In his Introduction to the first volume of Virginia Woolf's diary, published in 1977, Quentin Bell, Woolf's nephew and biographer, proclaimed her diary a masterpiece. ''. . . I mean to indicate that it is a literary achievement equal to . . . 'The Waves,' or 'To the Lighthouse,' having the same accurate beauty of writing,'' he added.
Bell admitted that the public would have to wait until all five volumes of the diary had appeared before agreement or dissent from his judgment could finally be pronounced.
Now that the fourth and penultimate volume of the diary has just been published, those who had thought that even Virginia Woolf might have been susceptible to large patches of dullness in a life's diary will find that they are mistaken and that Quentin Bell is that much nearer to being proved right.
Published in the centennial year of Woolf's birth, the fourth volume of her diary covers the years 1931-1935. It opens as Woolf has just finished writing her experimental novel, ''The Waves,'' and ends as she is finishing her revisions of another innovative work, ''The Years.'' In between her stretches of concentration on these novels, she and her husband, Leonard, travel to Greece, Ireland, and Nazi Germany. They spend countless weekends in their country cottage in Sussex seeking an elusive peace, and they perform their roles of ringleaders in Bloomsbury society from their house in Tavistock Square, London.
Amid all this, Virginia Woolf's diary served her as an all-accepting confidant. She turned to it as an aid to the painful transitions she felt between her public stance and the unexplainable heights she traveled to when producing her most ecstatic writing.
This conflict between solitude and society rages throughout the book. Woolf was attracted to the vitality of a busy social life, replete with literary lions (T. S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and others), and it is undeniable that her friends were extremely valuable to her. But it seemed as though the glare of society left a disturbing afterimage on her mind - like a flashbulb going off too near one's face - causing her distress.
Her susceptibility to society's fickleness - for example, she is in a depression for days when Rebecca West doesn't immediately answer a letter - reached its most acute form in her reactions to criticism of her work. ''Oh what a grind it is . . . having perpetually to expose my mind, opened and intensified as it is by the heat of creation to the blasts of the outer world,'' she wrote in the diary in 1935.
And these shudders of sensitivity seemed to affect her capacity to write. The diary chronicles the way she watched over herself, as a coach does an athlete, trying to ease herself into the emotional and physical fitness she found necessary to bear the rigors of creativity. This diary will forever dismiss the always inaccurate notion that Virginia Woolf indulged in ''automatic writing'' - penning whatever happened to flit by.
Especially difficult for her was planning the ''architecture'' of a book. ''On these long books, what a tremendous effort they are - to whole (sic) (hold?) the entire span on my shoulders,'' she remarked in the diary in 1934.
The deaths of several friends during this period also strongly challenged her , and she faces squarely in these pages the decline of her reputation from the days when ''Mrs. Dalloway'' and ''To the Lighthouse'' burst upon London.
Perhaps Virginia Woolf's greatest solace was in the beauty of the English countryside. ''. . . I can fasten on a beautiful day, as a bee fixes itself on a sunflower. It feeds me, rests me, satisfies me, as nothing else does. . . . This has a holiness. This will go on after I'm dead.''
It has become fashionable to chuckle at the amazing amount of attention that has recently been paid to Virginia Woolf. She has gained a kind of cult status, particularly in the United States. But perhaps this popularity is deserved. Perhaps she does offer a kind of insight that is especially acute and marvelous.
''I intend to keep a diary so as to make each day last longer,'' she wrote in the diary in 1931. With meticulous care, Anne Olivier Bell, who edited this volume and is the wife of Virginia's nephew, Quentin, has provided notes to explain Woolf's many fleeting references to things and people which would otherwise obscure Woolf's record.
By giving us the details of her daily life - her embarrassed irritations with her cook, her efforts to quit smoking, the antics of her husband's marmoset - as well as explanations of her creative life, Woolf has preserved the substance of her days. They will last as long as a masterpiece usually does - one hopes forever.