I’m exhausted today. I think the last few weeks have caught up with me and I’m feeling early symptoms of burn-out. Thankfully, this week, life is expected to get somewhat back to normal. I’ll have two days off work for life admin and blogging, meaning I’ll finally get to tackle the drafts languishing unfinished that I’ve been desperate to give some attention to this past week.
I’d thought about spending this Sunday doing that as well but instead we elected to get out of London for a few hours and once again venture out for a Sunday stroll around Knole. We’ve been there a few times now, and every time we do the same thing — walk through the winding valley, looking out for deer, before I have a quick look around the bookshop and we head back.
I’d never bought anything in there before but my interest in Virginia Woolf has been growing more and more in recent weeks as I make my way through her short stories, The Waves and, most recently, Mrs Dalloway. So, I decided to pick up Hermione Lee’s Woolf biography and, despite its intimidating size, it’s already proven to be a really insightful and inspiring read.
The very first chapter begins with an almost self-reflexive look at the form of ‘biography’ and Woolf’s own diaristic thoughts on autobiography. I thought I’d copy out one whole page in full because it’s made me feel vindicated in how I write about myself on this blog and how I choose to use it more generally as a public notebook and diary. Woolf is (unsurprisingly) infinitely more eloquent in talking about the same problems as I recently wrestled with in my post on being fated to a problem, and I love how Lee explores Woolf’s ‘writing self’ and her ‘myself’ as these strangely entangled but distinct ontological modes.
I’ve written about Woolf briefly for an upcoming essay to be published in a journal / collection thing but I think there’s something more long-form brewing too. We’ll see how I get on with the rest of Lee’s mammoth biography…
Virginia Woolf was an autobiographer who never published an autobiography; she was an egotist who loathed egotism. It’s one of the words she most often uses, whether she is writing about herself or other people. Many of the letters she writes contain apologies — not always entirely sincere — for their egotism. And yet, ‘How I interest myself!’ she will say, happily, to herself. She is always trying to work out what happens to that ‘myself’ — the ‘damned egotistical self’ — when it is alone, when it is with other people, when it is contented, excited, anxious, ill, when it is asleep or eating or walking, when it is writing. ‘Sydney comes & I’m Virginia; when I write I’m merely a sensibility. Sometimes I like being Virginia, but only when I’m scattered & various & gregarious.’ ‘I meet somebody who says “you’re this or that”, and I don’t want to be anything when I’m writing.’
What does ‘not being anything’ mean? Perhaps it is being more concentrated, less externalised: ‘I thought, driving through Richmond last night, something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing; now I have forgotten what seemed so profound.’
She knows that the process of trying to explain the relation between ‘myself’ and the writing self risks being just self-absorbed, rather than profound. But she must take herself seriously: she is like a singer attending to the state of her vocal cords. ‘Myself’, for the writing self, is both material and instrument. Not for nothing did Freud, on the only occasion when they met, in 1939, give her a narcissus.
Egotism is often the subject of the diary. She is much concerned with how she writes it, and what it’s for. And its uses vary: it is a ‘barometer’ of her feelings, a storehouse of memories, a record of events and encounters, a practice-ground for writing, a commentary on work in progress, and a sedative for agitation, anger, or apprehension. In the mid-1920s, she has a self-conscious debate with herself about whether it is a diary of facts, or a diary of ‘the soul’. (At the same time she is working out how much the ‘damned egotistical self’ should get into her fiction.) She seems to have promised herself that the diary would be about ‘life’ rather than ‘the soul’ — perhaps as a way of keeping ‘egotism’ under control: ‘Did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.’ Later she will ‘cancel that vow against soul description’: she wants to describe ‘the violent moods of my soul’. But then, ‘How describe them?’ It is difficult to ‘write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.’