Virginia Woolf was an English author born in 1882. She was one of the first writers to use the narrative technique known as stream of consciousness. Woolf is quoted often in today's world. One of her quotes is the one mentioned above:
... the past is beautiful because one never...
realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only the past.
Many authors, such as Tara Westover, use this quote in their own work. It is likely that Woolf was attempting to express the concept that "hindsight is 20/20" or something similar to this. This means that the past can only be appreciated because with the past comes memories that hold emotions. Once time has passed, the situation that occurred can be thought about and critiqued so that it can be further appreciated. Allowing time to pass allows a person to make realizations about something to let retrospection and processing take place.
It is likely that Tara Westover, the author of Educated, began her novel with this quote because it is a memoir written entirely about her life growing up in a small town in Idaho. Westover's parents—especially her father, Gene—believed that the government was a corrupt institution, education was pointless, and medical care made illness and injury worse. Because she was a young girl, she believed in everything her parents told her and did not know that she was missing anything by not attending school. She did not realize that her present life was anything other than normal until much later in life, when she had been away from her family for years.
As a young adult, Westover started to realize that she needed to get away from her family and their odd beliefs. She applied for college and was accepted to Brigham Young University in Utah. She writes about an experience she has in a college class where she first learns about the Holocaust. Her childhood was so isolated and skewed that she had never heard of one of the world's most horrific tragedies.
After years of being able to process this and many other similar examples from her life, Westover is finally able to think of her past as beautiful. She is able to be grateful for her childhood experiences and the opportunities that arose because of her family dysfunction and use these emotions to make her writing realistic and relatable.