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…

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