becoming intensely preoccupied with the Press, and with writing shorter things, impressions and color studies—the pieces that will make up her first book of stories, Monday or Tuesday, published in 1921. And yet, if one looks closely, one can see the diary in some of these stories; something like an underpainting.

Take, for instance, Katherine Mansfield’s visit to Asheham in August 1917. The diary’s summary of Katherine’s visit is brief: her train into Lewes was late, so Woolf bought a bulb for the flowerbed; later, the two writers walked on the terrace together, an airship maneuvering overhead. Yet from letters, we know that the manuscript for Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” was almost certainly brought out. In it, we can see the imprint of Asheham, its reversal of scales, its teeming insect life. In the story, which was published in 1919, human life takes place off center, in the murmur of conversation wafting above the flower bed, while the “vast green spaces” of the bed and the snail laboring over his crumbs of earth loom largest of all. The story, though set in Richmond, captures the atmosphere of Asheham. Its form, like the other stories in Monday or Tuesday, owes much to the episodic structure of her diary, in which impressions are hazy, words come and go, and attention is both microscopic and abstract. And its authorial presence mirrors the one we find in the notebook—a writer who is both there and not there, looking and noticing.

Toward the end of 1918, as Woolf’s convalescence comes to an end, so does her Asheham diary. Back in London, she muses on the project she has kept going for two years: “Asheham diary drains off my meticulous observations of flowers, clouds, beetles & the price of eggs,” she writes in her other, longer diary, “&, being alone, there is no other event to record.” It has served its purpose, paving a way back to writing after illness, of nursing her attention back to life. Though it was later forgotten, it always stood for one of her quietest and arguably most important periods, between her first attempts at writing and those fleeting experiments which determined the novels that came afterward. And it continued to be a storehouse for images to be drawn upon later—her nephews, Julian and Quentin Bell, carrying home antlers, like those in the attic nursery in To The Lighthouse; a grass snake on the path, like the one Giles Oliver crushes with his tennis shoe in Between the Acts; a continuous stream of butterflies and moths.

Harriet Baker is a British writer. Her work has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and Apollo, among others. Her first book, Rural Hours: The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann, will be published by Allen Lane in March 2024.