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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism

“This loose, drifting material of life:” Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and memoirs as Private Epitexts



La production littéraire de Virginia Woolf se caractérise par une homogénéité et une cohérence remarquables entre, d’une part, ses principes esthétiques et d’autre part, ses aspects formels, qualités que ses lecteurs et critiques ont reconnues depuis longtemps, grâce à ses journaux, lettres et mémoires. Une analyse approfondie de ces textes, que Genette appelle « épitextes privés », montre qu’ils peuvent être considérés comme des textes créatif importants au même titre que sa fiction et sa critique; ces textes révèlent aussi un auteur pour qui la vie et l’art étaient si inextricablement liés que le processus créatif mis en œuvre dans sa fiction y fait l’objet d’une réflexion constante, tout en étant mêlé aux souvenirs, aux états d’esprit et aux incidents quotidiens qui sont consignés. Si la publication de ces épitextes a suscité un vif intérêt de par l’éclairage privilégié sur la vie et l’œuvre de Woolf qu’ils offrent, elle a également permis une interprétation de ces textes qui les réduit à de simples compléments à ses romans et essais. Cet article montre que les épitextes privés de Woolf illustrent la vision dichotomique qui informe sa fiction et son esthétique. Parce qu’ils incarnent la tension moderniste entre subjectivité et objectivité, entre le privé et le public, ces textes devraient être considérés comme un laboratoire où les principes esthétiques de Woolf furent élaborés et comme des exemples remarquables de son génie créatif.

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1Gérard Genette’s narratological theories provide a detailed framework for understanding how paratexts, those “verbal or other productions” that accompany, surround and extend a text, or are more loosely associated with it, enable “a text to become a book and be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public” (Genette 1). The paratext is therefore conceived as a threshold, or a spatial field whose main function is to provide a commentary that shapes how a text is interpreted and received. Genette divides paratexts into two spatial categories, using the term “peritext” for those elements “inserted into the interstices of the text,” and “epitext” for those more “distanced elements,” such as interviews or conversations with the author, and private communications like diaries and letters, “located outside the book” (5). A further distinction is introduced between what Genette labels “public epitext,” where “the author addresses the public, possibly through an intermediary,” and what he terms “private epitext,” characterised by the fact that “the author first addresses a confidant who is real, who is perceived as such, and whose personality is important to the communication at hand, even influencing its form and content” (371).

  • 1 Lejeune conceives the autobiographical genre as based on a pact with the reader or, in other words, (...)

2Virginia Woolf’s extensive literary production is characterised by remarkable homogeneity and coherence between aesthetic principles on the one hand and formal aspects on the other, some qualities which her readers and critics have long recognised also thanks to the paratextual genres (diaries, letters, memoirs) that she mastered along with criticism and fiction. A thorough analysis of these private epitexts shows that they can be considered as a creative current parallel to, and no less important than, her mainstream genre. Furthermore, they also reveal the image of an author for whom life and art were so inextricably interwoven that the creative process enacted in fiction is the object of constant reflection amid the recording of states of mind and daily incidents in the diary, the development of close personal relationships in the letters, or the attempt to retrospectively systematise her life in the memoirs published posthumously as Moments of Being. The public appearance of such private epitexts has aroused great interest for the insights they afford into Woolf’s life and works, but has also determined a reductive interpretation of them as marginal documents, or a mere adjunct to her essays and fiction. Joanne Campbell Tidwell, for instance, laments that “most scholars have used the diary for information about Woolf’s life, her attitudes toward writing, and her development as a writer;” on the contrary, in her compelling book she proposes to “look at the diary as primary text, rather than as a corollary to her fiction and essays” (2). In fact, Woolf’s private epitexts illustrate the dichotomous vision informing her fiction and aesthetics; as works embodying the Modernist tension between subjectivity and objectivity, between the private and the public, they should be considered as originative documents, a workshop space where her aesthetic principles were originally ideated, elaborated and sometimes shared with acquaintances. In this regard, it seems interesting to refer to Emily Dalgarno’s treatment of Moments of Being as a collection that “lies on the border between public and private writing, neither a draft of a work intended for publication, nor a diary” (134). Analogously, Anna Snaith contends that, although the diary was “a space for private emotion, a place for recording individual reactions to private and public events, it was nevertheless a literary text, a space in which she could practise her writing and a text to be re-read with a critical eye” (88). Not only do such texts represent a sort of practice field for Woolf’s fiction, thus demonstrating how the author uses the private sphere to train herself as an innovative writer; they also reveal or highlight some particularities of her fictional writing, and display some artistic value of their own. As a repository of memories, of micro-stories of ordinary human existence, of reflections on life, art, feelings and personal relationships, and of recordings of her work plans and compositional process, Woolf’s diaries, letters and autobiographical writings fuse together narrative, metanarrative and memoirs in a complex and heterogeneous whole. Therefore, the aim of this essay is not merely to show that Woolf’s oeuvre is better understood if read in relation to its marginal paratexts, it also proposes to consider them as a precious reservoir of material for her future published works, as the building blocks of her compositional process and, ultimately, as outstanding examples of her creative vein. Moving from a formal distinction between the different genres – chiefly based on Gérard Genette’s definition of the diary as “intimate epitext” (a subcategory of “private epitext”) and Philippe Lejeune’s notion of the “autobiographical pact”1 – this essay will predominantly focus on Woolf’s diaries and memoirs as hybrid texts verging on fictional writing, thus highlighting such basic dichotomies as form/formlessness, fiction/non-fiction, public/private.

3The author negotiated the divide between the private and the public sphere by conceiving her diary and memoirs – texts that were not primarily intended for publication – as confessional genres or spontaneous manifestations of her inner self, as loose recordings of ideas about life and art, whereas the tightly woven essays and novels would reveal that with which she is traditionally identified, the public face of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Therefore, Woolf’s private epitexts can be considered as both an experimental ground and a space crystallising the author’s artistic theories, which she used as a means of self-exploration and self-disclosure. Such attitude partly reflects some theorisations of intimate literary forms. Bruce Merry, for instance, considers the diary as “the most pliable and elastic of literary genres, [...] ʻeasy,ʼ ʻcasual,ʼ something to take for granted, something which is found after the death of a writer or a famous person and therefore published, after due adjustment, uniquely as a way of ʻthrowing lightʼ on his works of art, or the composition of his books” (3). Similarly, Genette employs the term “intimate epitext” to designate

any message bearing directly or indirectly on an author’s own past, present, or future work which the author addresses to himself, with or without the intention of publishing it later – for the intention does not always ensure the result. [...] This type of message is found basically in two types of documents: diaries and dossiers of pre-texts. The distinction between these two types is much less clear-cut in practice than in theory, for many diaries [...] contain rough drafts; and conversely, many dossiers of pre-texts [...] contain diary-type notes, information or commentary on the work in progress. (387)

4In spite of Genette’s claim that “anyone who searches in writers’ journals for precise and detailed information about the creation of their works is likely to be disappointed” (390), Woolf’s ideas are very much in line with the French critic’s theorisation of the private epitext. The author recognises that there are moments, recorded in her diary, when she seems to be engaged in a true self-discovery, which may be the impulse behind another work: “in this book,” she notes down on 17 October 1924, “I practise writing; do my scales; yes & work at certain effects. I daresay I practised Jacob[’s Room] here, – & Mrs D[alloway]. & shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit” (Diary 2, 319-20). In an entry written at the time she was beginning to envisage The Waves, Woolf tackles all the main issues concerning both her private and her public writings, that is to say the connection between sensory perception and literary creation, the limits of representation, and the idea of the compositional process as a recording of images or states of mind. While she reaches awareness of such musings as being the impetus for a new creation, she also conceives of her diary as the physical space where she can trace the origins and the development of her aesthetic process:

One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach to convey what I mean? Really there is none I think. The interesting thing is that in all my feeling & thinking I have never come up against this before. Life is, soberly & accurately, the oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality. […] But by writing I dont reach anything. All I mean to make is a note of a curious state of mind. I hazard the guess that it may be the impulse behind another book. […] I want to watch & see how the idea at first occurs. I want to trace my own process. (Diary 3, 113)

5The reason for such adaptability and miscellaneousness is mainly that the diary, as well as other private forms of writing like the letters, seem to grant the author a kind of freedom that she does not usually allow herself in her tightly woven essays and fiction. While she substantially revised even the most experimental among her novels to amend what she saw as faults in their form and structure, the loose writing of the diaries and letters may have come closer to the inclusive ideal Woolf envisioned in both her fictional and private works. In an entry from 20 April 1919, the author makes a case for the creative benefits of keeping a diary and argues for it as an essential tool for polishing one’s own writing style:

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do must make the most direct & instant shots at my object, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. (Diary 1, 266)

6It seems evident that the spontaneous and provisional nature of the form, allowing unrestrainedness and immediacy, fitted her wish to find some compositional method that was loose and free, but which would eventually serve the neat configuration of her “professional writing.” Woolf’s private epitexts offer themselves as works which refuse mastery and artificial order to embody, instead, “the texture of the ordinary day” (Diary 2, 298). Even more interestingly, the author also meditates on the right form that such practice of diary-keeping should ultimately achieve, thus revealing the same self-conscious attitude as she manifests in her autobiographical and fictional writings:

Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. 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 & scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds & ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, & find that the collection had sorted itself & refined itself & coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, & yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art. (Diary 1, 266)

7As this excerpt shows, for Woolf the “loose, drifting material of life” is always the rough material that her own writing tries to capture, whether in the equally loose form of private texts like her diary, correspondence and memoirs, or in the much more controlled form of her polished essays and novels. Though not in the least synonymous with carelessness, the freedom she pursues aims to include everything the human mind can contain and envisage – to such an extent that the metaphor Woolf chooses is that of a “capacious hold-all” – which the mysterious powers of creation may then transform into a coherent whole, into something composed and enduring like a work of art. And of course it couldn’t be otherwise in the mind of an author for whom art and life were not simply closely related, but actually coincident; an author for whom living and writing were conceived as mutually determining conditions: “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” (Diary 4, 161).

8Although diaries and letters do not specifically belong to the autobiographical genre, in the peculiar case of Virginia Woolf, who was constantly moved by a strong desire to assert coherence in life, they are so frequently interspersed with attempts to record her existence, with meditations on the creative process, and with episodes of everyday life from which she drew inspiration for her works, that they actually become hybrid texts. Elizabeth Podnieks rightly asserts that “Woolf’s diary is a ‘form’ in itself. Moreover, it is a testament to the way in which she consistently fused genres” (116). As a matter of fact, Woolf’s diary was symbiotically related to her fiction and, in her own words, an “odd mix of public and private” (Diary 5, 110). A vital work of art in itself, it also provides valuable insights into the compositional process of the books she published, as well as into her own aesthetic principles and method as a writer. In other words, Woolf seems to have taken advantage of the freedom granted by paratextual genres to cross the boundaries between the private and the public sphere, fiction and non-fiction, creative and autobiographical writing, thus blending different genres together. Such peculiar merging, reflecting the merging of different realms of experience, is also evident in an entry from 20 January 1919, where Woolf considers the utility of diary-keeping to her future self. This private form of writing is again appreciated for its swiftness and immediacy – a way of catching “diamonds” in a “dustheap” – and also as a possible source for composing her memoirs, showing that, for the author in question, the diary can be an autobiographical tool as well:

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just reread my years diary & am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest typewriting, if I stopped & took thought, it would never be written at all; & the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap. If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her & remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. (Diary 1, 233-34)

9Analogously, the essays collected posthumously as Moments of Being combine autobiography with non-systematic memoirs-writing (a true “sketch of the past”) and establish a close relationship, as we shall see, between what Woolf perceived as her spontaneous way of responding to experience and her writing impulse. In the introduction to her edition, Jeanne Schulkind maintains that, in these texts, the author “consciously sets out to explore the origins of the beliefs and intuitions which shaped and ordered her vision of life and which, as she began to write fiction, gradually came to shape and order that as well” (22). Interestingly enough, Daniel Albright’s contention that “the diary itself constitutes a kind of autobiography” (1) may be counterbalanced by the fact that Moments of Being – a “fictional memoir,” as Phyllis McCord (247) defines it – is also similar to a diary, since “A Sketch of the Past” is divided into passages which are dated like diary entries over an extended period of time, precisely from 15 May 1939 to 15 November 1940. Regarding these markers, Woolf herself acknowledges: “I write the date, because I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes” (83), a term that she often employs to refer to her own practice of keeping a diary as well. It is mainly for this reason that, in Anna Snaith’s view, “ʻA Sketch of the Pastʼ slides between autobiography, memoir and diary. The use of dates to divide the sections emphasizes the partial, contingent and fragmentary nature of the text” (53-54).

10The use of paratextual genres as metatextual commentary on fictional writing and its aesthetic principles seems to represent a sort of fil rouge holding together the whole of Woolf’s oeuvre. In fact, these works possess an undeniable intrinsic merit enabling them to stand richly on their own and, at the same time, they can be conceived as a sort of workshop in which the artistic principles applied in Woolf’s fiction were originally formulated, developed and occasionally shared with her family and friends. Throughout her diaries and letters, her numerous essays as well as her autobiographical writings, Woolf was constantly theorising her art, and she especially used such confessional genres to construct various identities for herself as a writer. As the author details her own literary development, which is as much a part of her life as any other daily incident, her private texts become a sort of intellectual biography. One of the many ways in which life and art are intimately connected in her conceptions, as well as in her private and public texts, resides in the fact that she contemplates the role of language in almost every aspect of existence. Considering literary creation as a transposition from the domain of thoughts and sensations to the domain of words, the desire to find verbal equivalents for the mental or emotional reality that she wants to express not only puzzles Woolf, but sometimes is so strong that it utterly agonises her. Her main concern is putting both the inner and the outer reality into writing, and she often considers how such “transmuting process” can change what one is writing about, admitting that words may fail to convey her meanings properly:

[…] one’s thoughts. Suppose one could catch them before they became “works of art”? Catch them hot & sudden as they rise in the mind – walking up Asheham hill for instance. Of course one cannot; for the process of language is slow & deluding. One must stop to find a word; then, there is the form of the sentence, soliciting one to fill it. […] What I thought was this: if art is based on thought, what is the transmuting process? I was telling myself the story of our visit to the Hardys. & I began to compose it […]. But the actual event was different. (Diary 3, 102)

11In Woolf’s private epitexts, literary creation is conceived both as a recording of the impressions that the external world produces on the mind, and as an act of apprehension of the real coinciding with an empathetic projection of the self (and of the truth grasped in a sudden revelation) on to the perceived object. Therefore, writing represents the outcome of a process that, originating from a sort of interpenetration between the inner and the outer world, leads to a representational structure achieved by means of language:

I keep thinking of different ways to manage my scenes; conceiving endless possibilities; seeing life, as I walk about the streets, an immense opaque block of material to be conveyed by me into its equivalent of language. (Diary 1, 214)

12Analogously, the collection of autobiographical sketches entitled Moments of Being reveals – perhaps more than any other Woolfian private epitext, from which it can be distinguished by its retrospective nature – the substantial unity characterising her sensibility on the one hand, and her literary creation on the other. As Schulkind rightly maintains, such work shows “how her instinctive way of responding to experience cannot be separated from her literary methods nor from her belief in the pattern of significance behind the apparent contingency of the present moment” (25). Similarly, Snaith points out that, in this mixture of autobiography, memoirs, diary and (meta)narrative, “Woolf challenges not only the genre of autobiography but the kinds of representations of self which that genre can portray. Woolf presents her self as inextricably tied to language and the process of writing” (56). Philippe Lejeune defines the form as “retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality” and refers to memoirs and journals/diaries as “genres closely related to autobiography [which] do not meet all these requirements” (4). The former, for instance, does not properly deal with individual life or the story of a personality, while the latter lacks a retrospective point of view. Moments of Being fuses together most of these features and works as a place of identification that is alternative, but complementary, to the fiction, since the author clearly manifests a formal consciousness of the process of writing and of the narrated self. For Woolf, composing these autobiographical sketches coincides with an act of interpretation, where the lived experience is shaped and transformed by that same representation to which the self owes its existence, and in which it evolves and finds expression. In “A Sketch of the Past,” for instance, Woolf outlines her own idea of the compositional process as the transcription of intense and revelatory “moments of being,” in which her senses are highly receptive and her mind establishes, in a sudden illumination, a fortuitous connection between the myriad impressions deriving from the external world and the flow of consciousness:

[…] though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. […] we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock. (Woolf 81)

13Literary creation thus coincides with the transcription of an epiphanic moment, in which the true meaning of life is disclosed as a consequence of an impulse deriving from the external world; this is then objectified and distanced from the perceiving subject, who contemplates it without emotional involvement. The writer’s mind, initially in a condition of passive receptivity, subsequently projects itself, and the revelation which has been experienced, on to the outer world; the outcome of this projection is precisely the creative impulse, deriving from the desire to manifest such an experience by means of language. It seems evident that Woolf’s instinctive and spontaneous manner of responding to experience actually determines her career as a writer; furthermore, the two processes – living and writing – are so intimately connected that they almost coincide, being founded on the common idea of a pattern beyond the ineludible contingency of the present moment. What seems to be even more interesting is the fact that the deep meaning which is revealed in a visionary moment becomes real, concrete, perfectly accomplished in itself only through an act of verbal transcription; thus the author articulates her own personal theory of experience in which the written word not only records, but actually creates reality. Such transposition from the domain of thoughts and sensations to the domain of language appears as a combination of the fluid and the discontinuous, as “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments” (Bell 138), an image that often recurs in Woolf’s public and private writings and gives shape to her aesthetic conception. Furthermore, these extracts are particularly instructive also because they establish a connection between life and art, between the private and the public sphere, between the writing of diaries and memoirs and fictional writing, since they trace the origins of the nexus linking sensory perceptions, moments of vision and literary creation which underlies Woolf’s entire oeuvre.

14In conclusion, Woolf’s “moments of being” disrupt the ordinary flow of sensations by piercing through what she calls the “cotton wool” of everyday “non-being” (Woolf 78-9), thus offering fugacious illuminations during which we can be suddenly conscious of our ontology. “A Sketch of the Past” vividly depicts the author’s existence as a series of exceptional moments surrounded by muffled dullness, and her entire oeuvre can be seen as a lifelong and strenuous effort to capture such visions and turn them into narrative. Writing, therefore, occurs as a response to being, while being itself is experienced most intensely in the fleetingness of an epiphanic moment. This is chiefly the reason why Woolf’s private epitexts appear to be the most authentic and genuine expressions of her acute sensibility, pointing to the accomplishment of that new form of writing for which the author was striving throughout her career.

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1 Lejeune conceives the autobiographical genre as based on a pact with the reader or, in other words, on an essential requirement: “in order for there to be autobiography (and personal literature in general), the author, the narrator, and the protagonist must be identical” (5). Scholars such as Ana Clara Birrento and Leigh Gilmore, however, have pointed out that writing autobiographically is always an act of interpretation, and that the autobiographical identity and agency are never identical to the real identity and agency, since the former are representations of the latter, or better their construction. Between the self who narrates and the self who is narrated there is an inevitable temporal and spatial distance which determines the enunciative position.

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Annalisa FEDERICI, « “This loose, drifting material of life:” Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and memoirs as Private Epitexts », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 23 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6240

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“Sapienza” University of Rome
Annalisa Federici holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Perugia. She is the author of Il linguaggio e la realtà. La narrativa modernista di Woolf e Joyce (2011), ”In a Kind of Retrospective Arrangement”: Essays on Joyce and Memory (2016), and critical essays on Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Ford, Sarraute and Butor.

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