How do great authors begin? In 1907, aged 25, Virginia Woolf embarked on her first novel: an epic journey that would ultimately span more than a decade and several mental breakdowns and influential relationships, with multiple drafts before its publication in 1915 and then subsequent revisions.

The result was The Voyage Out: The tale of a 24-year-old’s self-discovery, sexual awakening and untimely demise, which has compelling resonances with its author’s life, mental illness and death.

A recently rediscovered personal copy of the novel’s first edition, containing Woolf’s handwritten notes and amendments, now offers a tantalising glimpse into her private thoughts about her fraught opus, and her writing process.

Black and white photo from 1902, showing side profile of young woman in her 20s, Victorian era hair and blouse.

Virginia Woolf in 1902. (George Beresford/Getty)

The book, discovered in the science section of the University of Sydney’s rare books collection (where it had been placed by mistake), is believed to be one of two ‘working copies’ in which Woolf marked up revisions of her novel for the first US edition, which was published in 1920.

The University of Sydney copy is the only one publicly available (the other is in an undisclosed private collection in the US).

Even more intriguing: The book bears significant handwritten revisions that were never carried out; in particular, the deletion of a sequence taking place inside the heroine’s fevered mind as she lies on her deathbed, delirious — reminiscent of Woolf’s experiences of mental illness over the period in which she was working on the novel.

The university has digitized this rare find, making it available for the public to access online.

Modernism and Contemporary Literature Professor Mark Byron, from the University of Sydney, says “it’s like being able to look into the window of a lab”.

“As a novel, The Voyage Out is a really clear lens upon the stylistic evolution of one of the 20th century’s most significant novelists,” Byron explains. “You can see [Woolf’s] style developing and her negotiations with how the narrator is going to function, how they’re going to interact with the characters’ consciousness, that sort of thing.

“This particular object – the University of Sydney copy – gives us a kind of a ‘live action’ of that evolution, because in Woolf’s revisions and notes you’re seeing her next stage of thinking about how narration should work, how much characters should disclose about their inner thoughts. It projects forward to those later novels (Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves) in which that revolution in narration gets played out.

“Woolf is significant for many reasons — but technique alone makes her one of the most significant people for students of literature and for writers. And here we have this opportunity to look through the lab window and see how this revolution in narration is taking shape,” says Byron.

A convoluted journey, a plot twist

So how did Woolf’s personal copy of The Voyage Out come to be in the University of Sydney’s library? And why are we only hearing about it now?

The university bought their copy from the Bow Windows Bookshop in the UK in or around 1976, whereupon it entered the library’s Deane collection of rare books; but then at some point it was misfiled amongst the science books, thanks to a similarity in call numbers (the classification system used to organize books in a library).

Metadata Services Officer Simon Cooper from the university’s Fisher Library rediscovered the book in 2021, while he was cataloging a science collection.

Several things immediately stood out: Firstly, Woolf’s name was handwritten on the front flyleaf; secondly, Cooper could feel that there were additional slips of paper inside — which turned out to be typed notes, pasted over slabs of text. Handwritten notes and mark-ups were also found throughout the book.

“Usually an author if they’re going to sign their book [for someone else] would sign it [on the title page]so the fact that it’s [in the front flyleaf] suggests it’s a personal copy,” Cooper told ABC Arts.

He looked up the handwriting to compare it to Woolf’s, and it was a match.

Inner cover and flyleaf of book showing handwritten signature "Virginia Woolf" with finger pointing.

Woolf’s signature in the book’s flyleaf suggests it was a personal copy. (Supplied: The University of Sydney/Stefanie Zingsheim)

In further research, he discovered an academic article from 1996 written by Woolf scholar James M. Haule that referenced the university’s copy of the book and the revisions contained within and confirmed that it was one of two copies created by the novelist ahead of a revised US edition of the work.

Older man with white hair holds book and looks into camera lens while standing between two shelves loaded with rare books.

“The inscriptions are what makes our copy unique,” said Simon Cooper, who found the book. (Supplied: The University of Sydney/Stefanie Zingsheim)

The other copy, held in a private US collection and not publicly available, contains the original typed notes, while the University of Sydney copy has carbon copies of those notes (most of which were incorporated into the 1920 edition, published by George H. Doran).

The unique point of interest in the University of Sydney’s copy are several deletions, made in violet ink, that don’t appear in the US copy and were never enacted. Sighted and analyzed by Haule for his 1996 paper, they will now be available for any interested member of the public to view online.

Australian writer Sophie Cunningham, whose recent novel This Devastating Fever was inspired by extensive research of Woolf and her husband Leonard, describes this kind of access as “incredibly significant”.

“A great writer isn’t someone who writes the first draft of a great book. Great writing is about the process — redrafting and rethinking, that imaginative work. And manuscripts capture that process,” she says.

The significance of the revisions

Woolf was known to redraft and revise her novels, and recorded this work in her diaries—but only from the 1920s onwards. And at no other time in her career did she make these kinds of substantial revisions to a novel after it had been published.

In the years between the 1915 UK edition and the 1920 revisions, Woolf had published essays, short stories and a second novel (Night and Day, in 1919).

“She became a better writer,” says Cunningham. “It makes total sense to me that she would want to bring the weight of her writing chops to bear [on the earlier novel].”


Woolf had also experienced bouts of severe mental illness in the interval between the novel being published and revised; in fact, the day before The Voyage Out was published in 1915, she was taken to a nursing home, having suffered a breakdown.

In the university’s copy, she has struck out an extended passage in chapter 25, near the end of the novel, that details Rachel’s hallucinations as she lies dying.

Lyndall Gordon, author of the biography Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, speculates that in contemplating this excision, Woolf may have “fear[ed] to expose his own understanding of mental disturbance”.

The second passage struck out in the university’s copy, also in chapter 25, relays the inner turmoil of Rachel’s fiance, Terence, as he contemplates her illness.

Cunningham, who describes The Voyage Out as being “woven into the text of Virginia and Leonard’s marriage”, speculates that the author may have “wanted to be a bit more gentle with the male character” in hindsight.