What Woolf Didn’t Say!
It is the internet that is mainly to blame for the proliferation of misquotations. Some are simple mistakes (‘You cannot find peace by avoiding life’), others are misattributions (‘What matters is precisely this, the unspoken at the edge of the spoken’), but some seem to have been made up or adapted from Woolf’s words (‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’), perhaps by people who think they can write better and want a Woolfian soundbite to exactly suit their purpose.
Have you come across something that is attributed to Woolf, but you know better, or you’re not sure? Let us know if more Woolfian ‘quotations’ need to be scotched: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘[Bloomsbury] lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’
A very common Bloomsburyesque quotation, not usually attributed to Woolf, but to Dorothy Parker.
Source: Novelist Margaret Irwin, Fire Down Below: ‘squares where all the couples are triangles’. See Clarke, Virginia Woolf Bulletin, No. 57 (January 2018): 42–5. Irwin also seems to be the source, or at least the populariser, of the pun ‘Gloomsbury’, used more recently (2012–2018) as the title of Sue Limb’s radio parody.
‘Distorted realities have always been my cup of tea’
This has been floating round the internet since at least 2015, and sometimes Selected Diaries is given as a source. It has even appeared in print: in Petar Penda’s Aesthetics and Ideology of D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot (Lexington Books, imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), chapter 4, p. 47 (no reference given). Ella Baron’s full-page cartoon on p. 22 of the Times Literary Supplement, 6 December 2019, is headed with this quotation attributed to Woolf. It is even possible to buy this misattribution printed on merchandise.
‘A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life’
There are thousands of occurrences of this on the internet; it is cited on numerous Pinterest pages, online magazines and reviews, and in at least one academic journal.
Source: None; perhaps the closest is in Woolf’s essay, ‘The Leaning Tower’: ‘If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people’ (The Essays, Vol. 6, p. 274).
‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’
A paraphrase of Woolf to make her line snappier and perhaps for a better fit on merchandise.
Source: A Room of One’s Own, chapter 3: ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’
‘The history of most women is hidden either by silence, or by flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence’
Another paraphrase intended to make Woolf more quotable.
Source: Draft chapter ‘Anon’ for an uncompleted book: ‘But her [Mary Fytton’s] passion, her disgrace, her humiliation are all acted in dumb show. They are hidden either by silence, or by flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence’ (The Essays, Vol. 6, p. 595).
‘One cannot eat well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’
Although it sounds authentic at first, you soon realise that ‘eat’ and ‘dined’ can’t both be correct. This puzzling slogan appeared on a Marks & Spencer jute shopping bag in 2014. M&S also produced a green shopping bag in 2013 with the quotation printed accurately, but with the odd description of Woolf as ‘Author & Publicist’. A publicist can mean a ‘writer on contemporary public issues; a journalist who writes chiefly on current affairs’ (OED), but that still doesn’t seem an appropriate epithet for Woolf: possibly a mistake for ‘Publisher’.
Source: A Room of One’s Own, chapter 1: ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’
‘What matters is precisely this, the unspoken at the edge of the spoken’
This is attributed to Woolf’s Diary for 21 July 1912, but there is no entry for that date or even for that year.
Source: The poet Eavan Boland wrote in an essay: ‘at the end of the day, what matters is language. Is the unspoken at the edge of the spoken’: this may be in her book, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
‘Why should I be bothering myself with questions which shall eternally remain unanswered? How queer that wave of agony; melancholy paralyzing my senses, beautifully, yet for nothing’
This is attributed to Woolf’s Diary for 5 July 1919, but there is no entry for that date.
‘You cannot find peace by avoiding life’
Not Woolf but Hare!
This appears nowhere in Woolf’s published works, and seems to originate with another writer.
Source: Although it’s not in Michael Cunningham’s novel, David Hare’s screenplay for the film of The Hours (London: Faber and Faber, 2008) has Woolf say: ‘You do not find peace by avoiding life, Leonard’ (p. 96).