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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Loss and Disorder

Abook lying on a white background. The tile reads A Passionate Apprentice.

Review of A Passionate Apprentice:

The Early Journals 1897-1909 Virginia Woolf,

edited by Mitchell Leaska

Nearly her entire life, Virginia Woolf kept a record of her days in the form of diaries or journals. These intimate glimpses into the functioning of her daily life, and the workings of her mind, add an insight into the flowering of the work of a renowned artist. A Passionate Apprentice collects her three earliest diaries in one volume. Her first diary was begun in January of 1897 when she was fourteen. This document continues through that one year of 1897. The second journal records the years 1899 – 1903 and is an intermediate stage from her more juvenile first diary. The last section actually encompasses a series of volumes written during the period beginning Christmas of 1904 and continuing through 1909. This last series of journals show a maturation in Virginia’s writing style and lead the reader to the beginning of her writing her first novel.

A photographic portrait of Virginia Woolf at 16. She is looking downward and to the left.
The future Virginia Woolf at about 16 years old.

She was a voracious reader. Woolf (at the time of these diaries, she was still Virginia Stephen) learned early that words were a potent medium. The editor, Mitchell Leaska insists that these three journals were Woolf’s apprenticeship into becoming a writer. But as a document of the history of a family dealing with mental illness, they were more than that. Virginia’s mother had died in 1895, two years prior to the beginning of the first diary. Virginia took her mother’s death badly and descended into her first mental breakdown episode. (Leaska insists on calling it “madness.”) Her illness presented itself as symptoms of irritability that often turned into rage, and random or nonsense talk. Virginia seemed to be aware of her extraordinary behavior and she herself considered it unacceptable. Her family thought her condition may have been passed down from her father. Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, was a writer who had episodes of mania over his work and personal comfort. His mania presented itself as outbursts of rage brought about by periods of writer’s block. He often exhibited bouts of depression which left him feeling needy and dependent on his wife’s care.

A photograph of Laura Stephen staring directly into the camera.
Laura Stephen

Virginia had a stepsister, Laura Stephen, a daughter from her father’s first marriage. Laura was born with a learning disability, which caused her to act out with her own rages and violence toward others. As she matured into adolescence, her difficult behavior became too much for her family to bear. She was eventually institutionalized and became a forgotten member of the family. Some biographers of Virginia Woolf and the Stephen family see Virginia’s delicate mental state as an inheritance from her father, pointing to Laura as evidence.

Virginia held her mother Julia, as her favorite parent. Her mother’s death left the thirteen-year-old girl adrift at a time when she needed a mother’s guidance into her imminent womanhood. It was no wonder Virginia acted out in anger and confusion during this time of mourning. Her mother, who had spent so much of her life caring for others, would not be there to care for her. Virginia felt this loss throughout her life and wrote about it frequently.

A cart d'visite portrait of Virginia Woolf's mother. She is looking up and to the right.
Julia Stephen, Virginia's mother.

The fourteen-year-old Virginia took to her diary to bring order and continuity out of the chaos of her internal life. As an eager, intelligent, yet naive fifteen-year-old, she also wanted to record the days to make them permanent; a document of her family history. She believed her family to be special and thought their daily lives should be preserved for posterity.

It is unfair to criticize the quality of the writing of an ardent young woman just beginning to observe her life and those around her. The writing is ambitious and full of the ordinariness of the day-to-day business of living. But when she writes this entry, it seems clear that the daily tediousness of writing was creeping up on Virginia:

Monday 9 August

Forgot what happened.

This poor diary is in a very bad way, but strange though it may seem, the time is aways so filled up here, that I get very little time for diarizing – even if I wished to, which I don’t having taken a great dislike to the whole process. But the “great work” goes on steadily & has received Nessa’s approval. I may read Vanity Fair & Jane Eyre.

The procrastination was easier than making the time for each day’s entry when the experiencing of each daily event was more exciting. Virginia’s disenchantment with her diary began when her stepsister Stella died on July 9.

A photographic portrait of Stella Duckworth, Virginia Woolf's step-sister.
Stella Duckworth, Virginia's step-sister.

Stella Duckworth was the oldest daughter from her mother’s first marriage. Virginia had had a rivalry with Stella for her father’s affections. Stella had taken on the running of the Stephen household, while her mother pursued her nursing obligations. Just as his wife Julia had done before her death, Stella stepped in to fulfill his neediness and consoled his depressions. There may be evidence that Stella functioned more completely and intimately as a surrogate wife. What is clear is that Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, developed a closeness toward Stella that Virginia resented. Virginia, probably only saw her father bestowing a greater attention on Stella without quite understanding why. For Virginia, Stella seemed to be an unjust competition for the affections she worked so hard to procure.

Because of their rivalry, Stella’s death brought on a guilt in Virginia. Her dislike for the woman seemed petty in the face of so unjust a death. Her death tainted Virginia’s documentation of each of the family’s life events. Now, they began to seem silly and unnecessary. Writing the diary became a burden. Stella had just married and was seen by the family as finally coming into her own as a person, as she pursued her own happiness. Why record such random and meaningless occurrences? After Stella dies, the entries in this first diary begin to dwindle. Towards the end of the year there are many blank dates.

However, by August of 1899, Virginia was at it again. She began a new journal. Older, with a little more life experience, this journal took on a different form. In it she began exploring the essay form. Where she got the idea is anyone’s guess. It could have come from her reading and studies, or simply from the notion that she felt the need to expand on her life experiences. Clearly, the short notes of a typical diary entry like those of her first journal, did not offer the depth and expansiveness of feeling and observation of a longer sketch. In this journal Virginia was practicing observing the world as a writer.

From her September 3, 1899 entry:

No one – save a poet – can express in words or paint the human significance & pathos of the suns unclouded rain of light – that makes the Heavens a delight & difficult to look upon. This land, as I have had occasion to remark before, is a land whose chief attraction is its sky. It is as if you were slung on a flat green board in mid air; with only sky sky sky around & above & beneath you. In this way alone I think that the Fen country deserves to be called one of the most beautiful countries in England. We have this moment come in from a sunset expedition - an account of which I must at once write down, or I shall never attempt it. Nothing methinks is so impossible as to describe a real sunset in pen & ink 3 days after that sunset has faded from the sky.

In this passage, Virginia was grasping for words to describe her experience. She was searching for her voice as a writer. Somehow, we can read that the words and the voice are just out of reach. But we admire her willingness to try. It was her search here that is compelling. She was a writer trying to emerge and experimenting with language that will hold her observations onto the page.

In September of 1903, Virginia completed this journal. At the end, she described her writing as, “The only use of this book is that it shall serve for a sketch book; as an artist fills his pages with scraps & fragments, studies of drapery – legs, arms & noses … so I take up my pen & trace here whatever shapes I happen to have in my head.” This stage of Virginia’s writing has served its purpose, but before she was able to grow into the next stage, an epic, life altering crisis intervened.

A sepia toned photographic portrait of Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's father.
Leslie Stephen, Virginia's father.

Photograph of Violet Dickinson, friend of Virginia Woolf.
Violet Dickinson.

In February of 1904, Virginia’s father dies. He had been ill with cancer for many months. This expected but still shocking event was the precursor to another mental breakdown. Eleven weeks after the death of her father, Virginia began to hear voices, birds singing in Greek or Edward VII’s foul language from behind bushes. From May until October of 1904, she was in a deep depression and in full experience of this mania. She was sent into the care of Violet Dickinson, a Stephen family friend and close confidant of Virginia. Dickinson had had an interest in mentally ill women, many of whom she had studied in the London Hospital. She was seen as someone who could understand and help Virginia. In August, while under the charge of Dickinson, Virginia made her first suicide attempt. After this downturn in Virginia’s progress, her siblings decided that she needed to be brought back into the family. She was sent to convalesce with her aunt in Cambridge. It was there that she was able to be fully restored to herself. At that time, she was introduced to Frederic Maitland who was working on an authorized volume of the life and letters of her father. Maitland, probably with encouragement from family and friends, asked Virginia if she would read through her parents’ letters and extract passages that he might quote. He also asked her to write a short account of her father’s last years with his family.

A book cover with the title "The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen."
Virginia Woolf's professional debut as a writer.

This task could be viewed as Virginia’s first professional writing job. For Virginia, it was a restorative. She felt needed and believed that her contribution to the project was important, and vital to engendering her father’s legacy into posterity.

Her success with Maitland led her to be recommended through her friend Violet for a position as a reviewer of books for the woman’s supplement of the Guardian. By December 1904, Virginia had two reviews and an essay published. Now she was a truly professional writer earning money by her pen. A new confidence had crept in along with her newly acquired independence. Her journals from this time reflect this assurance in her abilities and a maturity in her style. Now, she was far from the naive eagerness that permeated her 15-year-old diary.

April 25, 1909


Descriptive writing is dangerous & tempting. It is easy, with a little expense of brain power, to make something. One seizes some broad aspect, as of water or colour, & makes note of it. This single quality gives the tone of the piece. As a matter of fact, the subject is probably infinitely subtle, no more amenable to impressionist treatment than the human character. What one records is really the state of one’s own mind.

Looking at Florence the other evening I was much impressed by the subtly of the colour. Of course the roofs are speckled brown – there are white walls, with ledges sticking out from them, & green shutters. The houses vary in size, & have projecting roofs. But the water – the sunset – the pale luminous stream – all rough where it falls over the decline - & the houses on the bank, with red in their windows – to tell of this world would need immense concentration. To make a good passage requires an heroic grinding of the mind - & here am I, half asleep.

Virginia was developing her style and her voice. She began expressing ideas about her craft. These entries show a writer striding into her own. Her word choices are now intelligent and logically expressive. At this point she found the initiative to begin her first novel, The Voyage Out.

She was well on her way to founding her own legacy as a writer.

Diaries and journals are a voyeuristic way of finding out how someone thinks. If they cover a lifetime, often they reveal an arc of growth. They are not usually written for public consumption; therefore, the writer can write with candor. They can be as cryptic, or brief, or as florid as they wish. Still, each style reveals some of the personality and thinking of the writer. The diaries and journals collected in A Passionate Apprentice, reveal not only the growth and artistic development of Virginia Woolf the writer, but also the internal workings and the physical and mental maturation of Virginia Stephen the woman.

The first diary is an elementary attempt of an adolescent girl hoping to chronical her family and place them in history. The entries are brief summations of the day’s events. Virginia does not elaborate on details, and she does not go into deep explorations of her emotional states. She does not even attempt to fully describe any observations about the daily happenings. The entries are simply notes to revitalize her memory if she should read through them again.

The second journal contains essays about her experiences. They are longer pieces that are mostly about the greater observations of her family vacations and entertainments. She wanted to capture the detail of the characters and settings of what she was experiencing. She was trying to find her writing form, and as such they read as a learning tool, not fully formed and complete pieces of writing. Because of this, they do hold a certain fascination in how they reveal a writer struggle and learn.

The third section of journals is perhaps the most mature. The entries are longer, more considered. They show a greater depth of observation and a stronger sense of Virginia’s personal style. Since she also began her first novel during the writing of these passages, Virginia is more confident in her stylistic concepts. She had also definitively decided on being a writer and this took her entries into a more definite direction.

The journals presented in this volume are an archive of a person’s maturation from adolescence into young womanhood. They chart her decision to become a writer from the vague notion of a teenage bookworm into the confidence of one who has begun to make a living with their craft and now sees her future as a novelist. By and large, the entries of much of this collection are the unembellished, mundane happenings of an upper middle-class female just coming out from under the social and moral strictures of the Victorian age. It is only in the final section of journals, when Virginia has reached her mid-twenties that we get a taste of the greatness that is to come. Here Virginia began to open up about herself, the choices she was presented with, and what she thought about them. She was more wisely observant at this older age and writes about the mundane occurrences with greater insight and depth. The two earliest journals are historical curiosities. We read them to see the beginnings of the writer who became Virginia Woolf. The entire collective volume has a feeling of completeness about it. It fulfills the public’s eagerness to see every word their hallowed Woolf had ever written. This may have resulted in an unnecessary overkill. Although reading a somewhat empty entry like, “Forgot what happened.” may bring a certain delightful youth and humanity to the exalted author. Even so, A Passionate Apprentice fills a niche for the beginnings of where a writer like Virginia Woolf came from.

Arthur Bruso © 2023

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