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One of just two copies of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), annotated with her handwriting and preparations to revise it for a US edition, was recently rediscovered in the Fisher Library Rare Books Collection at the University of Sydney.
The debut novel has been fully digitised for the first time, which is the only one available for the public to view. It’s available online – allowing scholars and readers to study and consider Woolf’s editorial interventions.
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. The Voyage Out follows Rachel Vinrace and a mismatched collection of characters embarking on her father’s ship to South America. Woolf’s story grapples with self-discovery and satirises Edwardian life.
It almost finished her writing career. She struggled through years of drafts, eventually abandoning the first version in 1912: it was titled Melymbrosia, named after the food of the Greek gods. Woolf’s ideas on colonialism, women’s suffrage and gender relations were considered too dangerous for a first-time novelist. 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 its 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. 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 taking her own life.
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. 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.