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Urmila Seshagiri, associate professor of English, will spend her summer putting the pieces of Virginia Woolf’s life together thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend.

Urmila Seshagiri

A specialist in 20th-century modernism, Seshagiri aims to prepare the first scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

“Despite its decades-long canonical status, this posthumously published autobiography has never been edited, annotated, or introduced for contemporary scholars,” Seshagiri says. “A scholarly text of A Sketch of the Past would establish Woolf’s artistic conception of the memoir, which is not fully visible in its current form.”

Although there are more than two dozen biographies of Virginia Woolf to date, this is the only record of Woolf’s life written by the author herself. Penned shortly before Woolf’s death in 1941, the autobiography was unknown until 1976, when Jeanne Schulkind discovered the writings in the Monks House papers at the University of Sussex. Over the next decade, she compiled Woolf’s writings about her life in Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings.

Schulkind, however, did not take on major edits of Woolf’s original draft of A Sketch of the Past.

“I anticipate my version of A Sketch of the Past departing substantially from Schulkind’s,” Seshagiri says. “My edition will untangle Schulkind’s composite version of this essay to clarify Woolf’s authorial choices.”

The original drafts bear handwritten notes by Woolf, which Seshagiri plans to study in order to reveal Woolf’s creative process to readers. Seshagiri will use all of Woolf’s drafts of A Sketch of the Past to make a more complete work of the memoir. She will include an introduction that will establish the significance of the work not only for Woolf’s life but also for modernist writing.

The 1985 appearance of A Sketch of the Past dramatically altered scholars’ understanding of Virginia Woolf, according to Seshagiri. Since Woolf’s death in 1941, Leonard Woolf and other family members protected her reputation carefully. Woolf’s draft memoir exposed new and startling facets of the writer, critic, and publisher.

A Sketch of the Past pierced the silences of Quentin Bell’s 1972 biography of his aunt and has become indispensable to the oceanic work on Woolf’s art and life produced in the last four decades,” Seshagiri says.

In addition to the NEH Summer Stipend, Seshagiri received an American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant, a Smith College Mortimer Fellowship, and a UT Chancellor’s Grant for Faculty Research. With the support, Seshagiri plans to spend the 2017–18 academic year conducting historical, biographical, and critical research for her introduction to A Sketch of the Past. She will begin annotating the memoir, select photographs, and other supplementary materials from archives in the Mortimer Library at Smith College and the Houghton Library at Harvard University, and plans to consult experienced editors of Woolf’s writing.

“The most rigorous task for producing a new edition will involve integrating the drafts, typescripts, and fragments of A Sketch of the Past to represent Woolf’s creative process to readers,” Seshagiri says. “It is one of the goals of my edition to illuminate the designs behind Woolf’s sole piece of autobiographical writing.”

Seshagiri’s edition will be published by Cornell University Press.


Amanda Womac (, 865-974-2992)