Wide World of Quotes > Virginia Woolf Quotes


Virginia Woolf
English novelist
(1882-1941)



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"What is this romance?" she mused.

"Ah, that’s the question. I’ve never come across a definition that satisfied me, though there are some very good ones"—he glanced in the direction of his books.

"It’s not altogether knowing the other person, perhaps—it’s ignorance," she hazarded.

"Some authorities say it’s a question of distance—romance in literature, that is—"

"Possibly, in the case of art. But in the case of people it may be—" she hesitated.
-- Night and Day (1919)

No one can escape the power of language, let alone those of English birth brought up from childhood, as Mrs. Hilbery had been, to disport themselves now in the Saxon plainness, now in the Latin splendor of the tongue, and stored with memories, as she was, of old poets exuberating in an infinity of vocables. Even Katharine was slightly affected against her better judgment by her mother's enthusiasm. Not that her judgment could altogether acquiesce in the necessity for a study of Shakespeare's sonnets as a preliminary to the fifth chapter of her grandfather's biography. Beginning with a perfectly frivolous jest, Mrs. Hilbery had evolved a theory that Anne Hathaway had a way, among other things, of writing Shakespeare's sonnets; the idea, struck out to enliven a party of professors, who forwarded a number of privately printed manuals within the next few days for her instruction, had submerged her in a flood of Elizabethan literature; she had come half to believe in her joke, which was, she said, at least as good as other people's facts, and all her fancy for the time being centered upon Stratford-on-Avon.
-- Night and Day (1919), ch. 24

There is in the British Museum an enormous mind. Consider that Plato is there cheek by jowl with Aristotle; and Shakespeare with Marlowe. This great mind is hoarded beyond the power of any single mind to possess it.
--
Jacob's Room (1922)

Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.
--
Jacob's Room (1922), ch. 5

It's not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.
--
Jacob's Room (1922), ch. 6

The strange thing about life is that though the nature of it must have been apparent to every one for hundreds of years, no one has left any adequate account of it. The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?
--
Jacob's Room (1922), ch. 8

On or about December 1910 human nature changed.. All human relations have shifted -- those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.
-- "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" (1924)

But can we go to posterity with a sheaf of loose pages, or ask the readers of those days, with the whole of literature before them, to sift our enormous rubbish heaps for our tiny pearls? Such are the questions which the critics might lawfully put to their companions at table, the novelists and poets.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "How It Strikes a Contemporary".

We are nauseated by the trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Modern Fiction"

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Modern Fiction"

Life is not a series of gig lamps symetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Modern Fiction"

A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain around us, but it must be a curtain that shuts in not out.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Modern Fiction"

Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commony thought big than what is commony thought small.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Modern Fiction"

Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown up people.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "George Eliot"

Theirs, too, is the word-coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Notes on an Elizabethan Play".

Righteous indignation ... is misplaced if we agree with the lady's maid that high birth is a form of congenital insanity, that the sufferer merely inherits diseases of his ancestors, and endures them, for the most part very stoically, in one of those comfortably padded lunatic asylums which are known, euphemistically, as the stately homes of England.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Lady Dorothy Nevill"

We may enjoy our room in the tower, with the painted walls and the commodious bookcases, but down in the garden there is a man digging who buried his father this morning, and it is he and his like who live the real life and speak the real language.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Montaigne"

For ourselves, who are ordinary men and women, let us return thanks to Nature for her bounty by using every one of the senses she has given us; vary our state as much as possible; turn now this side, now that, to the warmth, and relish to the full before the sun goes down the kisses of youth and the echoes of a beautiful voice singing Catullus. Every season is likeable, and wet days and fine, red wine and white, company and solitude. Even sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life, can be full of dreams; and the most common actions—a walk, a talk, solitude in one’s own orchard—can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind. Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger’s-breadth from goodness.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "Montaigne"

It is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "On Not Knowing Greek"

Humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "On Not Knowing Greek"

The interest in life does not lie in what people do, nor even in their relations to each other, but largely in the power to communicate with a third party, antagonistic, enigmatic, yet perhaps persuadable, which one may call life in general.
--
The Common Reader (1925). "On Not Knowing Greek"

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
-- Mrs Dalloway (1925)

It was enemies one wanted, not friends.
-- Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regnet's Park, was enough. Too much, indeed.
-- Mrs Dalloway (1925)

A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning.
-- Mrs Dalloway (1925)

What she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here there, she survived. Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.
-- Mrs Dalloway (1925)

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! — that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all.
-- Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.
-- Orlando (1928)





She bore about wih her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any roomthat she entered; and after all, veil as she might, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved.
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. I, ch. 8

Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscription on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs Ramsay's knee.
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. I, ch. 9

She felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were the eternal problems: suffering; death; the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through with it.
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. I, ch. 9

So that is marriage, Lily thought, a man and a woman looking at a girl throwing a ball.
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. I, ch. 13

"Like a work of art," she repeated, looking from her canvas to the drawing-room steps and back again. She must rest for a moment. And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which transversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never
come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, "Life stand still here"; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)— this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the cloud going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. "Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!" she repeated. She owed it all to her.
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. III, ch. 3

Mrs Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren't things spoilt then, Mrs Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them?
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. III, ch. 5

But one only woke people if one knew what one wanted to say to them. And she wanted to say not one thing, but everything. Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. 'About life, about death; about Mrs Ramsay' – no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody.
-- To the Lighthouse (1927), pt. III, ch. 5





A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 1

The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 1

Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 2

Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so
invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one self. By feeling that one has some innate superiority — it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney — for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination — over other people.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 2

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 2

Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare's plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 3

For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled
asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 3

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 3

I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 3

The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 3

This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 4

It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex... Yest it is the masculine values that prevail.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 4

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 4

We think back through our mothers if we are women.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 4

For all the dinners that have been cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 5

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young — alas, she never wrote a word... Now my belief
is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 6

My belief is that if we live another century or so — I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred
a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out
the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.
--
A Room of One's Own (1929), ch. 6

You are not listening to me. You are making phrases about Byron. And while you gesticulate, with your cloak, your cane, I am trying to expose a secret told to nobody yet; I am asking you (as I stand with my back to you) to take my life in your hands and tell me whether I am doomed always to cause repulsion in those I love?
--
Bernard on Percival, The Waves (1931), section III

Things have dropped from me. I have outlived certain desires. I have lost friends, some by death -- Percival -- others through sheer inability to cross the street.
--
The Waves (1931)

Now, through my own infirmity I recover what he was to me: my opposite. Being naturally truthful, he did not see the point of these exaggerations, and was borne on by a natural sense of the fitting, was indeed a great master of the art of living so that he seems to have lived long, and to have spread calm round him, indifference one might almost say, certainly to his own advancement, save that he had also great compassion. [...] We have no ceremonies, only private dirges and no conclusions, only violent sensations, each separate. Nothing that has been said meets our case. [...] After a long lifetime, loosely, in a moment of revelation, I may lay hands on it, but now the idea breaks in my hand. Ideas break a thousand times for once that they globe themselves entire. [...] I am yawning. I am glutted with sensations. I am exhausted with the strain and the long, long time—twenty-five minutes, half an hour—that I have held myself alone outside the machine.
--
Bernard on Percival, The Waves (1931), section V

Yet there are moments when the walls of the mind grow thin; when nothing is unabsorbed, and I could fancy that we might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.
--
The Waves (1931)

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; that which is without great hopes, ideals, or anything of that kind; what is unassuming except to make a tolerably, good job of it. I like all that.
--
The Waves (1931)

We have dined well. The fish, the veal cutlets, the wine have blunted the sharp tooth of egotism. Anxiety is at rest. The vainest of us, Louis perhaps, does not care what people think. Neville’s tortures are at rest. Let others prosper—that is what he thinks. Susan hears the breathing of all her children safe asleep. Sleep, sleep, she murmurs. Rhoda has rocked her ships to shore. Whether they have foundered, whether they have anchored, she cares no longer.
-- Bernard in
The Waves (1931), section VIII

*Was there no sword, nothing with which to batter down these walls, this protection, this begetting of children and living behind curtains, and becoming daily more involved and committed, with books and pictures? Better burn one’s life out like Louis, desiring perfection; or like Rhoda leave us, flying past us to the desert; or choose one out of millions and one only like Neville; better be like Susan and love and hate the heat of the sun or the frost-bitten grass; or be like Jinny, honest, an animal. All had their rapture; their common feeling with death; something that stood them in stead. Thus I visited each of my friends in turn, trying, with fumbling fingers, to prise open their locked caskets. I went from one to the other holding my sorrow—no, not my sorrow but the incomprehensible nature of this our life—for their inspection. Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends, I to my own heart, I to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken—I to whom there is not beauty enough in moon or tree; to whom the touch of one person with another is all, yet who cannot grasp even that, who am so imperfect, so weak, so unspeakably lonely. There I sat.
-- Bernard in:
The Waves (1931), section IX

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call “my life”, it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.
-- Bernard in:
The Waves (1931), section IX

Letters

The scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges.
of James Joyce's Ulysses
-- Letter to Lytton Strachey, 24 April 1922

Never did I read such tosh.
-- Letter to Lytton Strachey, 24 April 1922

I read the book of Job last night. I don't think God comes well out of it.
-- Letter to Lady Robert Cecil, 12 November 1922

As an experience, madness is terrific…and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about.
-- Letter to Ethel Smyth, 22 June 1930

Dearest,

I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. Please believe that. But I know that I shall never get over this: and I am wasting your life. It is this madness. Nothing anyone says can persuade me. You can work, and you will be much better without me. You see I can't write this even, which shows I am right. All I want to say is that until this disease came on we were perfectly happy. It was all due to you. No one could have been so good as you have been, from the very first day till now. Everyone knows that.

V.
-- Letter to Leonard Woolf, 28 March 1941

Diary entries

What sort of diary should I like mine to be?…I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.
-- D
iary, 20 April 1919

Content is disillusioning to behold: what is there to be content about?
-- D
iary, 5 May 1920

One likes people much better when they're battered down by a prodigious siege of misfortune than when they triumph.
-- D
iary, 13 August 1921


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The selection of the above quotes and the writing of the accompanying notes was performed by the author David Paul Wagner.

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