“Words live in the mind”: Virginia Woolf’s own voice

Only one recording was ever made of Virginia Woolf’s voice, although she actually broadcast on the BBC on three separate occasions.  On 29 April 1937 she gave a radio talk to the BBC on the subject of “Craftsmanship” in which she talked – among other things – about the building blocks of the writer’s craft, words.  Thanks to some enlightened individual – to whom we are forever indebted – it was decided to record barely 7 minutes of the talk – all that was possible given the expense and the cumbersome nature of recording equipment of the time.  The recording is now in the safekeeping of the British Library Sound Archives and, following their recent decision to compile two CD-sets from their literary treasure trove of recordings,  you can now hear her actual voice, with its slightly nasal tones and clipped vowels.

There are two sets of CDs: the first containing audio tracks for 30 British writers, and the second with excerpts from 27 US writers.  All are stellar names, including Woolf, Conan Doyle, Tolkien, Anthony Burgess, Wodehouse, Du Maurier, Nancy Mitford and many others.  Among the Americans, Raymond Chandler, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald stand out.

It’s a real treasure trove because hearing these great authors is a truly unique experience.  Before rushing off to the buy the CD, you can read more and hear some clips in Mark Brown’s article in the Guardian.

Richard Fairman, British Library Sound Archive, comments:

“These two new British Library audio collections, The Spoken Word: British Writers and The Spoken Word: American Writers, form the largest survey of historic recordings by English-language authors and playwrights ever published. With many previously unpublished BBC recordings selected from the extensive collections of the British Library Sound Archive, these compilations will offer a fascinating insight into the lives and work of these great authors”.

A podcast available from the British Library includes some tantalising excerpts, including a lengthy one from Virginia Woolf’s recording in which she describes words as

“the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order, in dictionaries, but words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

“Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations, naturally. They’ve been out and about on people’s lips — in the houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today. They’re stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past.”

For anyone interested in learning about the background to her talk, the Virginia Woolf Society provides an excellent summary of the circumstances surrounding it and the script.

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