A Writer Prepares: Reading Woolf’s Diary as Rehearsal Process

29 April 2021

Ellie Mitchell, University of St Andrews

Although diaries seldom make an appearance in her fiction, Virginia Woolf kept one for almost the entirety of her adult life, and her diary played a leading role in the composition of her works.[1]Certainly, since Leonard Woolf’s publication of the abridged A Writer’s Diary in 1953, it has become a critical commonplace to observe that Woolf plans, practises, and reflects on her writings in her diary.[2]What remains to be investigated, however, are the precise ways in which this planning, practice, and reflection are carried out. From as early as 1903, Woolf refers to her diarising as ‘training for eye & hand’, but what does this training involve?[3]Which aspects of writing does Woolf practise in her diary, and how precisely does she practise them?

Throughout her life, Woolf continues to refer to this ‘training’ via a range of analogies which place it in distinctly active and performative contexts. As she observes in 1903 that it provides ‘exercise’ (PA 187), so she observes in 1919 that it ‘loosens the ligaments’.[4]In 1924, the diary appears as an instrument on which she does her ‘scales’ (D II 319), and in 1925 that instrument becomes more specifically a piano at which she sits ‘like an improviser’ (D III 37). By 1930, it has become a space in which to ‘canter my pen amateurishly’ (D III 292), and in 1940 she attributes her ‘dexterity’ in Between the Acts (1941) to ‘finger exercises here’ (D V 290). These analogies all equate diarising to the preparation necessary for a range of performance or presentation contexts with which Woolf was familiar: art exhibitions, sports matches, musical concerts, and equestrian shows. What emerges from them is thus the suggestion that the hand can physically be trained to write well in the same way that it can be trained to draw a picture or bat a ball or play a piano or guide a horse well. It is as if good writing were the result of some sort of muscle memory or relied upon physical fitness. The physicality of these analogies therefore illustrates the degree to which writing is not merely an imaginative or intellectual activity for Woolf. Rather, it is also a physiological and performed one, and indeed Woolf’s compositional processes, as documented by the diary, are as theatrical as they are literary.

In an entry of January 1915, during the early draft stages of what would become Night and Day (1919), Woolf makes reference to ‘my egoistical habit of always talking the argument of my book’ (D I 22). Writing somewhat with her tongue in her cheek, she adds: ‘I want to see what can be said against all forms of activity & thus dissuade L. from all his work, speaking really not in my own character but in Effie’s’ (D I 22). This could be described as method acting, or method writing, and indeed it evokes Constantin Stanislavsky’s contemporaneous invocation to actors to establish ‘contact’ between their lives and their parts.[5]Here Woolf workshops both the voice and viewpoints of Effie, the character who later becomes Katharine Hilbery, by roping her husband Leonard into a rehearsal of the discussions surrounding occupation and self-fulfilment which arise repeatedly in Night and Day. She wants ‘to see what can be said’, suggesting that the exercise is somewhat improvised and exploratory, rather than exactly scripted. It takes speaking in her characters’ voices for Woolf to realise what it is they should say, and by extension what they think and who they are. She talks them to life, makes them ‘real’ and not merely ‘lifelike’ by giving them a voice, and by association a body from which to speak.[6]In other words, it could be said that she rehearses them.

Certainly, diarising can be described as a process of performative self-fashioning, and rehearsing is similarly a process of character-creation. It follows, then, that it is specifically the writing of other selves and their voices which Woolf practises in her diary. This becomes particularly apparent in the early 1920s as Woolf grows increasingly interested in the representational potential of speech. She worries in January 1920 that she is not ‘sufficiently mistress’ of her ‘dialogue’ to properly ‘enclose the human heart’ in prose, and so begins to practise writing especially spontaneous snippets of speech in her diary (D II 13). In her accounts of Memoir Club meetings and of rehearsals for two Beatrice Mayor plays, for instance, she focuses on utterances which are unscripted or unplanned, as though trying to capture their authenticity or immediacy (D II 23, 26 173). Indeed, in the latter entry Woolf notes that it is specifically the ‘supple, candid, free & easy good sense of theatrical manners’ which she is hoping to capture (D II 173). Woolf would thus appear to be interested particularly in theatrical modes of representation here, and in how far she might be able to co-opt them into prose for her own purposes.

It is significant, then, that the early 1920s was also a period during which Woolf was going regularly to the theatre, friends including Lytton Strachey and Ralph Partridge were writing plays, and she was engaged in debates about modern verse drama versus classical drama with T. S. Eliot and R. C. Trevelyan. In the summer of 1923, she even came to write two overtly theatrical works: one was the first draft of her only play, Freshwater, which was revised and performed in Vanessa Bell’s studio twelve years later; the other was a critical essay on Joseph Conrad, which was written in the form of a conversation. Strikingly, the composition of these works is complemented in Woolf’s diary by a series of entries during that summer which are formatted like playscripts, and which therefore resemble a series of rehearsals for the form. The first of these, formatted with a list ofdramatis personae, setting notes, and stage directions in parenthesis, appears after Woolf notes, ‘As for recording conversations, nothing is harder. Let me try’ (D II 252-53). The conversation she then records is not exactly riveting. It covers nothing of which Woolf would usually make note, and so suggests that its main purpose is to act as an exercise in writing conversations and in capturing the immediacy of speech without recourse to intervening description.

When Barbara Lounsberry calls Woolf a ‘diary portraitist’ in her recent and detailed study of the diary, then, her invocation of the visual arts is perhaps somewhat misleading.[7]Woolf is rather a diary ventriloquist, a diary imitator, or a diary actor. Her diary becomes a way of speaking to herself which speaks back, and indeed she comes to reflect in 1919 that it has ‘grown a person, with almost a face of its own’ (D I 317). Similarly, Stanislavsky reflects in 1936 that an actor’s ‘creativeness’ amounts to ‘the conception and birth of a new being’.[8]Woolf’s diary thus reveals not only the importance she places on character in her formulation of modern fiction, a topic Eric Sandberg has surveyed at length, but also the role of the theatrical in her conceptualisation and composition of character.[9]Similar to rehearsing, Woolf’s diarising offers her a way of getting into character.


[1]A search of the Virginia Woolf Concordance at http://victorian-studies.net/concordance/woolfyields only eighteen mentions of ‘diary’ and one mention of ‘journal’ across all ten novels and two short story collections [accessed 24 March 2021].

[2]Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, ed. by Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth, 1953).

[3]Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, ed. by Mitchell A. Leaska (London: Hogarth, 1990; repr. 1992), pp. 187. Further references to this edition will appear in the text as follows: (PA 187).

[4]Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, asst. by Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977-84), I, p. 266. Further references to this edition will appear in the text as follows: (D I 266).

[5]Constantin Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares, trans. by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (London: Bles, 1937; repr. 1967), p. 49.

[6]See Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, in Collected Essays, ed. by Leonard Woolf, 4 vols (London: Hogarth, 1966-67), I, pp. 319-37 (p. 325).

[7]Barbara Lounsberry, Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read(Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), p. 22. See also Barbara Lounsberry, Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016); Barbara Lounsberry, Virginia Woolf, The War Without, The War Within: Her Final Diaries and the Diaries She Read (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018).

[8]Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares, trans. Hapgood, p. 312.

[9]See Eric Sandberg, Virginia Woolf: Experiments in Character (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2013).

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