Virginia Woolf played with identity in her fiction—what is/is not known about people, and what those people cannot tell. She got these ideas from the way she lived her own life, and from the lives of those around her. In fact, the early Bloomsbury group talked about these very things: how much can be divulged about one’s life before (a) embarrassment veils the story, or (b) ridicule from others shows from the revelation of those facts (stories); and, likewise, how much should be told to friends or anyone else (including, perhaps, physicians).
The Bloomsbury group led open lives—much more so than their Edwardian society around them would indulge, and scandalously so compared to their Victorian roots (and living relatives). They talked about every subject, including debates on the moral solvency of suicide. They were a close-knit group, but their evenings together became famous (some might say infamous) in contemporary society for that very openness. How the information came to be known around London did not come so much from the Bloomsbury gang themselves, but through the impressions they made on the visitors who came and went on those famous Thursday night gatherings. Yet … not everything was revealed about their lives. Not in public (even among friends), and not even in their diaries.
Woolf’s novels possibly expose the most intimate details of any Bloomsbury member, deftly folded into literary stories, characters, and settings she chose. She took from herself, her friends, family, and enemies to build those worlds within the word. Her diaries also tell a story, perhaps the most intimate of all details of the interior life she led. By interior, I mean life within one’s mind. Woolf used her inner life as models for the interior story that revolutionized literature.
The diaries are fascinating reading. Woolf writes entries where she battles with herself in deciding what she could write in the diaries & what she must leave out. Somehow, she felt the need to keep secrets from the private journal. You might wonder, How odd to censor oneself even in the most intimate of privacies. Perhaps.
A wider issue needs to be considered, I think, in Woolf’s instance, and, for all diarists. VW wrote her diaries for herself. She reread them often, to retrace her thoughts and the processes by which she came to her thoughts, ideas for stories, and conclusions on people, friends, and life. She often argued with herself in these pages. Just as well, she learned something about herself and her capabilities. Likewise, she was not afraid to contradict herself, notice the contradiction, and wonder where that all came from (or would lead her).
This is good stuff. Of course, we all do this from time to time. But few of us (and fewer as a whole, perhaps) commit these thoughts to paper (or today, the blog???) for later reading. How Woolf must have understood herself so completely! And in all her flaws and contradictions. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do this so consistently, and brutally, as VW often did. (But it must also be said that VW just as easily could fool herself, at least for a single entry…as human beings are wont to place themselves in the best light.)
But as Woolf wrote her diaries, she came to understand, and had the idea firmly planted in her mind, that someday her diaries would be published. By that notion, she felt she had to exercise some prudence in divulging certain information. Mostly these came from her personal life. She could be brutally honest and cutting about her family and friends, as her descriptions and assessments of people show. Those of you who keep a diary likely understand the need to “hold back” some information.
When I write in my diary, I often find myself (or is the term “catch” myself) holding the pen above the page, wondering-if-and-what-or-how-much I can or should write about me or someone I know. “What if…” I ask myself, “the diary ‘falls’ into the wrong hands before I’m dead?” Yes, self-censorship. Yes, secrets. Yes, they would not be SECRETS any longer!
And…we all have secrets. Mine are…
I’m not telling.
These secrets we carry are likely nothing momentous to life, liberty, or the outside world. At least I don’t think mine are. Nor are mine illegal secrets (perhaps). They are, nonetheless, information, events, thoughts, that to no one in this life I would want known.
Vanity? Embarrassment? Something else? Oh…maybe. Whatever the case, they are my thoughts, unavailable to any other. Of course, I doubt very much if my life will be written after I die. Nor shall my diaries be published.
In Woolf’s case, she held back her final thoughts of suicide, but only until just before she killed herself. Her last diary entry was six days before she drowned herself in the Ouse River, outside London. On that morning, she left a note to her husband. The beginning reads: “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
Virginia Woolf’s life has been dissected by dozens of literary historians, feminists, misogynists, cranks, and sycophants. From the straightforward, to the intrusive, to the respectful but truthful, to the outright bizarre, VW’s legacy has been a pincushion for writers. (And, I suppose, I’ve now weighed in.) Whatever your own reading of Woolf is based on — the biographies and her writing, the rumors of her life, those surrounding her childhood, and possible sexual abuse — the factual mental breakdowns she suffered (and the ridiculous treatments for those, including a milk diet) must be taken as a whole to her writerly life. All of her life contributed to her vivid insight to human nature and her revolutionary literary imagination.
That writerly life, I think, is the real treasure we find when reading VW’s diaries and letters (there are many volumes of both). The rest seems all so post post-modern tittle-tattle when weighted against many people’s drive to learn about “the dirt” of someone’s life — not to mention schadenfreude.
That we do not know every thought Virginia Woolf had is good. What there is shows how Woolf established that the interior mind was not only valid as subject for literature, but vital to the evolution of character-centered story.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.