Revisiting the iconic writer’s wittiest, wisest and most thought-provoking lines.
Virginia Woolf, who was born on 25 January 1882, is often thought of as a rather stern, sombre figure. This is partly due to the handful of photographs that exist of her, almost all of which show her maintaining the same mournful, faraway expression. It is also undoubtedly influenced by the knowledge of the modernist writer’s struggles with severe depression, which affected her throughout her life and led to her eventual suicide in 1941.
However, when we default to this popular image of Woolf as an austere, aloof and tragic genius, we overlook all the other facets of her writing and persona that made her such a compelling figure. Woolf could be mischievous as well as grave, lively as well as serious-minded, and in both her work and her personal life she demonstrated beliefs about gender norms that were light years ahead of her time.
In her famous lecture-turned-essay A Room of One’s Own, for example, Woolf outlined the importance of women writers being granted both literal and metaphorical space to create work away from men – a radical idea at the time. Her satirical novel Orlando, now regarded as a ground-breaking queer text, featured a hero who switches sex from male to female over the course of several centuries. In Three Guineas, another book-length essay, Woolf tackled the issue of women being shut out of proper education and fulfilling careers.
She was a writer who drew from a seemingly endless well of wisdom on topics as disparate as politics, books, war, gender and love, and her influence on literature and feminism in the 20th century is difficult to underestimate.
Here, we’ve collected some of Woolf’s wittiest, wisest and most thought-provoking quotes.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” From A Room of One’s Own, 1929
“Books are the mirrors of the soul.” From Between the Acts, 1941
“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” From Street Haunting, 1927
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” From A Room of One’s Own
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” From A Room of One’s Own
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” From A Room of One’s Own
“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.” From Orlando, 1928
“The outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’” From Three Guineas, 1938
“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.” From A Room of One’s Own
“Why are women… so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” From A Room of One’s Own
“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” From A Room of One’s Own
On getting older
“I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.” From A Writer’s Diary, 1954
“I see you everywhere, in the stars, in the river, to me you’re everything that exists; the reality of everything.” From Night and Day, 1919
“Nothing is so strange when one is in love … as the complete indifference of other people.” From Mrs Dalloway, 1925
On keeping things in perspective
“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?” From Night and Day
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” From The Moment and Other Essays, 1948
“No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.” From Three Guineas
On her hopes for the future
“I have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life.” From Moments of Being, 1985
“I will not be ‘famous’, ‘great’. I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.” From A Writer’s Diary
“By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” From A Room of One’s Own
Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.
Images: Rex Features