1919, part 1.

She begins with January 20, and some of her chronic health problems. A tooth extraction, followed by a two-week on and off headache that kept her in bed and unable to write, or go out to buy a new blank diary book. The doctor has at last allowed her one hour of writing a day.

Among others, I add a main heading for illness, with subheadings headaches and dental. More will be coming for that. Time for writing, prescribed by doctors ? that will almost certainly need rewording! Is writing time too close to the metatopic? Well. One for books, with subheadings purchase of and blank and a See also specific titles and I’m sure I’ll be adding to that “see also.” Shopping? purchases? both for now.

She comments that this diary doesn’t count as real writing (and Leonard is out of the house) because it is written too fast and carelessly, though that has its advantages too. She informs her future 50 year old self that if her diary is useless for writing her memoirs, “I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace…” But she envies herself that project, the idea of writing her memoirs takes away some of the horror of her 37th birthday. She plans to write out an account of her friendships “for the benefit of this elderly lady…50 is elderly, though I anticipate her protest and agree that it is not old.” Aging. Birthdays. Memoir. Friendships.

The next entry has her just back from five days in the country with Leonard, still rattled by the railroad trip and unable to read anything in her TBR stack: everything by Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy and Gaskell, plus others by Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Pound,  –all those names to index in one sentence! If this is the only time she mentions them, I may take them out again due to lack of content here, but we’ll see, page by page…

Her “Aunt Anny” has died, and the footnote says “Lady Ritchie, Thackeray’s daughter.” Virginia has just written her obituary, but has no real emotion about it, didn’t really know her, partly, Virginia says, because she did not want to be known. But, Virginia writes down what she does remember of her. family.

“Aunt Anny” though. Who is this person. Back to the index for Volume One of the more complete Diary. Andrew McNeillie the indexer (and poet) has her as Ritchie, Lady (Aunt Anny), née Anne Isabella Thackeray. Only he changed “Anny” to “Annie”–I’ll stick with Woolf’s spelling, and cut that down to a version of the Library of Congress record for her: Ritchie, Anne Thackeray (Aunt Anny). Because my first impulse was to look for her maiden name, and someone else might do the same, I’ll also add her at Thackeray, Anne (Aunt Anny) and if she’s mentioned much more I’ll redirect readers with a “see” to the first one. If she isn’t, I’ll leave her double-posted.

You think that’s bad, try indexing a book on medieval Spain, or 17th century French Canada. Will I ever look her up again? Who knows. She was a writer herself, as well as minding her father’s legacy. Can sympathize.

Hester” — oh, her cousin. Visits to Asheham and Charleston. More writers, Bernard Shaw, Carlyle.  She comes down hard on the “Barnetts,” a religious charitable couple she’s been reading about, possibly for review. Night and Day is done, and Leonard likes it, with certain caveats about its philosophy, so twin subheadings for him and the novel about his opinions, she did care about them, and argued with them too. She’s meeting with her balding brother, Duckworth, Gerald about publishing it.

“I certainly don’t anticipate even two editions,” she says. I should index that thought, she has them a lot, as do most writers. Self-appraisal? For now. “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing in print without blushing–shivering and wishing to take cover?”

We’re only at the end of March.




Page one! Leonard sectioned this book by year, I’ll try to follow that pattern.

Woolf was thirty-six. She had been married six years, the Hogarth Press was one year old, she had published The Voyage Out three years earlier, and would publish Night and Day the following year.

Six pages. In the complete diaries, this year takes up 136, two handwritten volumes.

So many poets! Main headings for each name, another for poetry, and for now, maybe, another for poets. Three on the first page: Rossetti, Byron, and Leconte de Lisle, who she was buying “great quantities” of. I’d never heard of him. He seems to be barely translated, was she buying his books in French?

[I get distracted looking this up, fail to find much right away, but notice an interesting book on Woolf and Colette, and order it from my public library.]

Here he is:

À l’heure de silence et d’ivresses profondes,
Où, vers les horizons, le voyageur divin,
Se penchant sur les vertes ondes,
Baigne ses pieds lassés du céleste chemin ;

Leconte de Lisle-1850-60

Oof. Doubt I’ll look him up again, but for consistency’s sake, in he goes.

Woolf says that if she were bringing a case against God, she would call Christina Rossetti as one of the first witnesses. Through her devotion to religion, Rossetti starved herself of love “which meant also life,” and “castrated” her poetry. Main heading for religion. And one for marriage. And maybe talent, literary since she discusses Rossetti’s here.

On the next page, Woolf has just read the latest copy of the English Review and is disgusted with Katharine Mansfield’s story, Bliss.  After shredding Mansfield’s character and abilities (I thought Leonard edited out all the hurtful parts? Oh. Mansfield was dead by then), she paragraphs and moves on to Byron. “He has at least the male virtues.” Wow, Virginia. She thinks the Album is terrible but the form of Don Juan is a flexible wonder and I’m putting in a main heading for form, literary because this is Virginia Woolf.

She wonders why there is so much pleasure in finishing a book she enjoys (main heading for reading), and tells us how Maynard Keynes would separate off the ads at the end of a book so that he would know how much he had to get through. I am always counting pages as I read, even if I enjoy the book, it seems to be a common impulse, human nature’s completism.  And part of why some of us don’t love ebooks; knowing what percentage you’ve read is not the same as knowing the page count. Keynes might not have liked them either. “Useful for long trips,” he might have said.

And now here is Sophocles! And Emily Bronte! Social conventions. Electra, trapped in the house. Milton! Shakespeare!

Condensation effect of editing of course, but still, the density. This is why she was rarely short of conversation material. Six pages: seventy-four index entries.



Not mine, there’s been enough of that. Leonard Woolf’s.


When Virginia Woolf died, he became her literary executor. He chose not to immediately publish her diaries in full, and in this preface he explains why. Rather than publish a sanitized “caricature” of the 26 volumes of her personal diaries to save the feelings of  the living, he went through them and extracted “practically everything that referred to her own writing.”

A Writer’s Diary was published in 1953, about 12 years after Virginia’s death. Leonard took time and care with it. His preface is a carefully thought out work of personal integrity. He does not gush. He does not bare his heart for you, or even his shirt sleeves. Calm and professional, he explains his editorial decisions, addressing every challenge that might be raised. Virginia Woolf’s artistic standing was still in question in 1953, and he says so, and lays out a measured argument that resists any accusation of partiality. Having stated the controversies, he quotes a respected professor: “she was a great artist,” “she did supremely well what no one else has attempted to do,” “[her] world will survive as the crystal survives under the crushing rock-masses.” A paragraph later, having built himself a solid foundation, Leonard steps up on it to face you: “Unless I had agreed with Professor Blackstone, I would not have edited and published this book. She was, I think, a serious artist and all her books are serious works of art.” He expands on this, he cites specific titles, he goes on for most of a page, and finishes as calm as he began:  “I put forward this opinion, not as of any value, but as an explanation of my publishing the book.”

He paragraphs there, and ends with some editorial technicalities. He has said what he has to say.

But indexing is not about admiration. I have to back off and ask myself: Is the preface indexable?

Prefaces are not always indexed. Hans Wellisch says:

The preface or foreword is at best a brief recommendation written by a good friend of the author or by a more or less well known authority in the field who could be persuaded to say a good word about the work and at worst just a piece of puffery. Generally none of this should be indexed.

Ouch. But he has a point. This particular preface is not puffery, and is well worth reading. However, it is 3 1/2 pages at the front of the book, and it is backstory, not meat. I often ask the editor or author of a book if they want me to include the preface. But because this index belongs to me, I here make my own decision to skip it.

Next: page one. I begin to pick things up.



Names, Names, Names

I stole that title from Nancy Mulvany’s chapter on the subject.

As I illustrated in a previous post, I entered the original two-page index for A Writer’s Diary into my indexing software. What a mess it is.

I mentioned that the original index is almost entirely proper names. Names are a large and complex subject in indexing. Books have been written about indexing names, chapters dedicated to them in other reference works, indexers discuss them all the time, their transliteration, how to indicate relationships, handle pseudonyms, nicknames, prefixes, compound names, titles, initials, and so forth.

Whoever made this index ignored all of that.

Dante is fine. Merriam Webster lists him that way, though the Library of Congress authority gives Dante Alighieri

Byron, Lord is not ideal, but it’s not terrible. It is how he is commonly known. But it’s not as specific as it could be, and his grandfather of the same title is in the Biographical Dictionary. I’ll give it a qualifier, and make this Byron, Lord (George Gordon)

Defoe is terrible. Could be anybody, including the contemporaneous Canadian Prime Minister. And the man had a first name. Defoe, Daniel.

Flaubert is another one-namer in this. Dostoievsky, Shakespeare, Turgenev

It’s not even consistent, the indexer entered Dickens, Charles and James, Henry and Hardy, Thomas. Is personal preference operating here? Was this index done on a train, in an afternoon?

And then we have cringeables like Hardy, Mrs. Thomas which is not only sexist (women’s rights advocates had been complaining about this usage since Lucy Stone and before), and bad indexing style, the man was married twice and which one is this?

However the indexer did enter Sackville-West, Victoria (Vita). No Mrs. for her. Because he knew her personally?

After Hardy, is Harris, “Bogey” Now I have to look up his given name. He’s not a famous man, but for this project, I have an easy cheat: the complete five-volume set of Woolf’s diaries on a shelf near my desk. Much better indexes in those, and there he is, Harris, Henry (“Bogey”)

Library science standards, which include indexing standards, have changed and become more standardized over the years, but a lot was in place by 1953. However. Time to stop pointing fingers and to start making my own mistakes. Next up: I dive in.


What’s it about?

When I’m indexing a book, that is the constant question.

The first time I ask, it’s the big question. I want to nail down the metatopic of the book early in the process.  “Metatopic” in indexing means the briefest possible mile-up summary of what the entire book is about.

The metatopic is the structural center of the index, its magnetic north. Every index entry is implicitly filed beneath it. If the book is about ice climbing, there is no main heading for ice climbing, because the rest of the index would be its subentries. Instead you have main headings for techniques, tools, locations, and notable climbers.

In this case, the metatopic is Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on writing. Knowing that, I move on to ask what is this page, paragraph, sentence, word about? Why is it here? What else is it related to? Why might various readers want to look it up?


Other minds, and space.

Ordinarily, professionally, I am not indexing for myself. I am indexing for anyone who might pick up a copy of the book.

Indexing is both an art and a service. You have to imagine yourself into the minds of others and build an index that speaks to them.

Different people have different vocabularies, and different reasons for approaching the same book. Even a cookbook might be read by a professional chef, an experienced home cook, and someone who has never scrambled an egg. It might be the first time they’ve opened the book, or they might be trying to find that minced lamb recipe they made a while back, the one with crepes and some kind of spicy tomato sauce.

I was motivated to index A Writer’s Diary for personal reasons. I want it to serve me, which means I may pick up little idiosyncratic things I know I’ll want to find later. But I also want to create an index that will serve the needs of other writers. That means I must think about what they might look for, and how they might describe it.  And the old reference librarian in me keeps nudging, saying well, what about the scholars? What about the biographers? Who else?

I am unusually free to do this here!  In the average professional project, there are space limits. Indexes often get whatever pages are left over at the end of a book. You can try to negotiate a smaller font, more columns, but you rarely get free rein to index everything you think is worth indexing because it costs money to add another signature for the sake of an extra page or three of index. So you have to make choices. And then you have to stick to them. If you’re picking up a topic, pick it up every time. If you’re not picking it up, you must pass it by, every time.


Why I’m doing this.

I used to index books professionally. Sometimes I run across the book that deserves a good index, but has none, or a terrible one, or a freaking concordance compiled in Word. It’s always annoying. Sometimes I complain online about it. And then I move on.

A lot of people have no idea why a good index is valuable. But if you use them often, you get to appreciate how they can map the web of ideas in a book, distill its essence, pull together related thoughts across chapters so that you can find every one, every time.

One day, as I struggled with a painful revision, I had a vague memory of something Virginia Woolf once wrote about that process. I pulled my yellowing 1980s paperback of A Writer’s Diary off the shelf, turned to the General Index in the back, and found…trash.

Two pages. Mostly proper names, four main headings for novel titles (she only mentions four? No way) and main headings for:

War, the

Eclipse, the

Peace celebrations, 1919


Journey to Holland, Italy, Germany, and France

…which of course everyone would look up under “Journey,” right?

No subheadings at all, and lord does it need them. Fry, Roger alone has 27 undifferentiated locators. 7 is where a decent indexer would start breaking them out.

I swore a few times, opened my indexing software and created a new file. I haven’t read the whole book in a while, I would enjoy it, and while I’m reading, I can build it a better index.

But, I thought, wait. I can’t be the only one who could use a good index for this book. I resist writing for free, but since I doubt I could sell this index, or an essay on writing it, this seems like a good contained blog topic. And I could give the index away when it’s done, nicely formatted. Why not.

So: I will index this more or less in public. When I’m done, I’ll post it in PDF, formatted so that if you print it out, you can tip it into the back of your copy of Woolf’s book, as I plan to do.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about with all this “locators” and “subheadings” stuff, check out the Glossary page. Let me know if I need to add something.


Tools of the trade.

Here are most of the tools I use for indexing:

Books! Big authoritative reference books. The black stand holding the book to be indexed would normally have page proofs on it. I always mark up a paper copy of the proofs when I index, though I use a PDF too. They’re both useful in different ways. In this case I just have my copy of A Writer’s Diary, and a pencil.

There are some useful online resources for geographical names and certain foreign language names, but mostly I use these, and the Library of Congress link to your left. Also the Index-L link which is the professional listserv, with archive. If they haven’t already discussed your problem, you can just ask them and get a free selection of opinions with arguments and modifications.

I started reading Henry B. Wheatley‘s How to Make an Index. It was published in 1903, in London, and I hope it will prove that there was no excuse for the the two-page horror I’m working to replace.

Mr. Wheatley was The Father of British Indexing, a prolific author and Pepys scholar, who could have written a good index for this book if he could have been bothered, and hadn’t died in 1917.

Below is a screenshot of my indexing software, which I love. It is to indexing what a word processor or a program like Scrivener is to writing: it can’t think or create for you, but it can speed and streamline and check your work in many wonderful ways.

There are three major indexing software brands, all good, all with devoted fans. I use Sky.

Here’s a screenshot of what my work looks like as I enter it. I type entries into the white fields, and they appear sorted on the left, in yellow. This is just me copying the existing index, which, to its shame, did not take long. Thank you 1980s high school typing classes. I am starting my index fresh on page one, however.

Sky cap

Everything else comes down to educated reading and thinking. Trying not to let your own subjective perspective have too much effect is a minor but important part of the work.

Anything you’re curious about? Let me know.