QUENTIN BELL, in his introduction to this first volume of Virginia's diary (there are to be four more), declares the work as a whole to be "one of the great diaries of the world." Bell is Virginia's nephew and the author of her official biography. Has his present judgement perhaps been swayed by his relationship with the author?
What then are the essentials of a "great diary"? First is immediacy - the record of events, impressions, situations, personalities as they occur or are encountered. The second is that the diarist should be more interesting than the diary (pepys is here the classical example). Next, it should not be written for publication - spontaneity is of the essence. Any hint of self-consciousness is fatal. These, it seems to me, are the essential qualities. But more is needed - literary skill deployed over the widest range of human interests, insight into character, humor, introspection, pace. I have no doubt that this diary has all these qualities and more. it is indeed magnificent.
The present volume falls into three parts. The first covers the first six weeks of 1915 and is full and detailed. Then there is a gap until August 1917. For most of this time Virginia Woolf was, for the second time, mad. From August to October 1917 she and her husband Leonard lived at Asheham, her house in Sussex. For this period the diary entries are brief and concerned with such things as the weather, butterflies, finding mushrooms, picking fruit - the minutiae of country life.
She was writing Night and Day but makes no reference to the fact. It is as if she were rationing both the amount and the scope of her writing, avoiding whatever might endanger her still precarious mental balance. In October 1917 she and Leonard returned to Hogarth house, Richmond and the remainder of this volume was written there.
The form of the diary now changes at once and assumes the character it was to retain - what Virginia calls "the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along." later she comments: "Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct & instant shots at my object, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink." She considers what sort of a diary she wants to write: "Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, . . . in which one flings a mass of odds & ends without looking them through."
Immediacy, then, is her aim. There are almost no erasures or amendments. Personalities are described, often with a hint of malice, always with wit and insight. Maynard Keynes "like quicksilver on a sloping board," Clive Bell "brisk & wekk kept mentally," Duncan Grant and her sister Vanessa, both painters "they have smooth broad spaces in their minds where I am all prickles & promontories."
There are fuller character sketches of close friends: Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Desmond MacCarthy, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Clive Bell, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In some of these Virginia reveals her gift for comedy. In others, as for Strachey and Bell, affection dominates. Always there is illumination. Her circle of acquaintance was large - some 80 names in this category figure in the index - and each is lit up by a brilliantly phrased comment.
But Virginia remains throughout the focus of interest. She emerges as a writer with a painter's eye. Scenery, plants and insects demand loving description. She enjoys the paintings in the National gallery because they "stir me to describe them . . . [They] appeal to my plastic sense of words." She is always observer and commentator rather tahn participant or narrator. Almost the only narrative passage, a auction of Monk's House, her final home in Sussex.
From 1917 on, the diary records a time of happiness if not yet fulfilment. She was in constant demand as a book-reviewer, Night and Day went smoothly forward, work at the printing press she and Leonard had recently acquired was satisfying, and she could say, "I think perhaps 9 people out of ten never get a day in the year of such happiness as I have almost constantly." On the following day, however, "I feel unreason slowly trembling in my veins." Leonard, exempt from war-service, was both the source of her happiness and her life line against insanity. The line held until 1941.
Virginia gives, as the raison d'etre of her diary, her wish to provide herself at 50 with a retrospect of her earlier life. But it was more than that. It was a "natural growth of mine," a part of her compulsive need to write. When she was sick for a month she wrote in the diary: "My chief complaint is that I was divorced from my pen; a whole current of life cut off." She speaks of "the restless state most safely to be appeased by writing." So, in the interval between tea and dinner, she wrote her diary with what she calls "slapdash and vigour."
The result, to my mind, is, as Quentin Bell says, "a major work" and one waits eagerly for four more volumes.
An important word must be added - and should perhaps have prefaced this review. The editing of this volume by Anne Olivier Bell can only be described as magnificent. Footnotes explain facts, places and people so that the general reader requires no further background. Even the location of Mutton's restaurant in Brighton is given! It is all there. I wonder only whether today everyone recalls that a Collins was what we now call a "bread-and-butter" letter.
Lastly let me announce that the index is the best I have encountered in many a year. Not only is it exact and complete, but cross-references from nicknames to maiden names and married names are religiously, and most helpfully, supplied.
The Pargiters shows a different Virginia Woolf. What became finally the 1880 episode of The Years appears here as a novel-essay, an attempt to create what, years before in her diary, she had sought: "an elastic shape which will hold whatever you choose to put into it." The attempt was a failure but a fascinating one.
Thanks to the scrupulous editorial work of Mitchell A. Leaske we have a draft text with all the author's amendments and variants, the reasons for which are often impenetrably obscure, a draft still widely different from the final version in the novel. Preceding each chapter is an essay in which the author interprets her aims and methods.
The contrast with the "haphazard gallop" of the diary could not be greater. Here the author is seeking perfection and explaining the technique of her search. Clearly the process, however necessary to her as a writer, was agonizing, the target unattainable.
Scholars and psychologists will fine in The Pargiters a rich mine for research into the workings of one of the subtlest literary minds of our century.