Virginia Woolf's travel and literary notebook, 1906–09


Between the ages of 24 and 27 Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) kept this travel journal and literary notebook to record her thoughts and impressions as she travelled through Greece, Turkey and Italy.

Dating from 1906 to 1909, the notebook was written during Woolf’s formative years as a writer. In 1904 she was commissioned to write her first pieces of journalism, and in 1907 she began work on The Voyage Out.

Reflections on art and literature in Italy

In an entry for September 1908 (ff. 113–14r), Woolf is aged 26 and holidaying with her sister and brother-in-law, Clive Bell, in northern Italy. Beyond her traveller’s notes, Woolf outlines a vision for her writing.

She opens the entry with a description of beautiful Italian fresco paintings that she has seen that day. From around 1905, influenced by gallery visits and Vanessa’s artist friends, Woolf began to tie the visual arts to her aims as a writer. Here, the paintings trigger Woolf to reflect on writing, capturing an early concept of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique for which she is now famous:

As for writing, I want to express beauty too… I attain a different kind of beauty, achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords; showing all the traces of the mind’s passage through the world; achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments; to me this seems the natural process; the flight of the mind…

In an earlier entry on f. 91r, Woolf again invokes the visual arts to define the art of writing: ‘I should like to write not only with the eye but with the mind; + discover real things beneath the show’.  

Woolf's impressions of Turkey

The first experience Woolf recorded in the notebook was a trip to Greece and Turkey, which took place between September and October 1906. The 24-year-old writer was joined by her siblings Vanessa, Adrian and Thoby, and family friend Violet Dickinson.

In the entry spanning ff. 62–75r Woolf has arrived by boat to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, then part of the Ottoman Empire). Clearly moved by the sights around her, she dramatically casts herself as ‘a spectator of a rigorous drama’. Woolf was overwhelmed by the city, but its unfamiliarity was exciting: ‘There are few experiences more exhilarating than the first dive into a new town— Even when your plunge is impeded—as ours was this morning by a sleek Turkish Dragoman’ (f. 68r). Woolf’s characterisation of the ‘dive’ and ‘plunge’ into a city can be seen to echo her depiction of the city in Mrs Dalloway (1925), which opens with Dalloway stepping out onto a London street to ‘buy the flowers herself’, full of anticipation for not only the day ahead but the city itself:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

Full title:
Virginia Woolf: travel and literary notebook; 1906-1909
Manuscript / Notebook / Ephemera
Virginia Woolf
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© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

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