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Hyman, V. (1983). The Autobiographical Present in “A Sketch of the Past”. Psychoanal. Rev., 70(1):24-32.

(1983). Psychoanalytic Review, 70(1):24-32

The Autobiographical Present in “A Sketch of the Past”

Virginia Hyman, Ph.D.

Perhaps one of the ways of marking the centennial of Virginia Woolf's birth is to consider how the vast quantity of disparate and sometimes contradictory information in the recently published essays, diaries, and letters can be assimilated and interpreted. “A Sketch of the Past” is a case in point. This unfinished autobiographical essay, which appears in Moments of Being (Woolf, 1976) is intriguing because it covers the widest range of her life, being the final account of her earliest experiences.1 She began it in 1939 and continued writing until four months before her death in 1941. But the fact that it is a revision of earlier versions of her autobiography raises the question of whether a final version of a narrative has greater or less validity than earlier ones. Is this narrative truer to her original experience than her earlier versions, or is it a more elaborate revision of the earlier versions and therefore further removed from the original experience? And the fact that this last essay was left unfinished raises the question of whether a “final” narrative is any more exempt from the exigencies of the time and circumstances in which it was written than earlier narratives are. Had Woolf lived, would her revisions have changed what is now the authorized view of her early life?

The facts of her early life are by now familiar, some having been included in the autobiographical novels To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Years (1937), others having been told and retold by her biographers: the early summers at St. Ives, the death of her mother, the alternations of gloom and rage of her father, the death of her half sister, Stella, and the efforts of her half brother, George Duckworth, to introduce her into society. But what should we make of Woolf's reactions to these events and her interpretations of them? Is she recording what she felt as a child or what she feels as she recalls them at 57?

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