Woolf and the culture of letter-writing and diary-keeping

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Woolf’s letters and diary should be read, not just as commentaries upon, but as distinct and significant constituents of her œuvre, texts that deserve consideration in their own right. Woolf was extremely interested in the letters and diaries of her literary predecessors, and she seems (at points) to have been writing her own letters and diary with a view to posthumous publication. Like others in the genre, Woolf’s diary is the record of the inner-mind of the writer, and the outer-world of the society she lived in. However, it is also, in her case, the site of a private ‘self-conversation’. Woolf sees her diary as a place of experimentation. It is a sketch pad in which she can explore ideas, images, moods. It is the place she retreats to in order to relax, calm herself down, or to build up a head of steam before tackling so-called ‘serious literature’. The diary’s open-endedness and fluidity, its resistance to closure, arguably makes it one of the more radical of her (post)modernist texts. Equally fragmentary, disjointed and non-sequential, Woolf’s letters are often written to fill the gap of absence, written with the needs of the other paramount in her mind. Despite their speed and ‘spontaneity’, Woolf’s letters are deliberately performative, created with a eye on both the expectations of the genre and those of the individual reader. No two letters are alike. To understand her letters, one must also read (wherever possible) the letters she receives. The face on the other side of the page, the other to whom the letter is ‘addressed’, is always present. The relationship between the letter-writer and her recipient leads into a discussion of theories of the gift (vis. Cixous, Derrida, Bourdieu et al). There is much to be said here about the social, cultural, philosophical and emotional dimensions of an ‘exchange’ of letters.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVirginia Woolf in Context
EditorsJane Goldman, Bryony Randall
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-139-53397-3
ISBN (Print)978-1-107-00361-3
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013


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