Virginia Woolf’s Broadcasts and Her Recorded Voice

There is considerable fascination and some puzzlement1about the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, which was taken from a wireless broadcast of 29 April 1937.

Woolf broadcast on the BBC three times.

The first was a scripted discussion with Leonard Woolf entitled Are Too Many Books Written and Published? and broadcast on 15 July 1927. The script is still held by the BBC2.2

The second occasion was a talk on Beau Brummell3in the series Miniature Biographies on 20 November 1929. The script appears to have disappeared, but the talk was printed in the Listener on 27 November 1929 (pp. 720–1). It is a slightly different version of the essay of the same name that was first published in the Nation & Athenaeumon 28 September 1929 (pp. 824–6), was reprinted as a ‘separate’ in 1930, and then reprinted in The Common Reader: Second Series in 1932.

The third occasion was a talk entitled ‘Craftsmanship’ in the series Words Fail Me on Thursday 29 April 1937 on the National Programme (later to become the Home Service and later still Radio 4).

The Radio Times of 23 April previewed the talk as follows:

    In Virginia Woolf’s opinion, craftsmanship is a word that can be applied to the making of pots and pans, but not to words in the way in which writers use them. There is a distinction to be made between the useful use of words and their literary use. The novelist and the scientist use words very differently. Mrs. Woolf is a believer in the importance of a large choice of words, but she deplores all attempts to teach people how to write. (p. 54)

Perhaps that was written by George Barnes, the producer of the talk. He was Mary Hutchinson’s half-brother and had joined the BBC as a Talks Assistant only the year before. He was at the beginning of his distinguished career which culminated with his appointment as Vice-Chancellor of Keele University4.

On the previous page of the Radio Times, there is a photo of Woolf next to one of R. A. Scott-James under the byline ‘Two Talks for the Literary’ (Scott-James gave a Book Talkat 6.20pm). In those days the one National Programme had to cater for all tastes, or at least for all brows. On that Thursday evening, Scott-James was followed by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra; Dickens’ ‘The Black Veil’ was read by Carleton Hobbs; selections were given from Offenbach’s operetta, Robinson Crusoe; and, immediately preceding Woolf, there was A Short Programme for Soubrette and Light Comedian with … The BBC Theatre Orchestra.

Woolf was to have broadcast from 8.40 to 9pm. Actually, she ran slightly over, to a minute past. Presumably the Greenwich Time Signal was omitted. Apparently, precise scheduling was not the fetish it became during the Second World War and subsequently. The news followed, then a very short talk on Common Nuisances, the BBC Military Band, A Short Midweek [Church] Service, a recital, then at 11pm Harry Roy and his Band. Finally, there was half an hour of dance music until closedown at midnight.

Approximately one-third of Woolf’s talk, towards the end, was recorded. This was a common practice, owing to the limited technology available at the time. Recording tapes were available but were expensive and the equipment was very large, so consequently they were not much used. Extracts were normally recorded onto discs and were usually only three to four minutes in length. Woolf’s is over seven minutes.

The BBC Written Archives Centre holds the 11-page typescript of the talk (with a few alterations in Woolf’s and another’s hands) and it was then published in the Listeneron 5 May 1937 (pp. 868-9). There are slight differences between the script, the recorded part of the talk, and the article in the Listener. Leonard Woolf must have reprinted ‘Craftsmanship’ from the Listener when he compiled The Death of the Moth and Other Essays in 1942 (in which the date of the broadcast is incorrectly given as 20 April), for the two versions are identical except for house style (for example, ‘today’ and ‘to-day’, respectively). To confuse matters a little more, that part of the talk that had been recorded was published from the script as ‘Words Must Have Their Liberty’ in London Calling: The Overseas Journal of the British Broadcasting Corporation on 14 September 1950 (No. 573, p. 17).

The recording is held in the British Library National Sound Archive (M7060W BD1, BBC Archive No. 1328). It runs from ‘it is them we see, them we hear. That is one reason why our judgments of living writers are so wildly erratic.’ to ‘We pin them down to one meaning … the meaning which makes us pass the examination.’ (The Death of the Moth, pp. 129–32). Occasionally the recording is broadcast on the wireless or is issued on tape or on CD. The recording can also be found online here.

Confusingly, often only an excerpt from the recording is given — as at present in the John Ritblat Gallery of the British Library where the excerpt starts at the beginning, but ends at ‘only a great writer knows that “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas”.’ This is perhaps not surprising when one realises that the current cost of copying the recording for commercial distribution is £200 per minute.5

In a BBC programme on Woolf, broadcast on 10 July 1956, George (‘Dadie’) Rylands said: ‘In this recording her voice seems a little strained at first but soon becomes her very self as she speaks of WORDS.’ There then followed an excerpt from the recording: from ‘All we can say about them as we peer over the edge …’ to ‘And it is because of this complexity … that they survive.’6 On the other hand, Quentin Bell (who had contributed to that programme) later famously wrote:

    • this record is a very poor one. Her voice is deprived of depth and resonance; it seems altogether too fast and too flat; it is barely recognisable. Her speaking voice was in fact beautiful … and it is sad that it should not have been immortalised in a more satisfactory manner.


But it is all we have.

Reprinted from the Virginia Woolf Bulletin, no. 4 (May 2000)
copyright© S. N. Clarke


1 This is despite several articles on the topic: see Evelyn Haller’s ‘Bloomsbury Materials in the National Sound Archive’, Charleston Newsletter, No. 15 (June 1986), pp. 16–21; her ‘The Voice of Virginia Woolf in the National Sound Archive’, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, No. 28 (Spring 1987), pp. 3–4; her ‘A Further Note on the Voice of Virginia Woolf’, ibid., No. 29 (Fall 1987), p. 4; and Leila Brosnan’s ‘“Words Fail Me”: Virginia Woolf and the Wireless’, Virginia Woolf and the Arts: Selected Papers from the Sixth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. by Diane F. Gillespie and Leslie K. Hankins (NY: Pace UP, 1997), pp. 134–41. See also various references to the broadcast in Woolf’s Diary, Vol. V (especially 3 April 1937), and Letters, Vol. VI.
2 See ‘Broadcasting Bloomsbury’, by Kate Whitehead, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. XX (London, 1990), pp. 121–31, esp. p. 124. I am grateful to the staff of the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham Park, Reading, for supplying a number of facts in this essay.
3 ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’ was accepted initially by the BBC and advertised accordingly; almost at the last moment it had to be replaced by ‘Beau Brummell’: see Radio Times, 15 November 1929, p. 494; Letters, nos 2099–2100, [19 and 24 November 1929]; and Diary, 25 November 1929.
4 For further information about Barnes’s professional life at the BBC, see Humphrey Carpenter, The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946–1996(London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996).
5 5 A double-CD, entitled Writers and Poets, was available until recently from EMI (ISBN 0 90 140140 4); the excerpt from Woolf’s recording starts with ‘Only after the writer is dead do his words to some extent become disinfected …’ and ends with ‘It is words that are to blame.’; also included is V. Sackville-West reading from The Land.
6 Transcribed in ‘Portrait of Virginia Woolf’, Virginia Woolf: Critical Assessments, ed. by Eleanor McNees (East Sussex: Helm Information, 1994), Vol. I, p. 101.
7 Virginia Woolf: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1972), Vol. II, p. 200.

Virginia Woolf’s Voice at the British Library

If you enter the John Ritblat Gallery (open to all) in the British Library (see, from the upper level and turn left to the first list of recordings, you can hear on headphones a short extract from Virginia Woolf’s only recording of 29 April 1937 which in its turn was only a short part of ‘Craftsmanship’ (reprinted in The Death of the Moth). It only goes to ‘only a great writer knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas”.’ Interestingly, however, it starts one sentence earlier than we usually hear, with: ‘Only after the writer is dead do his words to some extent …’

Nearby is a page referring to Leslie Stephen from the corrected typescript of Moments of Being, a little further away than is perhaps comfortable for one’s eyes in the dim light.

See also: Major Authors on CD-ROM

copyright© S. N. Clarke & VWSGB 2000