Going public: Virginia Woolf's own copy of debut novel available to all

24 July 2023
The only publicly available copy in the world
The University of Sydney's Fisher Library has digitised Virginia Woolf's personal copy of the first edition of her debut novel, The Voyage Out, featuring inscriptions and edits by her hand that now anyone can enjoy.

This first edition and Woolf's personal copy is the only one of its kind publicly available in the world.

First acquired by the Library's Rare Books team in the 1970s through a bookseller in England, the book was rediscovered in 2021 by Metadata Services Officer Simon Cooper from the Fisher Library with science books in the Rare Books and Special Collections.

A digitised copy of this rare literary artifact - with its fascinating and unique inscriptions clearly visible - can now be enjoyed by the general public, students, staff and anyone with a Woolf or rare book bug.

Discover the rare book’s journey

Mr Cooper was cataloguing a collection in the Library's Rare Books room when he noticed the book was incorrectly shelved among science titles.  

The call number for the book (an association sequence written on a paper slip), which is a part of the Deane collection, had a similar sequence to science books, which meant it was inadvertently placed.

Fisher library working holding Virginia Woolf book

Metadata Services Officer Simon Cooper from the Fisher Library holding Woolf's copy of The Voyage Out. 

"I knew the book didn't belong there, so I took it out and then saw the author’s name handwritten on the first page,” Mr Cooper said.

“I could feel there were other things inside, with bits pasted in. Originally, I thought, 'Could it really be her copy, or is it another editor's copy or someone else's?'

"So, I looked up her handwriting to compare it, and it matched. It's her copy," said Mr Cooper.

Notes in blue pencil

While investigating the mystery, Mr Cooper discovered the article ‘The Voyage Out’: some new evidence from 1996 by James M. Haule explaining the story behind this rediscovered book.

The article revealed the book was a working copy that appears to be a backup for another Woolf was altering to publish in the United States, which she resumed working on at some point.

Inside the book, in handwritten and typed adjustments, are edits made by Woolf in blue pencil, brown pencil (potentially from an editor), and typed excerpts pasted onto the pages.

While some modifications are grammatical and partial edits, others are more robust including removing paragraphs and sentences. In Chapter 25, whole pages are boldly struck out with handwritten revisions, which were ultimately not followed through.

Woolf's annotations

A glimpse inside Woolf's The Voyage Out with her inscriptions. 

Mr Cooper considers the book a remarkable find, with the adopted and abandoned revisions providing an insight into Woolf’s interior thoughts.

"The pasted-in typed notes were ultimately adopted in the US print edition, but the handwritten ones weren't. One theory is that this was Virginia’s personal copy, with a second marked-up copy sent to the American publisher for publication," he said.

"The inscriptions are what makes our copy unique, and the revisions are fascinating in terms of what Woolf was thinking at the time.”

Woolf’s writing process

While Library staff can’t confirm, the 1996 article speculated Woolf was potentially uncomfortable with how closely the reflections mirrored her mental health when she was writing the book.

Professor of Modern Literature Mark Byron from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences explained the copy speaks to Woolf's turbulent process of writing the book and is a beguiling artefact within the literary sphere.

"This copy carries the aura of the author's hand and her immediate interventions in the text. It carries iconic value," Professor Byron said.

Woolf's signature in her book

"This copy carries the aura of the author's hand and her immediate interventions in the text. It carries iconic value." 

“Woolf appears to be very carefully calibrating how the narrator is reporting the characters' thoughts - an indication she's taking great care with revealing the character's thoughts but also developing the role of the narrator.

"It's really the characters' psychology and how much of that the narrator reveals. That may be the key feature.

“It's also about Woolf's understanding of her own process of writing.

"It forms a part of a big constellation. Because it's at the start of her career and it's her first novel, this copy could be an important agenda-setting text, in terms of speaking more fully about how Woolf developed her craft."

Step deeper inside Woolf’s mind with our digitised copy

Since its rediscovery, The Voyage Out has found a new home next to the medieval manuscripts and Henry Lawson’s manuscripts in the Rare Books collection.

It has joined many other invaluable texts digitised by the Fisher Library’s Rare Books Team in their digital collections, including a copy of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica) with his handwriting.

For a view of the physical copy, book an appointment through the catalogue or with the Virtual Reading Room

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