‘A Sketch of the Past,’ the longest of a series of autobiographical sketches unpublished in Woolf’s lifetime, makes use of all of the central images of her fiction—windows, mirrors, waves and the sun. Her diaries, by contrast, rarely engage with those tropes. Instead, they serve to highlight how central was the business and the craft of writing to her sense of self, both as the descendant of a distinguished literary family, and as a writer of experimental fiction. On the pages of her diary, Woolf mediates between these two positions: what the critic Emily Dalgarno calls Woolf’s ‘resemblance to her lineage,’ and her need to forge a voice of her own. Many of the earliest entries, written before her career successes, present Woolf’s reflections on other writers, both contemporary and canonical, listing books she should read, and offering mini-essays in the style of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, on those she has read.Later entries detail the publishing life: her deadlines, the work of the Hogarth Press, who is publishing what and the sizes of their print runs, her envy of friends and enemies when their books succeed and, often, her gloating when they do not. Further pages are devoted to the reviews and the sales of her own books.
After the lukewarm reception given to Woolf’s second novel Night and Day in 1919 another preoccupation surfaces on these pages: structure. In the years that produced Woolf’s greatest modernist experiments (1920−1931) she used her diary to interrogate her groundbreaking techniques in light of her desires and ambitions. In April 1919, Woolf noted what she wanted from these diary entries, stating ‘I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously, and scrupulously, in fiction’ (Diary 1: 231–2) Woolf’s breakthrough as a writer was soon to come, and was predicated on just this discovery: finding a voice for the ‘loose, drifting material of life’ within her fiction. This entry thus suggests the transformative power of her journal reflections and the divide the diary helped her to negotiate: on one side one loose and drifting life, on the other conscious and scrupulous fiction.