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Home » Virginia Woolf: Personal Copy Of Debut Novel Resurfaces

Virginia Woolf: Personal Copy Of Debut Novel Resurfaces

Image source, University of Sydney

By Leisha Chi-Santorelli

BBC News Culture

Virginia Woolf’s personal copy of her debut novel, The Voyage Out, has been fully digitised for the first time.

The book was rediscovered in 2021, having mistakenly been housed in the science section of the University of Sydney library for 25 years.

It is the only publicly available copy of its kind and contains rare inscriptions and edits.

Another UK first edition used personally by Woolf is owned by a private collector based in London.

Scholars say the find is “remarkable” and could provide insight into the English author’s mental health and writing process.

Woolf is considered to be one of the most important modernist 20th Century authors, publishing more than 45 works including To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway.

She pioneered the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device and is a lasting literary influence to this day.

The University of Sydney hopes by publicly sharing their copy, the multiple notes showing the adopted and abandoned revisions will give a new generation of readers, literary students and scholars some insight into Woolf’s thoughts.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Virginia Woolf suffered from anxiety, insomnia and repeated mental breakdowns during the writing of The Voyage Out

Woolf suffered from severe mental health breakdowns during the estimated seven year period it took to complete The Voyage Out.

She fell back into depression and was put in a nursing home the day before it was published in 1915, staying there for six months. Her husband Leonard Woolf said she was “writing every day with a kind of tortured intensity” to finish the novel.

She was institutionalised and attempted suicide several times throughout her life. She died in March 1941, aged 59, after filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse.

Handwriting match

The University of Sydney said it appeared the rediscovered copy of The Voyage Out had been lost “through the bustle of everyday campus and library life”.

Simon Cooper, Metadata Services Officer from the Fisher Library, found the book incorrectly shelved in 2021.

He said: “I knew the book didn’t belong there, so I took it out and then saw the author’s name handwritten on the first page.

“So, I looked up her handwriting to compare it, and it matched. It’s her copy”.

Image source, University of Sydney

Image caption, The Voyage Out was incorrectly shelved and eventually found in the science section of Rare Books and Special Collections

The University acquired the book in the late 1970s through Bow Windows Bookshop in Lewes, East Sussex.

Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf had lived in the area – and members of the public can still visit their 16th-Century country retreat, Monk’s House, which is owned by the National Trust.

‘Unique object’

Original copies of her manuscripts, novels, essays and short stories now sell for huge sums.

One of the world’s oldest antiquarian booksellers, Maggs Bros in London, told the BBC the rediscovered Woolf copy could be worth about £250,000 ($321,500) given the other first edition copy sold for just over £91,000 in 2001.

“Prices have increased for this material since then, in some places quite substantially,” said Bonny Beaumont, Modern Firsts specialist at Maggs Bros.

Image source, University of Sydney

Image caption, Sydney University Fisher Library staff member Simon Cooper found the book incorrectly shelved in the science section

In the rediscovered edition of The Voyage Out, handwritten edits made by Woolf can be seen in blue and brown pencil, with typed excerpts pasted onto the pages.

Some of the changes could have been made by an editor or someone else.

Image source, University of Sydney

Image caption, An example of Virginia Woolf’s edits

Academics say the rare text reflects Woolf’s understanding of her own process of writing and how she developed the craft.

“It carries iconic value,” said to Mark Byron – a professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sydney, who has studied the book in person.

“The revisions are fascinating in terms of what Woolf was thinking at the time,” he added.

“Its role in Woolf’s editorial decisions towards the first American edition of the novel in 1920 is an important element of its textual history.”

“The inclusion of Woolf’s annotations and corrections in her own hand, in pasted typed sheets, and in marginal editorial instructions, make this a unique object, shining a light on the composition processes of a pivotal novel in Woolf’s career, and thus in the history of the novel in the 20th Century.”

He added that the difficult composition of the novel led to the first significant adult breakdown for Woolf, suggesting the subject matter and narrative technique deployed in the novel may shed some light on matters of psychology and mental distress and its connection to Woolf’s emergent career as a writer.

Some have speculated that Woolf was “potentially uncomfortable with how closely the reflections mirrored her own mental health when she was writing the book” which is what led to the changes, Mr Byron said.

Image source, University of Sydney

Image caption, The Voyage Out has been fully digitised and is currently the only one of two copies made publicly available

Most of Woolf’s works are housed at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and the Berg collection at the New York Public Library.

Many have long believed that the other first edition of The Voyage Out owned by Woolf was held in an undisclosed private collection in the US. It is known as the “Adams” copy as it used to be part of a library belonging to a Mr FB Adams.

However, the BBC has learned that the Adams copy is in London and owned by a private British collector. He acquired it through the rare book dealer Peter Harrington at an auction held by Sotheby’s in 2001.

Peter Harrington’s son, Pom, who now runs the business, said he was excited by the rediscovery and digitalisation of The Voyage Out, and keen to examine the difference between the two copies.