The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Two: 1920-1924
edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 371 pp., $12.95
The Unknown Virginia Woolf
by Roger Poole
Cambridge University Press, 285 pp., $11.95
Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf
by Phyllis Rose
Oxford University Press, 298 pp., $12.95
There has of late been a transformation in the fortunes of Virginia Woolf. It is not that she has belatedly grown famous; her name has been a household word since the mid-Twenties, and even at the start of that decade she was able, as this new diary shows us, to predict with sardonic accuracy the reactions of reviewers (“Mrs Woolf…must beware of virtuosity. She must beware of obscurity…her great natural gifts &c…. She is at her best in the simple lyric…”). She lived to see a good deal written about her; and even in the years when her reputation went into its posthumous slump there was a steady stream of books and articles. But what is happening at the moment transcends mere fashion. She is being received into the canon.
There appear to be two main reasons for the alteration in the kind of attention her novels are getting—apart, that is, from a developing recognition of their own merits. The first is a renewed interest in her feminism, now seen as constituting precisely that serious and intelligent commitment to the affairs of her society and the world that was formerly supposed, by arrogant males, to be impossible in a woman of her temperament and talents. This aspect of her work is now, and quite justly, thought to be far more important than her clever men friends could understand. There are even attempts to develop, from some of her remarks, a theory of androgyny, founded in her reading of Coleridge; Roger Poole, sympathetic to feminism, nevertheless makes some sturdy qualifications here, and one is glad of them, for a bass voice strengthens the chorus.
The second extrinsic reason for the change I speak of is the renascence of Aubreyan candor in literary gossip, especially about Bloomsbury. When Michael Holroyd wrote his Strachey few of the survivors seemed to care what was said about them, and in a sense it is their candor that has now grown popular. Virginia Woolf shared it; sometimes it seems that for her the word bugger was virtually a synonym for “male,” and her autobiographical writings (published a couple of years ago under the title Moments of Being) reflect the passion of the Bloomsbury buggers for intimate and even embarrassing truth.
Leonard Woolf, who long ago published an excellent selection from her diary, spoke with loving candor of Virginia in his multi-volume autobiography, and so did her nephew Quentin Bell in the standard biography. The world knows pretty well by now that her half-brothers interfered with her sexually, that her father oppressed her, that from time to time she was insane, and that these and other sufferings were not unrelated to disadvantages shared by others of her sex. Six volumes of letters and five of the diary will make her intimate life as well known to the public as that of any author in history.
A second wave of biography, interpretative and revisionist, is inevitable. And so people turn again, with curiosity or veneration …