Introduction to the Reading Notebooks

by Michèle Barrett

WoolfNotes.com provides high quality images of Virginia Woolf’s lifetime reading and research notes.  It shows how her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, was indebted to extensive and rigorous research on social, historical, economic, political and imperial issues.   This large collection of reading and research notes corrects the myth (partly generated by Woolf herself) that she was uneducated. 

At the core of the WoolfNotes project is the presentation of 67 Reading Notebooks, accompanied by the text of Brenda Silver’s authoritative summary of each one.  Of these 67, 33 notebooks are from the Woolf archive at The Keep in Sussex, 33 are from the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and 1 is from the Beinecke library at Yale.  The Notebooks themselves are mainly in Woolf’s handwriting, and can be difficult to read, making a summary of the contents extremely useful.  Silver’s guide was originally published in 1983, by Princeton University Press; it was digitised in 2017 and published by the University Press of New England.  WoolfNotes presents high quality images of all these Woolf Notebooks in conjunction with Silver’s detailed account of their contents.

WoolfNotes includes other materials.  These include:

RN 68   (Smith) A new reading notebook located at Smith College in 2022.

Novels. Several sources, including novels by Trollope, Peacock, Balzac, Tolstoy, Richardson

WN 100 (NYPL)  The Agamemnon Notebook. Woolf’s extraordinary  hand-made “edition” of Agamemnon by Aeschylus.

WN 101 (Sussex) Woolf’s personal index for Edward Arber An English Garner: Ingatherings from our History and Literature  (8 Vols, 1877 – 1896)   

WN102 (Smith) Draft of a short essay on D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, located at Smith College in 2022   The essay was published posthumously in The Moment and Other Essays

Many issues arise in considering these materials, some of which are discussed in the background papers provided on this website. 

A general issue is that of transcription. We have not attempted to provide full transcriptions of these thousands of pages of Woolf’s handwritten notes. Our aim was simply to make them available. Some of this material has been transcribed, or is being transcribed, by others, and these transcriptions have been published or have been deposited with the manuscript originals in the archives. Details of these transcriptions will be added to this website in due course.

A second general issue relates to the bindings of these notes.  Many of the notebooks have been bound or rebound by Woolf, as have many of the books about which she was making notes.  These binding details have been recorded in the ‘Remarks’ section of the website, as indeed they are noted in the catalogue to the Woolfs’ library, held at Washington University at Pullman. One of our additions, WN 101, Woolf’s index, found in the archive at Sussex, to Edward Arber’s An English Garner, triggers a more substantial consideration of the question of Woolf’s bookbinding.  Woolf’s personal index is fascinating, but the Arber anthology itself has generated interest because of her exceptional and semi-professional bookbinding of some of these volumes. They differ from the extremely informal or amateur binding that she typically went in for. Although it has been suggested that Woolf was simply slapdash as a bookbinder, we suggest that her craft skills were acceptable when she chose to use them, and another interpretation should be be found for the informal appearance of some of her books and notebooks.   For details see the commentary about WN 101, and also the comments on another addition, the Agamemnon notebook, WN 100.

The Remarks section of the website contains brief comments on the notebooks as physical objects.  Among these comments can be found the pencilled names of Hamill and Barker, which need some explication: this is a Chicago book dealership (run by Frances Hamill and Margery Barker) which brokered Leonard Woolf’s original sale of some of the notebooks to the USA.

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