Reading the final pages (entries of the years 1940-41) of the fifth and final volume of Virginia Woolf's diary is a stressful experience. The reader knows in advance that he is permitted to view the private world of a major artist in the dozen or so months before her suicide. He is therefore impatient of petty details of sugar rationing or maid trouble or Desmond MacCarthy's opinion of Roger Fry in the expectation of the ultimate ; event to come. He notes fearfully every hint of disaster (Woolf's realization that her hands are becoming increasingly "palsied,!' her dissatisfaction with her elderly appearance and the clothes she must wear, her awareness that the bombs falling on the Sussex countryside around her had damaged not only the property on which they landed but also her own psychological relationship to the world she had known). Accustomed excitement with the publication of an article was dulled; social relationships were altered in disturbing ways; even normal hunger for certain foods in short supply was augmented; and withering depression, which led to her remark, in 1941, that "we live without a future," took hold once more. That same reader, on the other hand, marvels at the resilience of the woman in the face of personal and national woe. How could she continue to read eclectically and hungrily? to play the hostess to the sophisticates of Bloomsbury and the bumpkins of the Sussex neighborhood? to deal with the scandal of her niece's affair with Bunny Garnett? or to count her "hoard" of spending money as the Germans destroyed the house of Tavistock Square where so many of her novels were written? If the end of the diary and that of the writer were in doubt, if Hitler's invasion had not occasioned several entries on the question of committing suicide, the reader might be shocked by Woolf's decision on the last page but one to "go [End Page 352] down with colors flying."
The perceptive reader is not prepared, however, to accept a description of the Diary volume as one long suicide note. Suicide is indeed broached. Death is there aplenty, what with World War Two, blitzkreig, Dunkirk, the fall of Poland, France, and Belgium. Death is not impersonal either, as Woolf's favorite nephew is killed driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War; Leonard Woolf's mother dies, as do Bunny Garnett's wife, James Joyce, and Ottoline Morrell. But these private and public events are taken in stride, as Bernard accepts Percival's end in The Waves.
Woolf's activities continue frenetically; her prose, nervous but vital, animates the page; and the level of her engagement in literature and criticism, personal contacts, and wartime activities continues consistently high until the last week. The wonder is, in fact, that this sensitive, high-strung artist was able to function as effectively as she did while the world caved in around her. In this regard, the writer of the Diary is more like Roger Poole's "unknown" Virginia Woolf than the fragile invalid of Quentin Bell's biography. This last volume of the Diary, well edited, restrained, wholly informed, is an excellent literary and personal memorial to its creator.
One distinction Woolf makes several times in her Diary, perhaps with a hint of malice, is the gap between outsiders like herself—creative artists directly involved in life and art—and comfortable insiders protectively nurtured by secure careers in the universities—timid, conservative, predictable professors such as her friend, the historian Trevelyan. Now, on the hundredth anniversary of her birth, a group consisting mainly of such insiders have published a commemorative volume.
Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective is not a routine compilation of scholarly papers. It brings together a diverse and oddly exciting group: nephew and biographer Quentin Bell, fellow novelist Iris Murdoch, Woolf critic Allen McLaurin, Frank Kermode, Bernard Bergonzi, iconoclast Roger Poole, and Eric Warner, who...