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’), and some seem to have been 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. And of course some are completely made up and proliferate on social media. Sometimes they’re fairly convincing: it’s almost as though there’s a AI bot somewhere that’s been tasked with creating Woolf quotations . . .
Below we explain why and how the misquotation is likely to have come about, and what its Woolfian (or other) source might be.
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: email@example.com
‘[Bloomsbury] lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’
A very common Bloomsburyesque quotation, sometimes attributed to Woolf, but normally 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 (Vita Sackville-West probably first coined the phrase), of the pun ‘Gloomsbury’, used more recently (2012–18) 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. Woolf is known as a feminist, so it is convenient to credit her.
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’
So nearly there, but just tidied up a little 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).
‘I have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life’
Found on a Penguin Books web page headed ’12 times Virginia Woolf understood the millennial condition’. Ten of the twelve are fine, two are not. This one is supposedly from ‘Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing (1985)’.
Source: This not from Moments of Being (neither of the editions published under this title), but the diary (Diary, vol. 1, p. 141, 18 April 1918). It refers not to Woolf’s belief about herself, but is her view of the members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild: ‘In spite of their solemn passivity they have a deeply hidden & inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life’.
‘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 if I told you I’m incapable of tolerating my own heart?’
As above, this was found on the Penguin Books web page headed ’12 times Virginia Woolf understood the millennial condition’, credited to Woolf’s novel Night and Day. It appears at least twice in print: as the epigraph to a science fiction book by Emily Lloyd-Jones, The Hearts We Sold (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017), where it is attributed to ‘Virginia Woolf, Night and Day’. And again, supposedly quoted from Night and Day, in English, but in a memoir written in Welsh by Malan Wilkinson, Rhyddhau’r Cranc (Talybont, Ceredigion: Y Lolfa: 2018).
Source: None. This not in Night and Day, nor anywhere else in Woolf’s works. Since it appeared on the internet – the earliest occurrence we’ve come across is 15 November 2012 – it has spread across blogs like a rash: nearly 14,000 results on a web search, at the last count.
‘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’: see 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. The spelling of ‘paralyzing’ suggests that it originated in the US.
Source: None. But it sounds Woolfian, doesn’t it? Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to select words that are in Woolf’s vocabulary and arrange them in a sentence-like structure.
‘Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money’
In various forms, this quotation is attributed to Woolf and to others, including Molière. The Quote Investigator website has carefully investigated the attributions, and concluded ‘that the quotation was probably first constructed by Ferenc Molnár around 1930 and reported by George Jean Nathan in 1932’. See The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932, pp. 63–4.
Source: Close but no cigar. As Celia Marshik has pointed out, Woolf drew a comparison between prostitution and writing, and this may have led to the assocation of her name with similar sayings. An example of a comparable sentiment by Woolf appears in a letter to Violet Dickinson: ‘I have sold my brains, which are my virtue. Never any lost woman felt so degraded as I do tonight’ (8 June 1903, in Woolf, Letters, vol. 1, p. 79). See Celia Marshik, ‘Publication and “Public Women”: Prostitution and Censorship in Three Novels by Virginia Woolf’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 45:4 (Winter 1999): 853–86.
We are indebted to Quote Investigator for the information.
‘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).
With many thanks to Stuart N. Clarke, who did most of the investigating for this page.