English novelist Virginia Woolf was fifteen when she began her first diary; by the time of her death in 1941, she had filled more than thirty handwritten volumes with reflections, observations, and personal struggles that offer a window into her complex mind. When she wrote the following entry, Woolf was forty-eight. Two years after the publication of Orlando, she was now working on the second draft of what would become one of her masterpieces, The Waves, while dealing with the ever-expanding operations of the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband Leonard. Woolf persevered with the new novel and worked on it for another nine months. It was published in October of 1931.
The Diary Entry
Wednesday 15 October
I say to myself “But I cannot write another word”. I say “I will cut adrift—I will go to Roger [Fry, painter] in France—I will sit on pavements & drink coffee—I will see the Southern hills; I will dream; I will take my mind out of its iron cage & let it swim—this fine October”. I say all this; with energy: but shall I do it? Shan’t I peter out here, till the fountain fills again? Oh dear oh dear—for the lassitude of the spirit! Rarely rarely comest thou now, spirit of delight. You hide yourself up there behind the hotel windows & the grey clouds. (I am writing this with a steel pen which I dip in the ink, so as to forestall the day when my German pens are extinct). It is dismal to broach October so languidly. I rather think the same thing happened last year. I need solitude. I need space. I need air. I need the empty fields round me; & my legs pounding along roads; & sleep; & animal existence. My brain is too energetic; it works; it throws off an article on Christina Rossetti; & girds itself up to deal with this & that. . .
Nessa [Bell, her sister] & Duncan [Grant, painter] are at Cassis, which brings the delicious vision of France too near me—Oh to walk among vineyards I cry again. And lots of people are on the buzz: dined last night with Raymond [Mortimer, writer and critic], a shabby & diminished Raymond, whom I like better than the dashing. Not much wine & so on. He has given up parties & takes Wyndham Lewis much to heart “A middle aged man-milliner” said Lewis in that pamphlet which is like the gossip & spite & bickering of a suburban housemaid who has been given notice & is getting a bit of her own back.
There are many volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, all of which I shall now attempt to list.
- A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume I: 1915-1919
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1920-1924
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume III: 1925-1930
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume IV: 1931-1935
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume V: 1936-1941
- A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary
- A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
They are all superb, but if these multiple volumes seem intimidating I’d start with A Moment’s Liberty, which is an abridged collection of entries that span 1915 to 1941, and A Writer’s Diary, which is a selection of diary entries that relate to her work. These were all originally published by Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and those early editions are gorgeous. If you can’t find those ones, a modern edition has recently been published by Granta Books).