Virginia’s Voyage Out

A rare find

In 2021, a defaced copy of Virginia Woolf’s debut novel The Voyage Out was found in the Rare Books and Special Collections of the University of Sydney Library. Whole passages had been struck out, edits typed and overlaid, and notes handwritten in the margins. 

Who would dare do such a thing to any book, let alone a protected literary treasure? 

Metadata Services Officer, Simon Cooper, decided to investigate. 

The first clue was the nature of the markings. These weren’t basic scribbles or study notes – they were editorial mark-up and notes for typesetters.

The second clue was the original owner of the book. This was a first edition, with a name scrawled on the flyleaf. A close comparison of the handwriting within the book and examples of Woolf’s writing online revealed the truth. 

The vandal was Woolf herself. 

A turbulent history

Virginia Woolf had been just 25 years old when, in 1907, she began drafting what would become her first published novel: a tale of a young woman’s self-discovery aboard a ship bound for South America. Almost a decade later, in 1915, The Voyage Out was finally published in the UK, heralding the beginning of an illustrious literary career. And it was this particular copy that Virginia Woolf herself would have received, hot off the press – proof that she had made it.

Analysis revealed that the markings found in the University of Sydney’s copy of The Voyage Out were Woolf’s edits for her US publisher, who went on to publish it in 1920. The reasons for these edits are unclear. Had Woolf re-read the UK edition and wished she had made these changes to the original? Or had she perhaps been asked to tailor the book to a US audience? Intriguingly, some significant changes were never carried out – for example, the deletion of a scene taking place within the protagonist’s delirious mind as she faced her untimely demise.  

An image from the Library's copy of a Voyage Out which shows the handwritten notes contained.

This special edition of The Voyage Out has had a life almost as tumultuous as the author’s own. It was first acquired by the University of Sydney’s Rare Books team in 1976 from a little bookseller named Bow Windows Bookshop in East Sussex. From there it travelled to Sydney, where at some point the book was mislaid in the science section of the Library’s Rare Books collection. There it had remained until its rediscovery in 2021. 

As Mark Byron, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sydney, explained: “This copy carries the aura of the author's hand and her immediate interventions in the text. It carries iconic value.” It speaks to Woolf’s turbulent writing process, and the development of her unique narrative voice. “Woolf's revisions and notes you're seeing her next stage of thinking about how narration should work, how much characters should disclose about their inner thoughts.”

A new home

Recognising its historical, literary and cultural significance, the University of Sydney Library has now digitised this edition of The Voyage Out and its editorial mark-up so that the public can view it online

The physical copy has now been placed beside Henry Lawson’s manuscripts in the Rare Books collection and is available for special viewing in the climate-controlled Rare Books Reading Room. Organise a viewing and marvel at your own proximity to a literary legend, and how close this treasure came to being lost forever. But be sure to leave your pencils at the door. 

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