WHEN LEONARD WOOLF published a selection from his wife's private journals in 1953 he called the book A Writer's Diary , and he made it just that: a sensitive artist's thoughts about her own writing, and her opinions of other people's. The book was valuable, illuminating, continually interesting-one could run through all the standard reviewers' terms of praise-but it was also a mis-representation of its subject. Leonard Woolf had set out to represent his late wife as a great writer, and to make his point he left out all her other woman's roles; so much so that the final entry, written four days before her suicide, comes as a poignant surprise: "And now with some pleasure I find that it's seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gain a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down." The rest of A Writer's Dairy doesn't prepare you for that-Virginia Woolf, great artist, cooking dinner.

Now, in the complete diary, the haddock-and-sausage-meat Virginia Woolf comes into her own, and what a delight she is! The woman in A Writer's Dairy was someone your had to admire but wouldn't want to meet at dinner-so intense, so industrious, so self-absorbed, so relentlessly literary; but the complete Virginia Woolf is perfect company, a gossipy, bitchy, witty woman, interested in all kinds of things that have nothing to do with High Art, and entertaining about them all. She is a friend to a circle of brilliant and peculiar people a devoted wife, the proprietor of a small publishing business (and also typesetter a fond aunt, a keeper of houses and employed of servants, a country woman when she's in the country who nevertheless returns to London as might a mistress to her lover. She is a fascinated observer of society (the diaries remind us, if we need reminding, that her proper place in literary history is with the great social novelists, that she is more like Jane Austen than like James Joyce); but she is also good on nature, knows the names of flowers and moths, and is a sensitive recorder of landscapes and weathers.

In all this bounty of observation and opinion, the self-absorption disappears, and one begins to understand what she meant when she wrote, in an earlier diary, "I haven't an inner life." Her mind did not habitually turn inward, her life was a life of impressions, a continous interaction between hereself and her world. That world was, of course an enclosed one-the intellectual middle class of early 20th-century London that she herself called "Bloomsbury." The cast of characters is large, but relatively fixed: enter Lytton, enter Morgan, enter Nessa, Maynar, Lydia, Desmond, Saxon, Frankie, Carrington. About these omnipresent friends she is affectionate, but never sentimental, and frequently pleasingly bitchy. Vita Sackville-West enters her life, and Mrs. Woolf remarks that she is "not much to my severer taste-florid," moustached, parakeet coloured, with all the supple ease of the aristocracy, but not the wit of the artist"; E.M. Forster passes, and she observes that "the middle age of buggers is not to be contemplated without horror"; she meets Arnold Bennett (not strictly Bloomsbury), and fixes him with an image; "a lovable sea lion, with chocolate eyes, drooping lids, & a protruding tusk"; T.S. Eliot comes to Sunday tea, and she notices one thing-how he pronounces his French "with great care and pride."

Even if there were no Virginia Woolf novels these diaries would earn her a secure place among the writers of her time: they constitute a social history of one place and time that has no modern parallel. Tha fact that the diarist is also a major novelist makes them interesting in another way-as the almost day-to-day record of the growth of a writer's imagination. Volume Two covers the years 1920-1924, during which Jacob's Room was published and Mrs. Dalloway written. By this time Mrs. Woolf knew how good she was, and what she might achieve. Looking back on her early novels, she saw them, quite correctly, as apprentice work, preparations for what was coming. So, when Maynard Keynes criticized Night and Day for its excessive detail, she could calmly reply: "Oh, its a dull book, I know . . . but don't you see you must put it all in before you can leave out." In Jacob's Room she had begun to "leave out," and she saw that book as her real beginning: "There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice," she wrote, "and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise."

Yet even now, as she went a head into Mrs. Dalloway , her life as an artist was continually mixed with her other lives: "Compliments, clothes, building, photography," she wrote in 1922, "it is for these reasons that I cannot write Mrs. Dalloway ." Reading her life one day at a time we can see not only how it was that she could not write her novel, but how she could-how the diversity of her daily life came together to give her what she strove for: not the sense of Art, but the sense of Life. "People come must days," she writes in the final entry to this volume. "I enjoy my printing afternoons, & think it the sanest way of life-for if I were always writing, or merely recouping from writing, I should be like an inbreeding rabbit-my progeny becoming weakly albinos." Sane is the right word for her, after all: it was a precarious sanity in the life, and in the end it failed her; but it was a strong and certain sanity in the work-and in this marvelous diary.