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A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry, circa 1917
A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry, circa 1917

Virginia Woolf in her own words

A selection of quotes from the great writer gives us an insight into her illustrious life and career

In 1908, at 26, Virginia Woolf began writing what would become her first novel, The Voyage Out (published in 1915). A century later and the British author would be known as one of the most prolific names to ever grace the literary world. However, Woolf’s writing wasn’t as widely acclaimed and studied until nearly 50 years after many of her novels were published. After she committed suicide in 1941, it would be 12 years, in 1953, until another release. Woolf’s husband, Leonard, published a selection of his late wife’s diaries (A Writer’s Diary). In the 60s her writing really began to gain momentum, strengthened by the publication of her five-volume autobiography during 1977-1984, and a garnering of support from the feminist movement. Fast forward to the present day, and Woolf is both remembered as a major author and a seminal figure of feminist thought. As a new exhibition opens at the Tate St Ives featuring the work of artists inspired by her writing, we gather the quotes that tell the story of the author’s life and brilliant way of seeing the world.

“I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.” –  from The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three, 1923-1928

Virginia Woolf was insatiably curious and prided herself on being an autodidact. She never actually went to school and learned everything she knew from her parents and their friends and, of course, books. Woolf’s parents – a famous author and model – raised her in a literate, well-connected household in Kensington that was frequented by notable thinkers and artists of the time. While two of her brothers attended the University of Cambridge, all of the daughters were taught at home and utilised the family’s amazing Victorian library. Woolf, however, did note her brothers’ privilege to be formally educated and condemned that disparity in her writing.

“London was something like Woolf’s imaginative lifeblood, feeding her inspiration and providing distraction and diversion”

“I walked along Oxford St. The buses are strung on a chain. People fight & struggle. Knocking each other off the pavement. Old bareheaded men; a motor car accident, &c. To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.” – from The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three, 1925-1930

Born and raised in London, Woolf grew up in Kensington, lived in Bloomsbury, Twickenham – where she stayed in a private nursing home during episodes of mental breakdown – and later Richmond and East Sussex. The author loved her city and she thoroughly describes it throughout her work, from a bird-eye-view of London crowds in Jacob’s Room to depictions of the raucous brouhaha of the Strand and Oxford Street in The Years. Her novel Mrs Dalloway famously begins with Clarissa Dalloway walking through the city. London was something like Woolf’s imaginative lifeblood, feeding her inspiration and providing distraction and diversion.

“Once when I was very small Gerald Duckworth lifted me onto his and as a I sat there he began to explore my body … I remember how I hoped that he would stop” – from A Sketch of The Past

Growing up with her parents’ children from previous marriages in their Kensington home, Woolf was sexually abused at a young age by her half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth. Although she writes about it in her non-fiction essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate, the incident was minimised and questioned by her early biographers. Only recently have researchers started studying her works to know more about how she dealt with her experience as an incest survivor. In her writing, Woolf occasionally describes the feeling of shame that for a long time she associated with sexual feelings. Coping with the mixed emotions and trauma characteristic of an abused child, her attempts at addressing the events have an awkward, self-blaming tone, which caused others to dismiss her experience.

“Finally, to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language.  English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.” – from On Being Ill

When her mother died unexpectedly in 1895, Woolf, who was just 13, went into a deep state of depression and stopped writing anything at all. Today, she would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an illness for which no diagnosis existed at the time, even less so a cure or treatment. She experienced repeated breakdowns and attempted suicide on various occasions. Throughout the 30 years of her adult writing life, she suffered from periodical illnesses in which physical symptoms – fevers, headaches, insomnia – seemed inextricably entwined with mental symptoms. Woolf addresses the subject in one of her most original essays, On Being Ill, in which she ponders over the difficulties of talking about illness and treating with sympathy those who are ill.

“I wrote all the morning, with infinite pleasure, which is queer, because I know all the time that there is no reason to be pleased with what I write, and that in six weeks or even days, I shall hate it.” – from The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume One, 1915-1919

It might be easy to forget that Woolf wasn’t always one of the world’s most famous literary writers, she was once a fledgeling author. She was also human, and like most of us, she struggled with self-doubt and fears of failure. Obsessed with creating nothing less than perfection, the writer had her share of critics, of whom she, herself, was the most brutal. No doubt her excruciating self-criticism was exacerbated by her afforementioned bipolar disorder, which, during bouts of mania or depression, would cause her to withdraw from writing.

“Probably nothing that we had as children was quite so important to us as our summer in Cornwall” – from Moments of Being

According to her diaries, Woolf’s most intense childhood memories did not take place in her London home, but in Cornwall, where her family would spend the summer up until she was 12. “I could fill pages remembering one thing after another that made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to a life conceivable,” she noted. Amid the wild landscape was Talland House, the holiday home with views of the Porthminster beach and the lighthouse that would later be the setting for her novels often referred to as the St Ives Trilogy, Jacob’s Room, To The Lighthouse and The Waves. Comprising elements drawn from memories, the influence of these times is most evident in To The Lighthouse, in which the author’s family is recreated under pseudonyms and the lighthouse is based on Godrevy Lighthouse, outside Talland House. But the death of Woolf’s mother spelled the end of their summers on the coast. Their Cornwall house was sold but Woolf would return to the coast time and again to recover from her mental breakdowns.

“I like the copious, shapeless, warm, not so very clever, but extremely easy and rather coarse aspect of things; the talk of men in clubs and public-houses; of miners half naked in drawers — the forthright, perfectly unassuming, and without end in view except dinner, love, money and getting along tolerably” – from The Waves

In 1904, when Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell moved to central London, they formed the Bloomsbury Group, or Bloomsberries, a tight-knit, loosely connected network of artists, writers and intellectuals that would meet weekly at the siblings’ Bloomsbury home. As an author, Woolf sourced her material from a variety of places including her friends’ expertise, whose interests covered everything from psychology, painting or economics. But the author was also inspired by the more mundane aspects of the everyday. Her diaries and correspondence reveal a passionate, humorous young woman who loved a “debauch of gossip” with her friends. “When you arrived at their house”, Cecil Summersdale, Woolf’s nephew, recalls, “she would ask you about your journey and she wanted every detail. ‘Okay, you came by train. Tell me about the people in the carriage’.” It was the novelist’s search for copy, ideas.”

“To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.” – from The Second Common Reader

Woolf’s body of work expands far beyond her most famous novels, Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, and her genre-bending bibliography includes essays, short stories, drama, fake biographies, diaries and even children’s books. Woolf was passionate about innovative writing and experimented freely with different styles, from stream of consciousness to mood pieces, political commentary, satire and more. As she speaks out against conformism in the above quote, she believed that one had to step out, take risks and break boundaries in order to write worthwhile literature.

“So I’m found out and that odious rice pudding of a book is what I thought it – a dank failure.” – from A Writer’s Diary

It comes as no surprise that Woolf, a perfectionist, was sensitive to criticism. Big chunks of her diaries record the reception of her texts by her friends and family. The writer felt particularly doubtful about her last novel, The Years, which she finally completed after her husband’s long, continuing support. Although it sold over 10,000 copies both in the US and the UK in the first six months of its release, Woolf deeply suffered from the varying reviews it received. Years later, however, she seemed to have overcome her anxiety: “I observed, with pleasure, that all praise & blame & talk about that book (The Years) seems like tickling a rhinoceros with a feather”.

“What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.” – from Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband

Woolf married political theorist and civil servant Leonard Woolf in 1912. Leonard was a patient motivator who supported her throughout all her hardships. While Virginia innovated literature with stream of consciousness and progressive feminist ideas, Leonard set up Hogarth Press, their publishing house – which now operates as a Penguin Random House imprint – in the dining room of their Richmond house. Both to publish his wife’s work and as a way to finance her literary endeavours. After Virginia’s suicide, Leonard spent much of his life publishing her diaries and either meeting with or gently putting off biographers. By the time he died at the age of 88 he knew that he would not be remembered for the long books he, as a writer, wrote on international relations or the decades he spent advising Labor Party committees. Like the partners of many great artists, Leonard’s devotion to his wife was vital to her well-being, but also in sharing her masterpieces with the world.

“For most of History, Anonymous was a woman” – from A Room Of One’s Own

A Room Of One’s Own, an essay about the complicated relationship between women and fiction, has become one of Woolf’s best known and most acclaimed texts. Regarded as a key feminist work, Woolf’s anger at women’s lack of political voice and economic power painfully resonates with the reality of today. In the essay, the writer considers the “chances” women have lost over the last centuries because of their relative “poverty” to men. Without power or money, women have been unable to nurture their talents. If women had financial independence, Woolf claims, they would be granted both a literal and a metaphorical space away from men, which would have enabled them to create great literary work, equal in quantity and quality to that of men. In one section of the essay, Woolf introduces a fictional character, Judith, “Shakespeare’s sister”, who is as talented as the famous playwright. “While William learns” Woolf explains, “Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending.” Judith’s career is doomed. She leaves school early, is forced into a bad marriage and her genius goes unexpressed while Shakespeare and his legacy live on. Throughout her career, Woolf gave insightful commentary on the male-dominated literary culture. “I detest the masculine point of view,” she said in The Pargiters, “I am bored by his heroism, virtue, and honour. I think the best these men can do is not talk about themselves anymore.”

“Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.” – from A Room Of One’s Own

Woolf’s legacy also stands out for the variety of topics she addressed. Able to switch between writing about war or a dog’s life, Woolf wrote about sexuality as well. Ranging from conventional to the homosexual, the writer embodied a wide range of sexual behaviour in her novels. She did so long before second-wave feminism made it possible, even fashionable, to openly talk about sex. Where her contemporaries saw perversion, Woolf viewed this as an expression of her sensibility. Orlando, based on the author’s love story with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, is a prime example of how Woolf revolutionised traditional literary canons. Setting free of gender and time constraints, the novel’s protagonist, a would-be poet named Orlando, changes gender from man to woman as the story unfolds.