Posts Tagged ‘Journals’

Writer’s Diaries Part IV: Virginia Woolf

In January 1920 while beginning work on her first experimental novel Jacob’s Room, Woolf boasted in her diary about her newfound technique: ‘the approach will be different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen;[…] I see immense possibilities in the form I hit upon more or less by chance’ (Diary 2:13). By 1923, however, Woolf’s method was causing her distress, and after the success of Jacob’s Room, she struggled with her next novel, Mrs Dalloway: ‘I have almost too many ideas,’ she wrote. ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity, side by side […] ‘this is going it be the devil of a struggle. The design is so queer and so masterful […]’ (Diary 2:248).

The struggles Woolf gives voice to in her diary, her trouble with the ‘queer’ and ‘masterful’ narrative she is attempting,  highlight her overwhelming need to claim a place for herself in literary (and by extension, her illustrious literary family’s) history. As she would later proclaim in Three Guineas (1938), she believed that the ‘boldest mission’ of ‘Victorian sons and daughters’ like her was to ‘cheat the father, to deceive the father, and then to fly from the father’ (244).

As Woolf’s diaries make clear, her preoccupation with narrative structure was one such form of revolution. Thus her journal not only recounts experiments with form but also her negotiations of her family history that took fictional shape in novels like To the Lighthouse (‘the centre is father’s character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel’ [Diary 3:19]). Writing in her diary of her most experimental novel, The Waves in 1931, Woolf noted: I can give in a very few strokes the essentials of a person’s character. It should be done boldly, almost as caricature. […] The abandonment of Orlando and Lighthouse is much checked by the extreme difficulty of the form—as it was in Jacob’s Room.

I think this is the furthest development so far. […] It is bound to be very imperfect. But I think it possible that I have got my statues against the sky (Diary 3:300). As innovation in her narratives and the growth of her literary reputation surface as her most pressing concerns, Woolf’s diaries are both the battlefield on which she confronts, and the border between, those central preoccupations. On these pages Woolf pores over the divide between the self that keeps the journal and the one that creates her fiction.

In 1922 Woolf wrote ‘It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life […] one must become externalized; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character.’

 This idea that fiction-writing is somehow removed from life helps to explain a difference in voice between Woolf’s fiction and her journals. Woolf’s key figures, her public voice of sensibility, is wrought in images of the sun, waves, and mirrors in her fiction. Those same images are symbolic of the private struggles over identity and subjectivity we see in her diaries. The life Woolf records in these pages is for the most part critical reflection upon her place in literary and family history: both the queerness and newness of the narrative structures of her work and the distance she feels from ‘Virginia’— her public writing persona. ‘The truth is,’ she wrote in 1926, ‘one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes’ (Diary 5:357).


Writer’s Diaries: Part 1 Katherine Mansfield



I am working on a piece about how women writers make use of their diaries in different ways to as what Virginia Woolf called a “practice-ground for fiction.”  As my own writerly imagination tends to draw me back and back again to certain key images, sounds, and words from my childhood and my writing practise engages with creative ways to confront and reimagine this “primal” material, I have always been curious about how other writers negotiate this challenge. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield ( 1888-1923) is a case in point.  One only has to read twenty or thirty pages into her journals to see the similarity between the imagery Mansfield used in her journals and in her fiction. To read more than thirty pages of her journal is to be shocked at the limitations of her palette.Mansfield’s fiction is wide-ranging and encompasses urbane ‘bad marriage’ tales, stories about and for children, fairy tales, rural and urban stories. Her repetitive use of windows, mirrors, trees and dreams in all of those stories and in her journals and notebooks is therefore the more startling. The changing frame through whichMansfieldunderstood her own place in literary history, however, is revealed by her varying approaches to these images over time.

Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie died in army training in 1915, soon after he had visited her inLondon. Her reflections on this event stand out as one of few moments of revelation about her sources for writing in the notebooks. In an entry written as if to Leslie, soon after his death, Mansfield noted:

I want to write poetry.  I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry. The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder […] but especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you—perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in Prose. (Notebooks 2:33).


That prose elegy found its form in Mansfield’s most well-known story, Prelude (1918) that begins with the child Kezia standing at a window and continues with further images of trees, flowers, birds, woods and the rhythms of poetry. What Mansfield’s notebooks illustrate, however, was that these same tropes had already surfaced repeatedly in her writing—indeed they appear in the first extant sample of her fiction, composed when she was nine years old.  This early piece begins withMansfield’s central trope—that of the protagonist at a window, judging the temperature of the outside world:


‘Oh, mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.’ It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten.   She was standing in a well-furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window. ‘No, Enna dear,’ said her mother, ‘you have a little cold and I don’t want it made worse.’ (Notebooks 1:1)


This scene, so like that of Kezia pressing her palms against the ‘big bay window’ in Prelude, is just the first example of this image inMansfield’s fiction: story after story on page after page of her notebooks begin and/or end in this same way. Such images, moreover, provide a haunting foreshadowing of illness and sick-room enclosure from a writer who was an invalid for much of her career.

At twelve, Mansfieldwrote several versions of a story entitled ‘She’ that begins with a gravely ill boy in a dark room. ‘Out of the window he saw the night, the stars, and the tall dark trees[…] He had been in pain all day.’  As he ‘lay in his little bed and gazed out,’ a stranger enters his room, ‘Death’ (Notebooks 1:31).  In these childhood tales, the window suggests the character’s fragility and the dangers of the outside world but also implies that separation from the world is itself deadly.  Thus from the start of her writing life, windows frame the gaze of the Mansfield’s protagonists, either representing the division between them and the world, or, instead, the eyes of the soul—the gatekeeper between the private and the public.