Books

Words Fail Me: Virginia Woolf’s Sole Surviving Recording

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941), 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Credit: Wikipedia.org

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941), 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Credit: Wikipedia.org

“Perhaps that is [the] most striking peculiarity [of words] – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person; they are unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity that they survive.”

On the occasion of Virginia Woolf’s 75th death anniversary, the BBC has created an animation using what is believed to be Woolf’s sole surviving recording.

The recording was made on 29 April 1937 for a BBC series called ‘Words Fail Me.’ Only eight minutes of the original remain, and the BBC has used two of those eight in their animation.

The original cover of To The Lighthouse: woodcut print by Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell.

The original cover of To The Lighthouse: woodcut print by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell.

The animator Phoebe Halstead was inspired by the woodcuts created by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell for the Hogarth Press, which was founded by Woolf and her husband Leonard in 1917, and which published Woolf’s books.

When she made the recording, Woolf was 55 years old and living with Leonard in Bloomsbury, London. A part of the famous Bloomsbury circle, the Woolfs were very much at the heart of London intellectual life. Despite her lively literary life and rising recognition as a writer, however, Woolf continued her lifelong struggle with depression. It was just four years after her BBC broadcast that she committed suicide.

Woolf’s talk, delivered in her posh English accent, of course takes as its premise the “Englishness” of the English language. But Woolf actually questions the idea of English as supreme, stable or authentic. In a tone that is at once celebratory and wondrous, humble, witty, and serious, she talks about the mutability of words over time and their autonomy in making meaning. “They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things,” she extolls.

Certainly, her attitudes to language and truth are expressed in her associative, free-flowing, exploratory writing style – a style that was celebrated as revolutionary by her peers and made particularly famous by the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To The Lighthouse (1927). And indeed, they are attitudes that writers and thinkers of all kinds, times and places could benefit from, regardless of their own contexts.

Here are some links to whet your Woolf appetite:

Joshua Rothman: Viriginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy, New Yorker

Vita Sackville-West & Virginia Woolf: A Thing That Wants Virginia, Paris Review