Woolf on Craftsmanship

by Amy Elkins

As an undergraduate, I received a grant to visit the U.K. and walk in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. The trip included my first visit to Monk’s House, meetings with Woolf scholars in Victorian drawing rooms, and a trip to the British Library to see manuscripts.  At the British Library, I was hooked up to bulky headphones at a listening station and promised an encounter with the voice of Woolf herself.  This recording, thanks to the wonders of the web, is now widely available, but at that time it was scarce. At first, I thought they’d loaded the wrong recording–Woolf’s timid-but-determined, rather high-pitched lilt did not match the voice in my head!  But, the librarians assured me, it was the right one and this was her voice.  See Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings post about Woolf’s radio broadcast and hear the recording in high quality here.

Speaking about craftsmanship, Woolf challenges her fellow modernist wordsmiths:

How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.


Her prompt has material implications for the production of literature as a material art, as my dissertation, Crafting Modernity, suggests.  In particular, I think of Woolf at the type cases, combining old pieces of type in “new orders” of modernist literary experiment at the Hogarth Press.

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type, taken from Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press.  -  I’ve been neglecting this blog a little due to midterms; rest assured, it will pick up again now that my work has begun to wind down slightly.

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type, taken from Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press.

I’ve seen a photo of Woolf at work at the press somewhere, but I can’t find it–and perhaps this sketch from Kennedy’s memory is a better representation of modernist book arts anyway.  Woolf’s geometric type case a Mondrian,  Duchamp’s Roue de bicyclette emerging from the right corner, and the tilted, empty frames on the back wall (negative space emphasized by the positive space of the bottle) like a jostled Picasso still life…