Woolf

Thirty years ago I turned away from Virginia Woolf’s copious diaries, bored. Early Covid, I downloaded everything Woolf wrote (for $3). Now, it is all so alive for me, and I cannot stop reading. I follow her musings in the trashiest way; figuring out who was sleeping with whom, identifying with her obsession for her work with relief of friendship, raising my eyebrows over her insecurities about her shabby outfits. And looking up the meaning of “hirsute” more times than is reasonable. Woolf opens her journal to try out a new pen, and vexes about leaky rentals. She relates Sapphist (lesbian) gossip. She routinely has to head out across town for watch repairs. She repeatedly laments an ongoing fight with Nelly (domestic), dismissing and rehiring her, over 15 years. She is humiliated by her shabby wardrobe. All this feels soothing. It makes my own (copious and repetitive) boxes of journals feel somewhat less ridiculous. And, as the owner of my fetching new sneakers, I relate to Woolf's hesitancy, stymied by the weighty decision of purchasing a new dress or a pair of shoes. “When in doubt,” she mused,” I think one should buy it.” In lionizing of course, we forget that robust literary heroes might suffer little social humiliations. Lord Gage snubs Woolf, reflecting, “Every class of person is interested to know what the king has for dinner, and there you are, the intellectual, doing just the same thing”. The tension between her desire to be alone, to dive deep into work, is juxtaposed with descriptions her entertaining but also draining social life. Sighing, she reflects; “Never have I sat beside such driftwood as Mrs. Campbell.” I gripe in response. If history in school had been taught with the same juiciness, I might have paid attention (although I don't believe my children learned any history whatsoever, so perhaps the point is moot). It never occurred to me that history might include Sapphist orchestral conductors (Ethel Smyth). Or the desperate women seeking any employment anywhere, who then turn out to be exceptionally bad cooks. The inclusion of a woman’s inner world might have stemmed my continuously passing notes in class about the (not so fascinating) boy in the back row. Perhaps I might have seen some inspiring light, some spark of hope around the creative life I did not know awaited me.

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