Among all the entries of the second volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diary I would like to comment briefly on the 16 January 1923 record, as I consider it to be quite unique. Katherine Mansfield died on 9 January 1923, and so a week later VW tries to describe the impact that this loss has had on her in her private diary.
VW has some difficulty in expressing what she feels. “It is strange to trace the progress of one’s feelings. […] A shock of relief? –a rival less?” However, despite the confusion and the apparent two-fold dimension of this tragic event, VW confesses to have fallen into depression. If KM is not there anymore, what is the point of writing? VW remembers that KM once wrote a letter to her with the request: “Do let us meet in the nearest future darling Virginia, and don’t quite forget”. Now in this 16 January1923 diary entry, VW wants to analyze how far she is obeying Katherine. First of all, though, before answering that question, she needs to find out what kind of relationship they had.
Any reader of VW’s diary knows that she writes in it as a professional writer. She is obviously under time pressure and she does not correct her texts as they are private, but as far as the style, the choice of themes and the depth of her observations are concerned, one notices that VW can hardly take off her mask of experienced writer, of an intellectual woman. In fact the mask is her skin. As an exquisite writer Woolf describes emotions in a literary way, at the exact distance avoiding a pathetic undertone. So even after KM’s death VW does not surrender to sentimentalism. The colour and music of her sentences are perfectly and naturally controlled by her pen. However, in this specific diary entry she exceptionally lets go. And those leaks are pure and too important to get to know our Bloomsbury diarist in a new dimension. Through the half open door of this entry the reader does not only see Virginia’s Woolf writer’s mask/face, but she/he reaches her soul, too.
In order to understand her emotion and “analyse” the situation VW writes down some of her visual impressions of KM in a kind of a flash back subjective description. “She had a look of a Japanese doll, with the fringe combed quite straight across her forehead”. Isn’t it a delicate way of describing Katherine Mansfield? And she adds “Sometimes we looked very steadfastly at each other, as though we had reached some durable relationship, independent of the changes of the body, through the eyes.” After this deep and poetic statement VW controls herself again as she doesn’t want so sound too melancholic and she continues the portrait of KM in the way she usually illustrates acquaintances or friends, namely sharply and with a particular tincture of humour or sarcasm: She had “beautiful eyes- rather doglike, brown, wide apart”, “her nose was sharp, a little vulgar” and then she moved “like some suffering animal.”
VW asks herself if KM ever cared for her and she immediately acknowledges she did. For example, the way KM looked at her, the fact that KM wanted her to read her diary. So yes, VW admits that despite the fact that KM never answered one of her letters (VW seems not be able to forget it) their friendship was true and long-lasting. “She would promise never never to forget.”
The end of the 16 January 1923 diary entry contains some traces of guilt (VW feels she did not give KM credit for her illness) and quite an important confession: VW openly admits that KM’s is “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”. Isn’t it amazing for a writer such as VW to confess she was jealous of KM’s literature? And then any good reader can feel VW’s deep pain in sentences such as “For two days I felt I had grown middle aged, & lost some spur to write.” But then again Woolf needs to gain some distance to what she has revealed, so she immediately writes that the feeling is going and that she no longer pities KM that much. However, unable to escape a sort of emotional spiral she once again admits with conviction “I have the feeling that I shall think of her at intervals all through life”. And the reason why is because “we had something in common which I shall never find in anyone else.”
In the following diary entry dated 28 January, VW confesses that she continues to write but that she does it “into emptiness” because there is no competitor anymore. That might be true, but one also feels a painful ellipsis there. VW misses KM as a human being, as a woman, as a writer, as a friend, almost as a sister, or even as an alter ego, as another I.
How could Virginia Woolf possibly ever forget Katherine Mansfield?
- Week 5 Blog: Katherine Mansfield (Resource Kit) (becwhitley.wordpress.com)