The Agony of Editing Virginia Woolf’s Early Journals. Plus Welty on Woolf on Hemingway.

Virginia Woolf, by Christian Tonnis, creative commons license.

I’m having a rich time bouncing about Virginia Woolf: A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909, edited by Mitchell Leaska. This one-volume collection, published in 1990, covers the journals and diaries Woolf kept between the ages of 15 and 27. They fill a blank space left by the better-known and endlessly fascinating five-volume The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1915-1941.  

I’m reading this for many reasons, among them the way Woolf embodies, often in an extreme, exquisite form, the sensitivity to experience that is at the heart of the orchid-dandelion hypothesis that I’m writing a book about. (Here’s my early cut at The Atlantic.) But I felt some deep sympathy for not just Woolf but the volume’s editor when, over my coffee and granola this morning, I read his preface.

This one-volume journal, Leaska writes, was taken from seven separate notebooks Woolf kept in her late adolescence and early youth. Woolf used some of these notebooks mainly as personal diaries, others as places in which to draft essays or write her quick sketches of characters or landscape. The first six volumes reside in the New York Public Library, the seventh in the British Library. In the first six, he tells us, Woolf’s handwriting “was small, irregular, and hard to decipher, particularly in the 1897 and 1899 notebooks.” Yet he laboriously transcribed them all, peering and typing away in the New York Public Library, and “only on a few occasions has it been necessary to admit defeat with the insertion of an [illegible] or to add a question mark in square brackets — [?] indicating editorial doubt.”

Anyone who has transcribed old letters or journals can readily feel his pain. Fortunately for Leaska, the seventh volume had a typescript, so he didn’t have to transcribe it.

But the pain gets worse. For after Leaska had transcribed the first six volumes, he discovered that he hadn’t really had to — it had not been necessary, in other words, to so strain his eyes, budget, back, and patience  — for Virginia’s husband and literary executor, Leonard Woolf, had left a typescript of all those journals, which, somehow, no one had told him about. (This despite that Hogarth Press, which published this book in the UK, was started by the Woolfs.) Thus “I was unaware of its existence until after making a complete transcription of the first six journals.”

Which is as close as Leaska, who could later write a biography of Woolf, comes to complaining.

PS Heaven above. My search for reviews of Leaska’s biography, “Granite and Rainbow,” led me to a Times piece — a 1958 review by Eudora Welty of a Woolf essay collection — in which Welty writes about Woolf writing about Hemingway.

She thought Hemingway’s characters talked too much, but she would, ‘if life were longer,’ care to read the stories again.

and

Hemingway “lets his dexterity, like the bullfighter’s cloak, get between him and the fact ***. But the true writer stands close up to the bull and lets the horns – call them life, truth, reality, whatever you like – pass him close each time.”

Life is full of unexpected pleasures.

Image: by Christiaan Tonnis, some rights reserved.

5 Comments

  1. For the biographer, time spent with the subject’s actual journals, not only the typescript but the actual words as written by hand, must be valuable. Yes? How valuable, how worthwhile, is debatable, but perhaps there is some unmeasurable value in being with someone’s *things*, not only copies of those things. I’m a Faulkner fan and his books are treasures, but so is the experience of smoking his precise type of pipe tobacco. It’s not the same thing as reading his words, but it’s useful and instructive on some level, just the same.

    1. I am with you, Mr. Wigley. Last summer I spent time with Ellison’s papers at the Library of Congress, and his handwriting is still in my head in what I feel, at least, is instructive. Just as Rowan Oak is well worth a visit for the Faulkner fan.

      I love Eudora Welty for “lady scholars” –as she recounts Woolf skewering Hemingway.

    2. Thanks for writing, Jay. I agree on the value of spending time with original hand-written materials. I spend and enjoyed hundreds of hours doing so with primary material for my book Reef Madness. But I would have hated to have to transcribe them all.

  2. Thanks for writing, Jay. I agree on the value of spending time with original hand-written materials. I spend and enjoyed hundreds of hours doing so with primary material for my book Reef Madness. But I would have hated to have to transcribe them all.

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