Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Curious Speaking Voice of Virginia Woolf

Googling away, as you do, I heard the speaking voice of Virginia Woolf today - and couldn't have been more surprised. In a 1937 BBC broadcast where she talks about the English language and the process of writing.

I've read widely about the Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals that formed round 1908 at the home of Virginia Woolf and her brothers Thorby and Adrian at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury ...

... people such as the writers E M Forster and Lytton Strachey, the philosophers Bertrand Russell and G E Moore, Leonard Woolf, the economic theorist Maynard Keynes, the painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell ... it goes on a bit!

And I guess had a pretty firm idea of what Virginia Woolf's voice would have been like - from having read her novels, and biographies about her such as that of her nephew Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Quentin Bell. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk at Monk's House, Rodmell in Sussex

But in the broadcast, Virginia comes across as a bit cool and pompous. And rather more conventionally upper middle class than I'd imagined - as though looking down on her audience from a great height. She did in fact give public lectures to working class men and women about literature - so at least on one level, she was concerned with social reform and enfranchising education.

Virginia Woolf at Garsington 1923, Home of Lady Ottoline Morrell and Haunt of Bloomsbury People

The writer seems ploddingly serious much of the time - with somewhat clumsy and forced attempts at light-hearted humour. The voice is slow, deliberate and plumy - quite different from that I had in mind from accounts of her at times razor sharp wit and lively racy conversation.

But then I guess the context and her perceived audience drove most of what I love/d momentarily out of Ms Woolf!

Virginia Woolf Later in Life

Anyway, I rattled up this video today to go with an audio of one of the raciest bits I could find (well, ... !), adding some more images of her life and circle on top.

But I think I'll stick to the version of Virginia I have in my mind!


  1. That was brilliant and actually very much the voice that I thought she would have. I have also read a lot about the Bloomsbury group. Thank you. AJ

  2. One Who Lived To Regret It.April 2, 2009 at 5:03 PM

    Nick...What a great find, and what a nice video you've managed to put together. She had that sort of aristocratic richly rounded vowel voice that reminds me a lot of the late Queen Mary, and the great British character actress Martita Hunt. Remember her as the Dowager Dutchess in "Paradise Lagoon?"

    GEORGE: Mamma, I tell you it's no use, I'm consumed with passion!

    DUTCHESS: Nonsense, you should take more exercise!

  3. hey josh

    thanks - it was amazing and disconcerting to hear her voice - as i mentioned i had a different idea of it - quicker and more obviously dazzling - controlled fireworks - but it might have been the broadcast as opposed to her social voice

    take care - good to hear as always


  4. hey AJ

    i guess we each construct different ideas of what a character in a novel is like, what the author is like and so on - good that you saw her that way in that there was none of my disquiet.

    have been fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group too - since uni days and since meeting a few very elderly and minor members when i lived in london, like the painter eve disher on whom i posted not long ago

    i've found it interesting to read bio's, histories and so on - and gradually build up my own picture of the group in its two 'phases' (old and new bloomsbury)


  5. "It might have been the broadcast as opposed to her social voice," you suggest. I suspect that's very true. And undoubtedly there was a pronounced sense of "responsibility" for using the air waves to educate and uplift the masses.

    I've heard a number of "interviews" from the Met Opera intermission from decades past. Singers from the 1930s were always heavily scripted and there's an almost suffocating air of "graciousness" and "noble condescension," coupled with saying almost nothing at all but platitudes. A sign of the times, I suspect.

    But still it's great to hear the voices. I always wonder what the voices of historic figured sounded like. What kind of accent did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have? Was what we, in the States, think of as a "Southern" accent, as strong then? Since so many folks from England were still coming over, did colonists still have a "British" tinge to their words? When did the American and Australian accents develop -- and why?

    A marvelous find on your part!