THE POSTHUMOUS LIFE of Virginia Woolf continues to yield its overflowing bounty, 41 years after her suicide. There has been nothing like it in the Anglo-American literary world. Six volumes of collected letters, five volumes of diary, more than a dozen gatherings of critical essays, memoirs, variant versions of novels, a play, fugitive papers. The output of Woolfs's 59 years, 20 volumes, was sufficient for any writer's lifetime. By now that number has more than doubled. She is Britain's most representative all-round lady of letters; to find another like her we have to go back to George Eliot who died in 1880, just two years before Woolf was born.
The final volume of her packed and vibrant diary covers five years, from 1936 to within four days before she drowned herself in the river Ouse near her home. During this period there was no diminution in her productive and organized writing life -- her novel, The Years (a best-seller in America), a polemical feminist tract, Three Guineas, her biography of Roger Fry and the all-but-finished novel Between the Acts. And there were the uncontrollable world events of these years -- the Spanish Civil War in which Woolf's nephew Julian Bell was killed; the British abdication crisis and coronation of George VI; Chamberlain's disastrous flirtation with Hitler in Munich; the Nazi rape of Czechoslovakia and Austria; and finally Hitler's bombs and the Battle of Britain.
Virginia Woolf's fragile psyche, sustained by her marriage to Leonard Woolf, was able at first to stand up against the upheaval, but later succumbed to her deep depression. Her diary shows her fortitude, her vigor, and clear sense of the realities. Her London home is bombed; they retreat to Monk's House in Sussex. She quails before her reviewers, she always found them hard to take -- they made her feel unloved. But in the midst of the second war and her personal suffering she is observing, describing, recording. Her diaries bring back that entire time, from the wretchedness of the war scares, to the painful actuality. And as always her carefully kept record is filled with phrase-vignettes, sketches, caricatures, mockeries, and generosities as she meets the young and old of her time. She could be mordant in the process:
W.H. Auden -- "a small rough-haired terrier man; slits for eyes; a crude face, interesting, I expect." T.S. Eliot -- "a little muffin-faced; sallow and shadowed." E.M. Forster -- "on taking off his coat -- a very hot night -- revealed a round arrel. Has he suddenly grown a fat man?" John Maynard Keynes -- "I cowered beneath his pugnacious positive puritan ways . . . A blank wall of disapproval; till I kissed him." Somerset Maugham -- "his eyes are drawn back like a dead man's. He has small ferret eyes. A look of suffering and malignity and meanness and suspicion. A mechanical voice." Chistopher Isherwood -- "a slip of a wild boy: with quicksilver eyes." H.G. Wells -- "rather shrunk . . . little sparrow chirp . . . mischievous; eyes a little bleared . . . humane . . . also brutal; also entirely without poetry." Edward VIII -- "hang it all -- the age of Victoria is over. Let him marry whom he likes . . . a set pigheaded steely mind . . . a very ordinary young man." The observing is constant; and acute.
THESE are rich and vivid pages -- especially the attention Virginia Woolf pays to people's eyes and their illumination of the face. I cannot resist offering some personal testimony to her all-enveloping glance, her own recording eyes. An entry of 10 January 1937 stirs my old memories into vividness. Woolf describes a visit she paid with Leonard to Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), the Kentucky-born Ibsen actress who electrified London in the 1890s (and in particular Henry James) by her playing of Hedda, Nora and Hilda, that triad of Ibsenian modern women. Present also was Miss Robins' friend and housemate, Octavia Wilberforce, M.D. (1888-1963) in their home in Brighton, No. 10 Montpelier Crescent. Virginia and Leonard sit with Robins in the back parlor -- polished tables, solid books, pictures, bibelots. And I find it strange to recall that a few weeks later I sat in the same room, with the same ladies and looked at the same surroundings.
I WAS trying to obtain Robins' memories and letters from Henry James. She was cautious and monosyllabic. She was more communicative with the Woolfs, who wanted to publish a volume of her memoirs. I returned however to Montpelier Crescent to dine with the two ladies and so the rooms got fixed in my memory (of my much less observant self). I wonder at the magical way in which the Woolf diary restores these visits after 50 years. The only addition I can make to Virginia's inventory is a fine unfinished drawing of William Wilberforce, Octavia's great grandfather, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The diary reminds me of the little china statuette of the great emancipator in which I seem to see him orating with his hands under his lapels. The diary also brings back Octavia's jewellery, "loops of silver chain" and Octavia herself, "a very fresh coloured healthy minded doctor, in black . . with good teeth and a candid kind smile." I too looked into the deep blue eyes of Elizabeth Robins that shone despite her great age -- eyes set into that "gnarled" face. It is all rather uncanny, It demonstrates -- at least to me -- that Woolf's diary is much more than personal jottings: she records in the tradition of Pepys or of Boswell -- she is documentary, and in 300 words she has given me more than any photograph would have done, of the environment of these two suffragettes -- the ancient actress and her younger prot,eg,ee.
The packed and crowed pages filled with places, persons, and "moments of being" need a detailed gloss and Anne Olivier Bell's footnotes and the researches of her assistant Andrew McNeillie are more satisfying than any footnotes I have ever known (or written myself). She has an extraordinary familiarity with all the movements of the Woolfs and the Bloomsbury circle: she peoples other decades. The editing is an achievement of scholarship, and scholarly wisdom, unequalled in our time.
The publication of Vita Sackville-West's letters to Virginia Woolf rounds out the other side of the correspondence, Virginia's letters to her, published in the six volumes edited by Nigel Nicolson; and rounds out, too, the documentation of the brief but sufficiently literary-historical lesbian flirtation between the novelist of the subjective world and the less brilliant and more earth-bound novelist of upper-crust Britain. The editors graft in excerpts from the Woolf letters in a useful way; these make us wish that the complete two sides of the correspondence had been given in one place. I am not sure I agree with Nigel Nicolson that Woolf's letters to his mother Vita are the best she ever wrote. They are however very good; Vita's respond with liveliness and amusement, the tones of a woman of the world. Those who have followed the Sackville-West revelations will find this volume informative, useful, readable and entertaining. CAPTION: Picture 1, Virginia Wolf, Drawing by David Levine. Reprinted with Permission from the New York Review. Copyright (c) 1972, NYREV, INC. Pictures 2 and 3, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West