EVERYTHING VIRGINIA WOOLF touched turned to art. In this third of five volumes of her diary, her luminous writing, wit and sensitivity to impressions transform the day to day record of thoughts, events and gossip into a coherent, sparkling piece with concerns, themes and movement parallel to those in her fiction. Like Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse the diary describes a kind of comedy of manners, serving both background and source for her preoccupation with questions of being, perception and subjectivity. Social engagements, Bloomsbury or society gossip, and vivid sketches of friends and visitors flow into deeper reflections on the nature of reality, time and art.
Volume Three includes the years 1925-30, artistically, and perhaps personally, the richest in Woolf's life. Mrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader were published in 1925, increasing her fame as novelist and critic. She wrote To the Lighthouse, Orlando , and much of The Waves , and the two lectures on women and fiction which became A Room of One's Own . During this period Woolf seems fairly happy and healthy, and despite bouts of anxiety and illness, confident of her ability to work. "At 46," she writes in 1928, "I am not callous; suffer considerably; make good resolutions -- still fell as experimental & on the verge of getting at the truth as ever."
This vitality suggests itself not only in the vigor of her work, but the staggering number of people she managed to see at tea or dinner. Portraits of friends and acquaintances are the brilliant centerpiece of this book. Volume Three discreetly records Woolf's flourishing love for Vita Sackville-West, and although less frankly expressed than in their letters, the strength and stimulus of the attachment is clear. In addition to other close friends like E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Desmond MacCarthy -- the Bloomsbury group -- and Lady Ottoline Morrell and other society people, Woolf met and described several literary giants in this period: H. G. Wells, Robert Bridges, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats. Her detailed, inventive physical descriptions frequently mirror the inner character she perceives: "Edith Sitwell came to tea: transparent like some white bone one picks up on a moor, with sea water stones on her long frail hands which slide into yours much narrower than one expects like a folded fan . . . She is . . . sensitive, etiolated, affectionate, lonely . . . In other ages she would have been a cloistered nun." Interestingly, there are no sketches of Leonard Woolf or her sister Vanessa, who are mentioned frequently, though briefly and matter-of-factly. They are so constant, steady, sustaining that Woolf can write of herself and Leonard, "our treasure is . . . in such common things that nothing can touch it. That is, if one enjoys a bus ride . . . sitting on the green smoking . . . sitting down after dinner, side by side . . . what can trouble this happiness?"
These portraits often tell the reader more about Woolf than her subjects -- the force with which she received impressions, her alternating moods, her perpetual tendency to turn life into art. People, as much as objects and landscapes, formed part of the elusive world outside herself, at once floating and touching one briefly -- "a light on the surface of the mind" -- but also forming the hard facts of daily existence that bring to the mind's restless quest "a great sense of freshness." "Now is life very solid, or very shifting?" Woolf asks, and the answer for her is both. If there is any temporary resolution, it is the shape art gives to her impressions. When one visitor leaves, "what remains . . . is now in some ways more vivid, though more transparent, all of him composing itself in my mind . . . & making itself a landscape appropriate to it . . . a work of art."
Volume Three shows this creative process of transforming life and thought into art in the act. Woolf contrasts the ease and fluency of writing To the Lighthouse and Orlando with the slow evolution of The Waves , "the most complex, & difficult of all my books" to write. She does not discuss characters, motivation, plot ("I am writing The Waves to a rhythm not to a plot"). One does not learn directly from her diary why Rhoda commits suicide, or Bernard writes a book, or what Lily Briscoe's relation to Mr. Ramsey might mean. Rather, Woolf muses on shape and structure, and her notations unfold the creation itself. "I am not trying to tell a story," she says of The Waves on May 1929. "Yet perhaps it might be done that way. A mind thinking . . . life itself going on." In June she writes, "I think it will begin like this: dawn; the shells on a beach . . . the sense of children . . . The unreal world must be round all this." The diary conveys, with exciting immediacy, this metamorphosis from vision and impulse to finished work. It also notes the rejuvenating function of illness and depression, a time to sink to the bottom of the mind where truth lies and ideas bubble up to begin again the process of work.
Although the diary, the last of her major works and the most unselfconscious and directly personal, should, perhaps, give an unambiguous statement of who she was, it only shows more clearly the diversity and contradictions that lay within her. This is compatible with the fleeting, shifting view of external life that so excited her. Virginia Woolf spent most of her time writing Volume Three in London or Monk's House, Rodmell, her country home. Her Geographical world was small, her experience limited by country and class, the "comedy of manners" that underscores her life and art. Yet she fashioned from this works of delicacy and depth which, like her diaries, show the infinite capacity of a mind acting on its surroundings to delight, to move, and to illuminate the human condition.