The Daily


Have You Ever Heard Virginia Woolf Speak?

May 21, 2013 | by

What follows is the only known surviving recording of Virginia Woolf, part of a BBC radio broadcast from 1937. The talk is titled “Craftsmanship.”




  1. Shelley | May 21, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Wow. Writers owe you a debt of gratitude for this.

    Words: “They hate being useful. They hate making money. They hate being lectured about in public.”

    And thanks to Woolf.

  2. MacEvoy | May 21, 2013 at 11:19 am

    I’ve always thought she sounded a bit like Dame Edna. Side-by-side comparison here.

  3. Gerard O. Hemmerle | May 21, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Adept!Thank you.

  4. Alexei | May 22, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Thank you!

  5. Carrie Ballard | May 22, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    When she says beauty, glory, and question, I cringe. We would recognize that pronunciation today as coming from a poseur. Is it just that it seems old-fashioned, or is it (dare I say it) pompous?

  6. bob | May 30, 2013 at 10:58 am

    @Carrie Ballard

    She has a slight period accent. Sounds similar to my Grandmother.

    Where do you live that she sounds like a “poseur”?

  7. Rebecca Brooks | December 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    She definitely has an old upper class British accent. I couldn’t help but notice on a recording of one of Vita Sackville-West’s radio broadcasts that her accent was very similar to Virginia’s, which makes sense since they were both upper class and from the same time era.

  8. Marc Smirnoff | January 25, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    So. She sounds like a poseur. Or sounds like your grandma. Or Dame Edna. Who cares? If some of you could just go beyond your comfort zone for a moment and focus instead on the actual argument she makes–an argument of eloquence, depth, playfulness, illumination, and variety–maybe you’d discover that a more appropriate, let alone interesting, response would be more like Shelley’s up above: one of gratitude.

  9. Sally Eckhoff | January 25, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    How lovely to hear this voice. She sounds like a book, like pages turning.
    Words are lovely things, aren’t they? And books. And Orlando, which has a hotel in Amsterdam named after it.

  10. Sarah Rayne | January 26, 2014 at 4:32 am

    I loved the part where Woolf says that words, ‘…dash first this way then that, unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next.’
    How true!

  11. Micki Rhodes | January 26, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Is this what was known in her era as a “finishing school ” accent? It really is lovely, with such precise diction…none of that mumbling that assaults the senses and the language today! We heard a similar elocution from JFK’s wife, Jackie, in all American aristocrats of the time and even the middle classes (probably due to the “mimicking/trickle-down” effect on “lower” classes of popular “wealthy” styles and phrases, etc. – a tendency still obvious today…) My grandmother, who was strictly middle-class but was fixated on proper pronunciation, spoke much like this recording , and she was born in 1910, so yes, I do also associate it with the era. I believe the changes came after the 1920s when the privileges of class began to disappear after the full end of leadership from those of the “Gilded Age”.

  12. Janet Sternburg | February 1, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    HISTORICAL CORRECTION re: ‘only known surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

    I have a recording (very brief) of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West speaking with one another. It was given to me by Nigel Nicholson when I was in England some years ago.

  13. Mrs. Dalloway | January 25, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Great! I enjoyed!
    Words don’t live in dictionaries, they live in minds!

  14. Mac | January 25, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Virginia Woolf’s cadence & manner of speech is upper middle class Victorian/Edwardian. There’s no changing that. It has died out. No one alive speaks like this anymore, unless they are over 90+. Her every sentence communicates a clear idea, free of the useless clutter of modern slang & jargon! This was another age, early 20th century. A time gone by that one cannot judge by current standards.

  15. Joyce | January 25, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    Woolf’s precise diction here is considered and juxtaposes her argument.

    The BBC at the time would only allow Received Prononciation, which Woolf perfectly parodies here with faint defiant ululation and repetion – key elements of her style, the whole piece breaks against the listener again and again gently carving out the cause of her defiance the celebration of all forms of narrative, the strange currents of the modernist stream of consciousness and Woolf’s innovation the polysybillic self, or narration from multiple angles – most obvious in the [her novel] Waves.

    As a mongrel of the British Isles, my grandparents spoke in song. The gaelic permeated the air with redolent rythms of work, sea and hard joyous life. The incomprehensible cant of the Irish traveller generations became Londons mystical mile of Cockney fast crack where every word has a thousand potential meanings at once and only the smile and the wink let you know you were in on the joke. Glorious Leith slang, scots words passed in oral tradition.

    All the glorious life of the vernacular was disallowed, stamped out, culturally ridiculed as a badge of poor breeding and ill education – everyone can understand most everyone else in the UK – so much poetic rythmic life of English vernacular is now as dead as ancient greek.

    This is Virginia Woolf speaking like how one ought to because she is on the BBC.

  16. Ann Bogle | January 26, 2015 at 2:35 am

    Shapely argument, animated by the personages, words. I daydream about the old forms of the language and await its fleshing. Did you know, for example, that in OE the word “thing” was a verb, an adjective, a gender-inflected noun? OE had three genders before the shift to pronouns came and left us with gender as the sex of living beings. People use the word “thing” to mean all kinds of things, to name objects we do not know the names of: thing like the word doohickey, the little knob (fob, pull) on the end of a chain that operates the ceiling fan. I enjoyed VW’s talk and will listen to it again. It carries her hallmark shape and tone to argument, beauty, and her pleasure in shared exploration.

  17. Ginger Usack | January 27, 2015 at 7:38 am

    It’s not how words are spoken but how you say them and whether they are meaningful or not. We can all speak words in whatever accent we have or try to copy. It is the thought process behind them that counts. We should not judge… it ain’t right is it luv?
    Belated birthday wishes Virginia. May you rest in peace and sing out all the words from your heart in whatever accent you choose.

  18. Ginger Usack | January 27, 2015 at 7:39 am

    And… that’s the problem with social media – I was so bogged down with reading other people’s comments that I forgot to say how delightful it is to hear her voice. Lovely!

  19. Bones | January 27, 2015 at 11:55 am


    She’s one of the ten people I would visit if I had a time machine. Her books have given me such depths to explore, I can never repay the debt

  20. Judy Richter | January 27, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    She sounds just like what I expected:
    real not artificial British Aristocracy.
    I recently reread Flush. It puts our current doggie books to shame.

  21. James Ivory | January 25, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I love Virginia Woolf. I enjoyed listening to this recording of her voice and ideas tremendously. Thanks for this!

  22. Jason | January 25, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    she reminds me of Maggie Smith.

  23. Tanarg | January 25, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    I’d love a transcript of this. I’m having some difficulty understanding her.

  24. Don Wyatt | January 26, 2016 at 9:20 am

    sadly I recognise she may well be more intelligent than me but boy what a boring method of speaking puts you straight to sleep…. :0)… bit like my speeches… btw, she does speech with an “upper class accent” …

  25. Marco Antônio Vieira | January 26, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    This is the vocal register of one of the world´s most important literary geniuses…It is indeed absurd to even begin to entertain the thought that she should be critised for that…what else can one expect from the world in which she was born? Her father, Leslie Stephen, is an eminent English intellectual…It is only too natural therefore that hers should be a voice or accent , as some may have it, tinged with aristocratic or highly educated tones, for this was her world and essentially the world then…One should ,I Believe, concentrate upon the beauty and richness of what her mind has to offer a world marred by pedestrian mediocrity and vulgarity…

  26. James | January 26, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Thank you. This recording is also now available on Soundcloud.

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