26 Jul 2023

Personal copy of Virginia Woolf's debut novel resurfaces

From Nights, 9:08 pm on 26 July 2023

She's considered as one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century, and now one of her earliest works has a new lease of life online.

Virginia Woolf's copy of her debut novel The Voyage Out, featuring handwritten notes, was recently rediscovered at the University of Sydney and has now been fully digitised for the first time.

It is a significant find, Mark Byron, professor in the department of English at University of Sydney, tells Nights.

“It reveals to us aspects of Woolf's evolving techniques of narration and the way in which she deals with character. And it really gives us a bit of an insight into the novelist she became later on.”

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Photo: Creative Commons

The book ended up in the University of Sydney’s rare books collection when an eagle-eyed employee spotted it in an English bookshop.

“Somebody had the foresight back in 1976, to observe that this book was on sale at Bow Windows books in Lewes in the south of England.

“It's a small town, quite famous for its literary connections, and has a lot of antiquarian book stores, and whoever it was purchased that book on behalf of the University of Sydney, and it had remained in the collection up until around about 2015.”

The book was then misfiled, he says.

“Simon Cooper, who was the metadata officer at University of Sydney library, was browsing the rare books collection and found this misplaced text and immediately realised that it was not only in the wrong place, but that it carried a certain significance in terms of what it told us about, one of the major writers of the 20th century and her evolving narrative techniques.”

Woolf’s notes demonstrate her evolving technique, he says.

“Woolf is really moving away from the conventions that you find in the 19th century novel where an omniscient narrator has access to the character's mind and their feelings and their thoughts.

“Woolf is starting to place a little bit of distance between the narrator and access to the character's thoughts.”

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Photo: University of Sydney Library

One of the effects is a character who is not necessarily fully known to herself, he says

“There are these dark spots, where you've got a sense of modern psychology coming into play, where you're not dealing with a completely transparent character anymore, you have depths and hidden areas of the characters being that are not necessarily even knowable to themselves.

“So that's a really interesting narrative development in terms of writing technique, but it also reflects some of social developments and developments in psychology.”

The book was successful, but the notes show Woolf was not entirely happy with it, he says.

“No sooner had she submitted the final draft to the press, to Duckworth, who published the novel, then she really had a mental breakdown and lost the rest of the year to her illness.

“So, it obviously took a lot out of her. And I think that probably indicates why some of the more uncomfortable autobiographical parallels between Rachel, the main character, and Wolf, the author, were things that she was wanting to place a bit of distance between herself and these aspects of her novel.”

In terms of literary scholarship, the notes show Woolf developing as a writer, he says.

“You can see the beginnings of that free indirect style, as it's called, that she uses in some of her later novels, such as Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

“So, we're really moving from the last vestiges of the 19th century novel into some really revolutionary narrative techniques and the 20th century novel.”

The book which now resides in the university’s rare books collection is valued at $500,000, he says.