This week’s selection comes from Sarah O’Reilly, oral historian and interviewer for National Life Stories on the Authors’ Lives project.
Enter the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery on the upper ground floor of the British Library in London and on your left you’ll find a pair of headphones. Through it you can listen to the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, the writer who died on this day 81 years ago.
Woolf made the recording in 1937 for The Third Programme (now Radio 3) as part of a series of talks produced for the BBC by George Barnes. The broadcast – called ‘Craftsmanship’ - went out on the evening of the 29th April at 8.40pm and lasted around 20 minutes. Sadly only eight minutes of Woolf’s talk survive, due either to a conscious decision on the part of the BBC to record only a small part of the whole, or the accidental loss of the rest of the recording.
Oral historians deal in the oral and the aural, and Woolf’s broadcast is fascinating on both counts. To modern-day listeners the voice is extraordinary - her accent upper-class, her tone formal. A short transcription made by American scholar Emily Kopley and published in the Times Literary Supplement as part of a longer article captures its bygone cadences perfectly: 'Wehrrds, English wehrrds, are full of echoes, memories, associations.'
Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, felt the broadcast misrepresented his aunt’s voice: ‘the record is a very poor one,’ he wrote later: ‘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.’ If Bell is right, this may have been the result of Woolf’s discomfort with the medium of radio itself: ‘it could have been a good article,’ she later wrote about ‘Craftsmanship’, ‘[but] it’s the talk element that upsets it’. She promised herself in her diary that she would ‘refrain from the folly’ of broadcasting ever again.
Barnes had suggested the title of the talk and Woolf immediately responded by taking issue with the very idea of the writer as a craftsman. In Woolf’s view, words did not yield to the efforts of the author as easily as materials might yield to the craftsman’s tools: ‘Words,’ she said, ‘resist efforts to constrain their meaning or define them exhaustively’. They had a life and a history - ‘They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’ and as such could not be pinned down: ‘They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things’. As the Radio Times’ previewer put it on the 23rd April: ‘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’. What, you might wonder, would Woolf have made of the proliferation of creative writing courses from the 1970s onwards? On this the previewer was equally clear: ‘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.’
Woolf’s characterisation of words as slippery and alive is an idea that comes up often in the National Life Stories Authors' Lives collection of oral history interviews. Here Peter Porter characterises writing as a kind of ‘fighting’ with words, whilst Maureen Duffy compares it to a high-rise tight-rope walk:
The aerial tightrope-walker is a good metaphor - one wrong step and you lose your footing and fall. The craftsman becomes a circus performer, carrying out a daring and dangerous highwire act.
If, as Woolf believed, writing could not be taught, how are writers made? Writer Penelope Lively suggests an alternative route:
For Woolf, words are wary of the glare of attention: ‘All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.’ So too are writers, when questioned too closely about their work, as the poet Anthony Thwaite argued when reflecting on the writing process:
‘Words Fail Me’ was the title of the series in which Woolf’s broadcast was placed and the suggestion of the battle between words and their speakers is a theme which echoes throughout the Authors’ Lives recordings. Prompted to reflect on her life and her work in her Authors’ Lives recording, the novelist Hilary Mantel described the experience of being lost for words, in a manner that resonates perfectly with Woolf’s sentiments:
For writers then and now, the struggle continues.
You can listen to a selection of extracts from Authors' Lives on British Library Sounds.