Virginia, 15 in 1897

I’m progressing slowly into Virginia Woolf’s early diary, not because it’s uninteresting, but very exhaustive. Half of the book covering 1897 to 1909 is actually made of the first year, because Virginia started out by recording her daily events, not by writing a journal as she would do later. She was barely 15 at the time and had lost her mother 2 years before, which caused her first nervous breakdown. There’s no allusion to both events whatsoever in her diary, and she comes out particularly unemotional. In 1897, her beloved (half-)sister Stella gets married in April and dies in July. The trauma is so deep that she’s unable to write anything about it; everyday during summer she writes that she doesn’t remember what happened. In a sense this diary is very frustrating because we gather many tiny facts of her daily life but can’t really see her as a person.

But otherwise, when you think of it, what an extraordinary portrait of a teenager it makes! Imagine your average 15-years-old today: going to school, fancying boys, hanging out with friends, sulking against parents and testing curfew limits if nothing worse. In 1897, there was absolutely nothing like that. First of all, Virginia didn’t attend school, she was educated at home and every morning did her Latin and read classics selected for her by her father. Her education was completely lonely, and apart from mentions in her diary such as “finished this title, started that other one”, we don’t really know what she “gets” from all these books. Boys and girlfriends are out of the picture; she only sees family friends and relatives at tea. Her free time is devoted to running errands, making polite visits and sometimes going to the theater when someone takes her. It’s not to say that she has no fun (she’s already quite witty in her observations) or that she’s brought up very strictly, unless we think of her father. He’s not mentioned that much, but it’s quite clear that he’s ruling the family with an iron will. She isn’t an adult by far, but there seems to be no boundary between the adult and the teenager worlds, maybe more a boundary between the male and female spheres. In fact, I don’t even think that the concept of teenager existed.


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