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The Last Act

The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume 5, 1936–1941

edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 402 pp., $19.95

Readers may be too weary to contemplate even one single more book associated with Bloomsbury, but where this last volume of Woolf’s diary is concerned the recoil should be resisted. Forget the T-shirts, the ballyhoo, the copies of That Picture of the angelic Virginia Stephen pinned up by a multitude of seventeen-year-old girls next to Millais’s Ophelia and the worn teddy bear. Ars longa, ballyhoo brevis. The Bloomsbury publishing boom deserves a separate, objective analysis in its own right. This is the final volume of a major work by a serious writer.

Since this is the last volume, cut short by Woolf’s suicide at the age of fifty-eight, there is inevitably a strain of morbid curiosity in our reading of it; can we see the signs of the approaching death, where did it begin? In fact it is only the last pages, representing a matter of weeks, that are strictly relevant, though everything in the life and the diaries must in a sense be related to it. Through the rest of the book this volume is no different from the other four: a mixture of introspection, observation, gossip, working notes; a catching of the moment, a masterly artist’s sketchbook, supporting and linking the finished works. The line remains firm, the style unique. It is usually written at speed, uncorrected (so unlike the books), and in some little gap of time before lunch or tea. She set no great store by it; metaphorically, “these pages only cost a fraction of a farthing”—they did not have to undergo the dreadful scrutiny of her peers.

Why did she write the diary? She has been accused of “doing it up” for posterity; but there is no diary writer, including ourselves and our Uncle Henry, who never imagines the other person reading the page. At other times a diary is entirely a self-dialogue, uniting the bits of ourselves that talk to each other. More than before, she asks herself here what her diary really is for: “Not publication. Revision? a memoir of my own life? Perhaps”; and again, “Do I ever write, even here, for my own eye? If not, for whose eye? An interesting question, rather.” Sometimes there definitely is a reader; she assures “whoever reads this page,” or questions “which of our friends will interest posterity most?” At other times she recurs to the idea of her older self looking back—“I’m thinking of what I should like to read here in 10 years time.” In fact the diary is the spontaneous overflow of a committed writer’s tremendous energy; as she breathed, she wrote; and the diary meant a breath of fresh air, enjoyment after struggle, “liberating and freshening.” “Uncramp” is the important word:

Once more, as so often, I hunt for my dear old red-covered book, with what an instinct I’m not quite sure. For what the point of making these notes is I don’t know; save that it becomes a necessity to uncramp, and some of it may interest me later. But what? For I never reach the depths; I’m too surface blown. And always scribble before going in—look quickly at my watch. Yes. 10 minutes left….

The depths” are there, implicitly, enough to inform much of the writing with all the percipience and glow we need—though perhaps less, it is true, in these late volumes than in the early ones.

The five years of the diary open in the middle of the great struggle to get The Years done; of which more later. Next came Three Guineas and Roger Fry, and lastly Between the Acts, which was left unrevised at death. From public life, some events are vividly reflected (refutation no. 1: that Woolf was absorbed only in herself and her clique); the death of George V, the abdication crisis, the approach of war, and Munich, and then of course the Second World War itself—the lull, and after it the London blitz. The Depression hardly surfaces (it must be remembered she knew her husband to be the one who was doing public work); but there is an incident when a half-starved girl looking for work comes to their door.

At first she cd hardly speak…. Said You look like brother & sister, both have long noses. I’m a Jewess—a curious stress on the word as if a confession. So’s he I said. Then she perked up a little. But my God—no one to help her…. Never saw unhappiness, poverty so tangible…. Think of one of our ‘class’: & this is what we exact.

One of the tragedies of these years was of course the death of Vanessa Bell’s son Julian in the Spanish civil war. There is a gap in the diary: the piece that Virginia Woolf wrote about him at the time is not included here. Over and again, though, she returns to his loss, and her sister’s suffering.

Character sketches of great panache abound again: Maugham—“A look of suffering & malignity & meanness & suspicion. A mechanical voice as if he had to raise a lever at each word—stiffens talk into something hard cut measured”; Beatrice Webb, “as alive as a leaf on an autumn bonfire: burning, skeletonised”; a long, ineffably amused piece on the elderly H.G. Wells. Also one curious vignette: the Woolfs meet the aged Freud in his Hampstead refuge, he hands her a narcissus (presumably no significance intended?). Of course it would be foolish to say that in years of private diarizing there is no dross: who met whom and who was at the party may have to be skimmed over. And sometimes the speed of associations runs so fast that it almost leaves the reader behind, with a sense of incoherence. But nearly always the diary does solve it—“the old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact.” One of its main functions surely was to limber up on that crucial aesthetic preoccupation.

The dreadful history of The Years is represented as much as anything by gaps in the diary when Woolf breaks down completely over it. No wonder! The writing of the book ran almost right through the previous volume of the diaries—a five-year stretch. It was dogged from the start by a feminist propagandist aim which soon became irrelevant to the demands of form but which somehow held back the book’s spontaneity. By 1932 she had already written a substantial part of a “novel-essay” which had alternate chapters of feminist argument and illustrative fiction. This could never have worked, and it became a pure novel—a very long and ambitious one.

The first draft was already finished in late 1934, over a year before this volume even opens. She rewrote and shortened all through 1935, and intended 1936 for a final reworking. But there is a gap of two months early in 1936 while she was in a state of nervous collapse, and the diary ominously opens again with a plan to completely change the book in proof.

She was to conserve her strength and take it in tiny stretches each day. “I am learning my craft in the most fierce conditions. Really reading Flaubert’s letters I hear my own voice cry out Oh art! Patience. Find him consoling, admonishing. I must get this book quietly strongly daringly into shape.” Another gap in the entries, this time of four months, when life and work almost came to a standstill. November 1936: the awful scene when she reread the proofs as a whole and then took them, “like a dead cat,” to Leonard Woolf to be burned unread. He read them, bent the truth a bit for the first time, and told her he liked the book. It was published; did surprisingly well at the time; but would now, I suppose, be considered the least successful of her books.

Refutation no. 2: that Woolf was a leisured and leisurely lady. The gaps, the great black holes of breakdown, took place in a working life of immense energy. If her revisions and rewritings had actually made up separate books, the output would have been enormous. Work was her gospel—almost literally a religious one, for she returns often to her belief that it is what justifies her, what she must contribute to the sum of things—“what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make.” After Julian Bell’s death she knows she writes against death: “Thats one of the specific qualities of this death—how it brings close the immense vacancy, & our short little run into inanity. Now this is what I intend to combat. How? how make good what I protest, that I will not yield an inch or a fraction of an inch to nothingness, so long as something remains? Work of course.” (On a lesser level, how they walked. One afternoon, alone: Southwark Bridge—Thames Street—down to the riverside mud [“people stared”]—rats, chains, slime—the Tower—Pepys’s church in Hart Street—Fenchurch Street, Billings-gate—Leadenhall Market—“so back by omnibus.”)

One should attempt—though it’s hard—a third refutation: the snobbery question. Horrid, indeed, to us today are phrases like “Tunbridge Wells to the backbone” and fascism being “merely a housemaid’s dream” (“you’re behaving like a housemaid” was familiar in my mother’s generation, along with the “nigger-brown dress” and “working like a black”). Take the episode where Woolf rails against the play rehearsals by the Women’s Institute (a village organization).

I’m bored: bored & appalled by the readymade commonplaceness of these plays: which they cant act unless we help. I mean, the minds so cheap, compared with ours, like a bad novel—thats my contribution—to have my mind smeared by the village & WEA mind; & to endure it, & the simper.

Look closer, though, and one sees that what she objects to is not the characteristics of a different class but the falsity and meaninglessness of the relation in England between classes:

So, if Margaret LL. Davies says, how insolent we middleclass women are, I argue, why cant the workers then reject us? Whats wrong is the conventionality—not the coarseness. So that its all lulled & dulled. The very opposite of “common” or working class.

She was after the exact shade of flavor of things, without the dreadful English lulling and dulling and cap-doffing. Nowhere in her books does she use working-class characters in comic walk-on parts as was common at the time, and the servants she lived with were treated as human beings, as exasperating as Ottoline Morrell or Hugh Walpole; they were not sauced over with kindness. (And from the Women’s Institute plays at Asheham perhaps came the other village play—Between the Acts.) Notice too what were the two occasions when she “saw”—“I mean the sudden state when something moves one”:

Saw a man lying on the grass in Hyde Park. Newspapers spread round him to keep off the damp. A cheap attache case; & half a roll of bread. This moved me…. The last time I ‘saw’ was at MH. [Monk’s House, where she lived] last week end, when Louie [servant] was discussing the building at Knotts Bushes. My mother used to take us that way when we were children. She used to tell us how she walked from Telscombe to Newhaven to shop—a vision of the little caravan, absolutely private silent, unknown, going over the downs, talking.

One cannot end without trying to tackle the suicide. Because of the death of her nephew and of friends and, of course, because of the war, there is much reference to death here. Leonard, as a Jew who had worked against fascism, envisaged suicide if the Nazis reached Britain. But death is always mentioned here by Woolf in the context of an appetite for life, which in no way throws light on her suicide: “Talked of death in Russell Sqre…. I said I should not wish to live if he died. But until then found life what? exciting? Yes I think so. He agreed.” “No, I dont want the garage [joint wartime suicide] to see the end of me. I’ve a wish for 10 years more, & to write my book wh. as usual darts into my brain.” The suicidal mood is hidden in the diary gaps that mean breakdown; all we can gather is how swift and total and obliterative of normal life it must have been.

There is one glimpse much earlier (1937) of that state of mind.

A physical feeling as if I were drumming slightly in the veins: very cold: impotent; & terrified. As if I were exposed on a high ledge in full light. Very lonely…. Very useless. No atmosphere round me. No words. Very apprehensive. As if something cold & horrible—a roar of laughter at my expense were about to happen. And I am powerless to ward it off: I have no protection. And this anxiety and nothingness surround me with a vacuum.

The phrases that matter are “no atmosphere” and “anxiety and nothingness surround me with a vacuum.” She says elsewhere in the diary that writing meant for her “recovering that sense of something pressing from outside which consolidates the mist, the non-existent” (the no-atmosphere, the vacuum). When she finished a book, she was no longer at her life task of doing that; and as well, she was exposed on a high ledge, the roar of laughter at her about to happen. Critics have felt that her anxiety about the reception of a new book was pitifully egotistical, but fail to see how central the anxiety was; she defined and validated herself by the world’s reaction to each new exposure. Vanity is irrelevant in the context.

She could have scribbled in the margin of her manuscript, like Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts, “I am the slave of my audience.” For Miss La Trobe, “another play always lay behind the play she had just written.” After the pageant she is desolated—“ ‘A failure,’ she groaned, and stooped to put away the records”—until, sitting in the smoke and smell of beer in the pub, between the acts, she hears the first words of the next play stirring.

Woolf was the slave of her audience, but by the time Between the Acts was finished, there scarcely was an audience anymore; nor was there another act in the play except the fatal one. The precarious balance of her surrounding atmosphere was one casualty of the war. The near destruction in the blitz of their Mecklenburgh Square house and the destruction of their previous home in Gordon Square she took with panache. But the war meant a great change in the Woolfs’ habits. Every artist is concerned with keeping the sharpness of the inner world and the solidity of the surrounding audience in balance; hence, in Virginia Woolf’s case, the tension so evident in all the diaries between the sociable London life and the country writing life. With the blitz they more or less ceased to go to London and she was alone with her completed book in the silence.

Already nine months before her death she was writing “one curious feeling is, that the writing ‘I’ has vanished. No audience. No echo. Thats part of one’s death.” A little later: “All the walls, the protecting & reflecting walls, wear so terribly thin in this war. There’s no standard to write for: no public to echo back….” Toward the end: “There is no echo.” When the familiar conviction that Between the Acts was a failure hit her, it was in an empty bombed-out world. Her statement, over Julian Bell’s death, that she would combat “the immense vacancy,” “not yield an inch or a fraction of an inch to nothingness,” could not this time be sustained.

The moth image that preceded The Waves has turned in Between the Acts to desolation:

The fire greyed, then glowed, and the tortoiseshell butterfly beat on the lower pane of the window; beat, beat, beat; repeating that if no human being ever came, never, never, never, the books would be mouldy, the fire out and the tortoiseshell butterfly dead on the pane.

And so to the embrace of death. For death (Mrs. Dalloway) “was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”

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