Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf; drawing by David Levine

To the present-day reader who can know “Bloomsbury” only by hearsay, and for a critic like myself who read Virginia Woolf’s works as they came out but who had no acquaintance with the older survivors of the set until their middle age in the Second World War, they must seem like the natives of some lost tropic of this century’s early history. One is apt to forget that they were not the only distinguished writers, artists, thinkers, Puritans, or hedonists of the time. After 1939 that phase of our civilization, sometimes known as the sunset of the high bourgeois culture of Europe, had clouded over. As the dramatis personae reappear in The Diary of Virginia Woolf, patiently annotated by Anne Olivier Bell, in the Letters, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, and in Quentin Bell’s Life, their voices, with their cool antique accent, come back.

We now have the sixth and last volume of the wonderfully talking Letters; we have already had the third volume of the Diary covering the years 1925-1930: the final volume is yet to come. (It is therefore impossible to match the Letters with the Diary, in which Virginia talks to herself, but events rarely correspond with her private musings. In the Letters she carelessly and hastily gave away the projected self of the hour; in the Diary she contemplated herself and her work more searchingly, often more gloomily. Her truthfulness was, as is usual in diaries, a truth to the moment, as her observation of people changed from one day to the next. The unguarded candor on which “Bloomsbury” prided itself had the malice of artificial comedy, and she was known to have the sharpest tongue of all. But the cult of friendship was reckoned to be strong enough to stand the militancy. The artist was forgiven, the kensington lady not always.

Virginia Woolf was a compulsive letter writer. The “humane art,” as she once wrote in an essay on letter writing, was a way of warding off loneliness by keeping conversation going with the absent, at a time when conversation had revived as an art in itself. She did not much care for the solitude she needed but lived for news, gossip, and the expectancy of talk. She was a connoisseur of manners and gestures, and had the habit of asking a question and breaking off to ask another. If she wrote to captivate her friends and to keep the affection she so strongly needed, the other purpose of letter writing was to stir the mood for serious writing (Balzac also recommended this). Nigel Nicolson adds a passage that cannot be bettered:

She described people as if they had no substance until their differences from other people had been analysed, and events as if none had really taken place until it had been recorded, in a manner unmistakeably her own, imagining the smile, the frown, of the recipient, rarely repeating a phrase, so grateful for the wealth of the language that she scatters it willfully, as lavish with words as a pianist is with notes, knowing that it is inexhaustible.

It must be said that if her pace had always been fast, it often became a shade frantic in her fifties. This is because she worked harder than ever when she became famous, as gifted writers do—what else is there to do but write?—but also because for everyone younger or older than herself the Thirties were a period of oppressive anxiety. The fear of yet another great war was at any rate removed when war became real, though—as she noted in an ominous phrase—it was henceforth impossible “to lift the fringe of the future.” Her history of madness, the tragedies of her early life had made her familiar with terror. One may even feel that her imaginative prose has wildness in it and that her laughter, as she breaks life down into moments, is a skirmish with alarm. In the third volume of her Letters, in which her great energies are more robust than in the present one, her will was on terms with the venture she was committed to. To Vita Sackville-West she wrote in 1928:

I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross; that it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish…. Only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable.

There is confidence and experience in those words.

In 1936 she had finished. The Waves and Orlando, a volume of The Common Reader was behind her, and she was struggling with the enormous novel The Years and her tormenting biography of Roger Fry. It tormented because biography has to bow to research and fact. (Those who sneered at her, as Q.D. Leavis did, as “an idle social parasite” might bear in mind the immense reading her criticism in The Common Reader demanded and that, for example, even a short essay on Mrs. Thrale was rewritten eight times. If she could not resist Society, which her husband thought dangerous for her, her plunges were not pure vanity and may have relieved an overactive brain). And London was not all vapid dissipation: her own circle were deep in political committees—she could hear them droning away in the next room at Tavistock Square—as Hitler went into the Rhineland and the Spanish Civil War began and was brought close to home by the tragedy of Julian Bell’s death there. There was the relief of the guilt, the fear, the hysteria of Munich as she went back to Rodmell to her familiar headaches. Civilization, said Leonard and everyone else, was at an end. “Bloomsbury” was coming to an end. The younger generation questioned the solitary obsession that kept her going.


In the third volume of the Diary (1925-1930) we do hear of a “brush with death” when she falls down unconscious during a walk with Lydia Keynes. She writes:

Had I woken in the divine presence it wd. have been with fists clenched & fury on my lips. “I don’t want to come here at all!” So I should have exclaimed. I wonder if this is the general state of people who die violently. If so figure the condition of Heaven after a battle.

Earlier still she had felt “that old whirr of wings in the head which comes when I’m ill so often.”

If violence was latent in her genius and nature, the letters show her as the mistress of comedy. It is the one certain excellence, and perhaps supreme, in the English essayists and novelists, for our affections are entwined with our militancy. In the present volume, as the familiar Bloomsbury chatter goes on, the startling figure of Ethel Smyth thumps in and out. This seventy-year-old feminist and musician who is at war with the whole male sex and whom Virginia freely addresses as “my uncastrated cat” falls in love with her. Ethel Smyth is a sort of deaf Britannia who bawls out her hatred of Bloomsbury like some blustering figure out of Rowlandson.

“What a rackety race you Smyths are,” Virginia writes to her. “Bankruptcy, Sapphism, hunting, suicide, all in one gulp. How then did you keep so d—d military upright and brass-but-toned? Explain.”

At first afraid that Ethel will put a portrait of her in one of her autobiographical works and maddened by the almost daily bombardment of letters, Virginia fights back in defense of her friends. Ethel is quite unlike the adored Vita Sackville-West who can be called upon to “pluck a swan and dip its feather in green ink” and touch mind and heart in her letters. Virginia writes to Vita:

Oh Ethel! I could not face her, though she was passing our door. Her letters sound as if she was in a furious droning mood, like a gale, all one note…. [All about the hostility of the male-governed world] Deafness I daresay…. She can’t get rid of her mind in talk.

But she excuses herself to Ethel when The Waves is getting out of focus:

But this explains perhaps certain absences of mind, and cannon bolts down the telephone—Lord! how I like the thud of my abuse upon your hide. I think I shall make a practise of it. “Ethel. d’you know you’re a damned Harlot—a hoary harpy—or an eldritch shriek of egotism—a hail storm of inconsecutive and inconsequent conceit. That’s all.” And I shall ring off.

But, cooling down after a row about Maurice Baring:

How you grow on me. Isn’t that odd? Absence; thinking of someone—then the real feeling has room to expand, like the sights that one only sees afterwards. Is that peculiar to me, or common to all? Anyhow, lying in bed, or listlessly turning books I could hardly read, over and over again I’ve thought of you, and dwelt on your affection…. And then how I adore your broad human bottom—how it kindles me to think of you, worried and bothered, yet lunching at a party of 12 and I’m convinced keeping the table in an uproar; and plunging like a blue Italian Dolphin into all the nets of the Sitwells, always battling and battering—and with it all keeping a mushroom sensibly intact.

All the letters are fictions in embryo—this particular running portrait Dickensian caricature. She is treating Ethel with far more affection in her wicked wit than Dickens showed Americans in his American Notes or Martin Chuzzlewit, for Ethel was half an outsider, and escaped the fate of what the Woolfs called the underworld beyond their circle.


We notice deep unchanging devotion toward her husband, her sister, her nephew Julian, and her adored niece Angelica. She fought back hard when Benedict Nicolson—Vita’s son—attacked Roger Fry for his supposed failure to “educate the masses”—that general charge of social isolation and lack of committed social conscience which the young were bringing against their elders.

The war-time letters are valuable as historical day-to-day evidence. The war frames the letter to Benedict Nicolson so that it is like a long short story, for as she takes up Fry’s defense, bombers come over: “I went and looked at them. Then I returned to your letter.” Her defense begins to blister with sarcasm about Ben’s privileges, which Fry had not had. “The raiders began emitting long trails of smoke. I wondered if a bomb was going to fall on top of me; I wondered if I was facing disagreeable actualities; I wondered what I could have done to stop bombs and disagreeable actualities…. Then I dipped into your letter again.” The argument continues as she is telling him she admires his honesty but warns him against looking for scapegoats. It was particularly searing for her to have to remind Ben that Fry had to deal with insanity and death in his own home. “I know you’re having a worse time [in London] than I am…. Another siren has just sounded.” The letter is fierce as argument and story. It worried her afterward that perhaps she had misunderstood his argument.

Being in the “front line” for air raids and possible invasion at Rodmell gave her, as it did elsewhere to others, a gambler’s exhilaration to her fears: there was the awful sense of “the suspended sentence,” the possibility that “the sense of the future by which we live” had gone. The most shattering intimate aspect of the war for her was the destruction of the little streets and great sites of ancient London which, more than any other place, and far more than the serence marshes and downs of Sussex, had fed her sparkling sense of people and place. The London of her late Victorian girlhood, of the talkers of the eighteenth century and the gestures of the gorgeous Elizabethans, had been the mother of her genius.

What was the future? One has the impression that what haunted her at this time was another fear, the one that hunts the gifted as they age: that their talent may be vanishing whether their world is or is not collapsing. Illness, exorbitant, compulsive work might perhaps be exhausting not her talent, but the great strength of her will, except the will—and that would be rational—to kill herself. But the noises and dreaded voices in her head had begun.

When we turn back to Volume Three of the Diary we see her at the height of her matured powers, wryly conscious of the deceits of fame. She was basking in the lark of Orlando, the fantastic love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and was agonising as she went on to The Waves, a very different matter. The “tug and suck” are at her; why, she asks, could she not be as spontaneous as she had been in Orlando? But,

…the idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated?

She is disquieted by “the remorseless severity” of her mind. It never stops reading and writing. Is she too much a professional, “too little any longer a dreamy amateur?”

She goes to see Thomas Hardy, who impresses by his vitality. Writing poetry, he flatly said, was a question of physical strength. A kind, sensible, sincere man, who held his head down like a pouter pigeon, he made one good Hardyesque remark: “None of my books are fitted to be wedding presents.” She goes to see H.G.Wells, who had the red cheeks and jowls of a butcher, liked rambling and romancing about people, but who reeked of lust. The virtues he admires, he says, are courage and vitality. (“I said how ghastly.”) He replies nothing is ghastly where there is courage. He gets drowsy after lunch. She goes to see Arnold Bennett—no love here. He’s too pleased with his clothes.

“And you drop your aitches on purpose,” I said “thinking that you possess more ‘life’ than we do.” “I sometimes tease,” said B. “But I don’t think I possess more life than you do.”

She is blind to Bennett and certainly didn’t grasp that Riceyman Steps is a masterpiece that has lasted. The old men she likes best are those like George Moore and Yeats who kept their minds flying.

There is a painful meeting with Eliot and his first wife. Mrs. Eliot, who is “sane to the point of insanity,” all suspicion and looking for hidden meanings, says Virginia has made a signal for them to go. When they’ve left Virginia says, “This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.” And there are the weeks of long personal gloom.

One goes down the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth. Down there I can’t write or read; I exist however. I am. Then I ask myself what I am? & get a closer though less flattering answer than I should on the surface—where, to tell the truth, I get more praise than is right. But the praise will go; one will be left alone with this queer being in old age. I am glad to find it on the whole so interesting, though so acutely unpleasant.

The next day she cheers up a little, reflecting on the mystical side of solitude.

How it is not oneself but something in the universe that one’s left with….

And out comes that sudden, wild, mysterious image—

One sees a fin passing far out.

Perhaps that shark-like fin is a hint of how the impulse to write The Waves first came to her. Quentin Bell calls the Diary a masterpiece: it is, indeed, among the great diaries, and is a huge, sharply peopled autobiography of the temperament of genius.

This Issue

November 20, 1980