Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), born Adeline Virginia Stephen, was one of the most important writers of the first half of the twentieth century. A leading modernist novelist and short-story writer whose novels Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves are widely regarded as classics, Woolf was also an influential writer of non-fiction.
Many of the quotations gathered below – which represent, for us, the best and most significant quotations found in Woolf’s work – come from works of non-fiction Woolf wrote: essays and lectures on the topics of fiction and gender, in particular. They also help to shine a light on Woolf’s views and attitudes.
‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’
This quotation is from Virginia Woolf’s 1919 essay ‘Modern Novels’, also known by the title ‘Modern Fiction’. In the essay, Woolf takes aim at the ‘materialist’ fiction of writers like H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, who are more concerned with the external details of a person’s life than the ‘inner lives’ of their characters.
‘In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe.’
After her 1919 essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Woolf expanded on her ideas concerning fiction in her 1923 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. She invites her readers to consider how they are being short-changed by the Arnold Bennetts of the world, who fail to capture the multifariousness and complexity of the average reader’s everyday thoughts. The quotation continues:
You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder. Nevertheless, you allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of all this, an image of Mrs. Brown, which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever.
‘And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December 1910 human character changed.’
Here’s another famous quotation from ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. Critics have puzzled over why Woolf chose December 1910 of all dates, but her broader point is that a shift occurred towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, and modern fiction has failed to reflect that shift. Readers have become ‘modern’ but most novelists are still relying on old, and now-outdated, approaches to capturing everyday life.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’
Woolf’s non-fiction is endlessly quotable; her fiction lends itself less to pithy quotation because it is like a Persian carpet whose individual threads are carefully and meticulously intertwined.
However, this opening line from Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, which begins with the titular Clarissa Dalloway preparing to hold a party on the day on which the novel’s action takes place, has become famous.
Part of the genius of the line is its subtlety: it appears a perfectly ordinary and even insignificant detail, but it immediately implies that Clarissa Dalloway is a rich woman who has servants, since she is going to buy the flowers herself rather than send a maid for them. It also invites us to wonder what the flowers are for, and thus piques our interest in an adroit way, encouraging us – as good opening lines should – to read on.
‘Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.’
Woolf also has a gift for good closing lines, too. This quotation constitutes the last words of her 1917 short story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. The story merely uses the mysterious mark as a jumping-off point for the female protagonist’s stream of consciousness, but the anti-climax at the end of the story – when the mark is revealed to be nothing more extraordinary than a snail – deliberately reveals material reality to be less important than the chain of thoughts and day-dreams which it sets in motion.
‘When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness – I am nothing.’
These words are spoken by Bernard, one of the main characters in Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves. They speak to the power of language and an artist’s sensitivity to words.
‘I mean, what is a woman? I assure you, I do not know. I do not believe that you know. I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill.’
This quotation comes from ‘Professions for Women’, a 1931 essay, and in some ways it might be regarded as a continuation of the arguments surrounding the idea of the professional woman which Woolf had put forward in A Room of One’s Own two years earlier.
‘Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.’
The rest of the Virginia Woolf quotations on this list are taken from one work: her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, which began as a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge. We have analysed the essay in more detail here, but as this quotation makes clear, womanhood is a key theme of Woolf’s book.
‘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.’
One of the most famous sections of A Room of One’s Own is Woolf’s story about William Shakespeare’s fictional sister, whom she calls Judith. What would Judith Shakespeare’s life have been like, if she’d had aspirations to become a playwright like her brother?
Woolf concludes that such an ambition would have been a non-starter for Judith, who wouldn’t have received the education or the opportunities her brother had.
‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’
Although ‘Judith Shakespeare’ was merely a rhetorical construct, several decades after Shakespeare’s death, a woman was writing for the English stage: Aphra Behn (1640-89), whom Woolf salutes in A Room of One’s Own as the first woman in England to make a living from her pen.
‘Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.’
Another quotation from A Room of One’s Own, and one which many writers – especially those seeking to buck the trend and carve out a more original or individualistic path – would do well to bear in mind.
‘Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’
This quotation is about the delicate complexity of fiction, especially the subtle and layered modernist fiction which Woolf herself wrote. The important thing is that Woolf’s fiction deals with the almost transparent and insignificant details of everyday life – but these details are rooted in the realities of our lives.
‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’
This is one of the most famous lines from A Room of One’s Own: the words occur when Woolf is tracing the history of women’s literature, arguing that although there are few named female writers from the Renaissance (and earlier), women probably had a hand in a lot of anonymous literature that was produced in the past.
‘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.’
Another rousing line from A Room of One’s Own. It’s hard not to agree!
‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’
These last two quotations in this list both return our focus to the material realities which surround the writer – here, the importance of having money enough to feed oneself so one can live a good life (and produce good art).
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
What better place to conclude this pick of the best Virginia Woolf quotations than with the line which provided Woolf with the title for A Room of One’s Own?
She goes on to specify that an inheritance of five hundred pounds a year – which would give a woman financial independence – is more important than women getting the vote.