Women and Fiction: The Manuscript of A Room of One's Own

During our summer course on Virginia Woolf’s Gardens in July 2019, we paid a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own. For me, this was one of the highlights of the week. It is very moving to see Woolf’s handwriting on the page, and to notice some of the differences between the first draft and the published version of this influential work. After viewing several pages of the manuscript, we read the first dozen pages of the book, taking half a page each, going around the room. It was a pleasure to hear Woolf’s words in the many voices of the group, from Britain, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, the US, and elsewhere.

Virginia Woolf had many close links with Cambridge. Both her brothers were at Trinity, as were Leonard Woolf and friends such as Lytton Strachey. Friends E. M. Forster, Dadie Rylands, and John Maynard Keynes were at King’s. Her aunt Caroline Stephen lived in Newnham. Woolf’s friend Pernel Strachey was Principal of Newnham College from 1927 to 1941, and invited Woolf to talk to the Arts Society at the college in 1928. This talk was part of the work which went into A Room of One’s Own (1929).

After her death, the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum requested that Leonard Woolf give something of her work to the Museum. In 1942, Leonard donated a large piece of manuscript entitled ‘Women & Fiction’. The title was perhaps a bit confusing, for this was in fact the first draft of the book that was to be called A Room of One’s Own. This book had its origins in two talks Woolf gave in Cambridge, at Newnham College and Girton College in October 1928.

 The manuscript was listed in the Museum’s annual report, but it was in wartime, there was a shortage of staff, and the work lay neglected for nearly 50 years.

Woolf worked incredibly quickly on this book, so fast, in fact, that she found it difficult to read her own handwriting when she had to type it up.

 As Beth Daugherty tells us, she wrote a huge amount of the book in 2 months, March and April 1929. She began to create the book in her mind when she was lying in bed, recovering from illness. She drafted it rapidly, in ‘one of my excited outbursts of composition’ (Diary 3, 218-19). As she was revising, she wrote in her diary:

I used to make it up at such a rate that when I got pen & paper I was like a water bottle turned upside down. The writing was as quick as my hand could write; too quick, for I am now toiling to revise; but this way gives one freedom & lets one leap from back to back of one’s thoughts’ (Diary 3, 221-22).


Beth writes:

One reason for this speed, Woolf commented, was that ‘the thinking had been done & the writing stiffly & unsatisfactorily 4 times before’ (Diary 3 218-19; 221-22). She signed her contract with Harcourt Brace on 30 June, began The Waves two days later (!), corrected the proofs in July and August, and saw the book published in October 1929.

There were several stages of creation: the lectures; ‘Women & Fiction’ essay; Women & Fiction draft (that we will see today); A Room of One’s Own typescript; a proof copy of the book, then the first published edition of the book, which appeared in October 1929, published by Hogarth Press in Britain and Harcourt Brace in the US.

 Beth Daugherty’s article about working on the manuscript is on the Blog page of our website, 25 July 2018. You can also see the whole manuscript on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

Trudi Tate
Literature Cambridge

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Literature Cambridge