Virginia Woolf, Diary 1, 266
In her 2008 Virginia Woolf et les écritures du moi : le journal et l’autobiographie, Frédérique Amselle reminded us that Woolf’s diaries remained an uncharted critical territory, a literary honeypot which needed to be fully explored and examined as such rather than being only considered a testimonial secondary source . And indeed, for Pr Barbara Lounsberry, Woolf’s thirty-eight handwritten diary volumes form her “longest, her longest sustained, and her last work to reach the public”, they are a “hidden gold mine” (1) that can help us chase the origins of Woolf’s interests, her literary aspirations and gifts.
Barbara Lounsberry’s historical approach of the diaries helps her laying bare Woolf’s development as a diarist to see how she became a writer, how, namely, Virginia Stephen turned into Virginia Woolf. Contrary to long-standing views, she argues that Woolf articulated her idiosyncratic aesthetic when she was still seventeen and that, rather than breaking into two parts (Woolf’s apprentice years and the remainder of her life), her diary-writing falls into three stages : her experimental early diaries (from 1897 to mid–1918), her mature modernist diaries (1919–1929) and her final diary (1930–1941). Lounsberry’s first ambition in Becoming Virginia Woolf is to trace Virginia Stephen’s development as a writer through her first twelve diary books : “a fascinating experimental stage, where the earliest hints of Woolf’s pioneering modernist style can be seen”, underlines the back cover.
Additionally, in unearthing the diaries that young Woolf invariably read (and, sometimes, reviewed)—from her discovery of Walter Scott’s ‘Gurnal’ probably around 1897 to her November-1917 perusing of Stopford Brooke’s shared diary—Barbara Lounsberry also hopes to introduce and show the crucial role of a commonwealth of key diarists in Woolf’s creative life. Excavating a rich diaristic intertext, the professor emerita of English at the University of Northern Iowa meticulously accounts for an influx of multiple influences and cleverly associates it with Woolf’s own diaristic production. This is the main achievement of her book : in a straightforward and clear style, she interweaves diary-reading and diary-writing, successfully listing the common distinctive features Woolf shares with her fellow diarists.
One may nevertheless deplore that trough her linear historical approach, Barbara Lounsberry favours a chronological description that lacks a thorough questioning of the connections she establishes through her constellation of diaries. Unfortunately, some chapters of the book end up drawing up lists that, even if highly instructive, flatly chronicle the subjects tackled by Woolf’s various diaries and the prose style she practiced.
Nevertheless, as the seven-chaptered chronological periodization closely follows Virginia Stephen’s becoming-writer, Lounsberry carefully unveils the young lady’s talent, ability and progress. The diaries she read appear as seeds which eventually grew and blossomed in Woolf’s fictional and non-fictional works, their multifarious influences helping her build her own protean diary.
Barbara Lounsberry rightly insists on Woolf’s periodic (rather than daily) approach of diary writing, on the intermittence of her diary entries. Woolf’s loose temporal knitting highlights diaristic plasticity, her resolution, right from the start, to be ‘scornful of stated rules’ (A Passionate Apprentice 134). In this way, her life diary becomes in turn travel diary or sketchbook, a testing ground for landscape description, essays or portraits of family, friends and common people, but also the shrine of doubts, anger, hopes or questioning. The entries are either titled, dated or unmarked, giving shape to an irregular and heterogeneous narrative. Through detailed rendering, Lounsberry shows the ever-evolving creation of a young writer in search of her own self as literary creator. She aptly illustrates Woolf’s 1934 essential assumption that ‘I have to some extent forced myself to break every mould & find a fresh form of being, that is of expression, for everything I feel & think’ (Diary 4 233).
The versatile quality of Woolf’s early diaries also originates in the multi-generic diaries she read : public and travel diaries, scrapbook-diaries, memoir-diaries, notebooks, shared diaries ; diaries by prose writers, searching spirits and women which provided her with new ways to live and to see. Throughout her book, Barbara Lounsberry conjectures about what Virginia Stephen might have identified with, might have liked, or might have imitated. Indeed, she spots out words the young writer might have borrowed – Fanny Burney’s ‘scribbling’ and ‘fidgets’ (21)—, characters she might have been inspired from – Lady Hester Stanhope dressing as a Turkish gentleman and living as ‘un être à part’ may be a source for the androgynous Orlando (149-50)—, styles she may have emulated—Walter Scott’s ‘hab nab at a venture’ (15) or Samuel Pepy’s ’swift prose’ (32)—, or motives she might have adapted—William Cory’s ’room of your own’ (39). She establishes seducing parallels, strikes alluring echoes which would gain in being more accurately grounded in Woolf’s aesthetics and writing.
Overall, Barbara Lounsberry considers the Woolfian diary volumes as a ‘compost heap’ (10), ‘a reservoir and subconscious compositor’ (136) which breed the budding writer’s literary experiments. As Philippe Lejeune has underlined, the diary can function as the writer’s workshop, a reflexive space of creation . And Lounsberry shows in what ways it can indeed be considered a literary matrix which nurtures typically Woolfian seminal ideas, themes and patterns. Following each of the twelve books, she throws into relief recurring motives : walking, the city/country dichotomy and its correlative ‘country in London’ idea, records of the natural and social world, animal metaphors in portrait sketching, Virginia Stephen’s consciousness of gender barriers, her rejection of Christianity and her frequent queries regarding writing and literary composition. Still, Lounsberry unveils these persistent concerns throughout her chronological inquiry thus dooming her text to excessive repetition. When (often) not capitalized on, these repetitions end up being irritating. One would have preferred a more synthetic and thus cogent approach rather than a circumstantial, and thus at times tedious, listing of occurrences. Yet, on the long run, thanks to Lounsberry alert and light prose, the repetitions allow slight variations of meaning to sink in and ultimately compose a variegated portrait of the young writer’s writerly undertaking.
After reading Becoming Virginia Woolf, the foremost image of Virginia Stephen that remains in the reader’s mind is that of an independent and solitary young woman who made of her diaries a portable room of her own . Through her description of the Woolfian early diaries, Lounsberry sketches the sensitive portrait of a female writer who, as early as 1903, chose to be an outsider—‘to write “from outside the walls”’ (62)—, strongly rejecting male traditions and countering the marriage rub. Reading the diaries of women she came to consider as role models (Fanny Burney, Lady Stanhope, Mary Coleridge and Mary Berry, among others), Virginia Woolf discovered the lives of the obscure she would later write about, and a community of feminine voices she would assemble as a chorus of symbolical Mothers in A Room of One’s Own.
Tracing her evolution, from teenage tentative amateurism to fully-fledged professionalism, Barbara Lounsberry successfully accompanies Woolf’s ever-expanding diary art, her ‘intent to chart unmarked waters and find richness in her own misty dappled terrain’ (85). We thus follow the fledgling woman turning towards the unconscious, working on her scene-making gift, or probing her talent as a natural and public historian. Lounsberry fathoms the ways in which young Woolf diaristically arranged and composed her life, gave it a narrative distinctive identity. Even if her scrupulous investigation cruelly lacks problematization and, consequently, a challenging reading of Woolf’s diary-writing, it remains an enlightening and useful source of information, a must-have in any sound Woolf-scholar library as, through Woolf’s diaristic mothers and fathers, Lounsberry discloses the subtle self-portrait of a young woman in flower.