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).