Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)


Adeline Virginia Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society, a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, and a famous contributor to and leader of the modernist school during the interwar period of the 20th Century. She was an experimental writer who challenged the literary and social conventions of the Victorian Era: she developed innovative nonlinear approaches, stream of consciousness narratives, interior monologues, while raising issues of feminism, mental illness, and homosexuality in post-World War I England. Her style earned her praise and drew expected criticism from conservatives. She was also known for her mood swings and bouts of deep depression that came from significant personal losses and sometimes the completion of major works of hers.

Virginia Woolf’s parents were a prominent and privileged, intellectually and socially active English couple who were also freethinking parents. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an historian and author, and also a famous figure in mountaineering. Woolf’s mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen, was born in India, served as a model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters, became a nurse, and wrote a book on the nursing profession.

Because of her diaries and her bouts with mental illness, her childhood and youth have been documented in considerable detail. As a young girl, Virginia was light-hearted and playful. She began writing and started a family newspaper called the Hyde Park Gate News, to preserve family anecdotes. However, her childhood was troubled by many losses: her mother died when she was thirteen; her half sister (who had run the house after their mother passed) died when she was fifteen; she lost her father at twenty two; and two years later her brother Thoby was gone—a victim of typhoid fever contracted while the siblings were on a trip together to Greece. The loss of her parents resulted in significant depression, and, in the case of her father’s passing, it resulted in her institutionalization for a short period. One of her half sisters (who outlived Virginia) became mentally deranged and was permanently institutionalized in her early twenties—a vivid experience which loomed over Virginia as a possible consequence if she couldn’t “regain control of herself.” Complicating her youthful attempts to make sense of the adult world, her two older half brothers sexually molested her and her sister Vanessa—a fact not revealed until after both brothers had both passed.

The Stephans taught the girls in the spacious library at home while the sisters envied the formal schooling of their brothers. However, the two young ladies did take courses in Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London that for Virginia was between 1897 and 1901. This experience introduced Virginia to some of the early reformers of women’s higher education in Britain.

Her early letters and diaries record her development and disclose her disquieted views of what Victorian marriage and the adult expectations of autonomy and sex were going to be. She showed an indifference to social success but she became increasingly adroit at forming friendships and developed a compulsion to translate every experience into words—either so she could better understand them or to be sure they were real. At twenty-three, Virginia began her professional writing career as a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.

After the loss of their father, Virginia’s sister Vanessa and brother Adrian sold the Hyde Park Gate home, and they all moved to the Bloomsbury area of London. Virginia met several members of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals and artists through the social connections of her siblings. She participated in what became a famous hoax in 1910 in which members of the group dressed up as Ethiopian royals and persuaded the Royal Navy to show them the HMS Dreadnought. Woolf had disguised herself as a bearded man and apparently captured the imagination of Leonard Woolf, formerly with the British Foreign Service, by then a writer and a member of the group. By 1912, he had come to understand her fragile emotional states, had taken on the responsibility for monitoring and administering her medications, had married her, and had taken her on an extended honeymoon. The two shared a consistent and unconventional love for one another for the rest of their lives that included tolerating her long affair with Vita Sackville-West, another member of their group, throughout the 20’s.

Several years before their marriage, Virginia had begun working on her first novel, Melymbrosia, and after nine years of revision, experimenting with narrative perspectives and dream-states, it was published as The Voyage Out in 1915.

In 1917 the Woolf couple bought a used printing press and established the Hogarth Press in the basement of their home, enabling publication of her future experimental fiction. Hogarth grew into a respected publishing house, publishing authors the stature of Katharine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.

In 1925 her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf drew tremendous attention based on rave reviews. She interwove many interior monologues and dealt with feminism, mental illness, combat fatigue (now post-traumatic stress syndrome), and homosexuality in post-World War I England. Since then, Mrs. Dalloway has been the basis of a movie (1997) and the subject of a Michael Cunningham’s novel and the film, The Hours (2002).

Philosopher and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Henri Bergson’s interest in differentiating between scientific time, clock time, and the direct, subjective, human experience of time and his work on consciousness had a great influence on early 20th Century novelists including Virginia Woolf. The impact is perhaps best seen in Mrs. Dalloway and later in To the Lighthouse. By the time of the publication of the latter in 1927, she had earned herself a prominent position as an intellectual and an innovative thinker and writer. Her combination of dream-like scenes and intense plot lines had garnered her an enduring respect from her contemporaries.

Leonard Woolf was always at Virginia’s side, and was constantly alert for signals of her emotional state. He saw her start a dangerous decline as she worked on what would be her final manuscript (published posthumously), Between the Acts. With the rapid successes of the Germans during the first year and one half of the Second World War (that included the destruction of their home in London and the offices of the Hogarth Press), they both were thinking about their vulnerability since he was Jewish and they were both known to be on Hitler’s Black List. Modern warfare that had seemed so horrific earlier in their adult lives had grown to new proportions of incredulity, and the Woolfs, like many intellectuals of the time, seriously discussed suicide as their way of coping with the war—particularly if it came to an invasion. On March 28, 1941, Virginia, convinced she was sliding irreversibly into another bout with her illness, eluded Leonard, put on her overcoat, put stones in her pockets, and walked into the River Ouse.

There is an episode of love and excitement against the background of the Frost Fair held on the frozen Thames River during the historical Great Frost of 1608 that is one of the best known of Woolf’s novel Orlando.The Great Frost” is found in the Young and Hollaman anthology of magical realism and it contains the beginning of an intense love affair with Sasha, a princess in the entourage of the Russian embassy, who is initially mistaken as a boy by Orlando—the first mistaken sexual identity of the novel. Orlando is said by scholars of Woolf’s life and work to actually represent Vita Sackville-West’s affair with Violet Trefusis—purported to be the greatest love story from out of the Bloomsbury Group. Apparently, Woolf wrote Orlando with a sense of betrayal and intended it as revenge for Vita’s infidelities during her affair with Virginia. Vita’s husband, Harold Nicolson, also an author, called Orlando “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” Woolf’s treatment of time and sex in this novel has been described as if they are “convenient fictions” as they are rendered through perception and misperception, illusion and changing identities full of ambiguities and innuendo.

Virginia Woolf’s following decreased after World War II as American taste turned toward post-modernism, but there was resurgence in enthusiasm for her during the feminist movements of the 1970s. Her fiction is replete with views of the overreach of patriarchy in the Victorian Era and the confusion brought about by deliberately keeping girls ignorant about the details of marriage and sex as long as possible. Her best-known nonfiction works, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), consider the complexities that female writers and intellectuals face because of the legal and economic power held by men and the impact of that on the futures of women pursuing positions in education and society.

As scholars of the last century and the beginning of this century continue to probe her life and her work, the perceptions of her persona and her contributions are ever changing. Her reputation as “the delicate lady authoress of a few experimental novels and sketches, some essays, and a ‘writer’s’ diary” has given way to “one of the most professional, perfectionist, energetic, courageous, and committed writers in the language.”

Virginia Woolf remains one of the most well known authors of the modernist school—perhaps because, as Rebecca Solnit writes in The New Yorker, “the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation. Woolf was unparalleled at that latter language.” As we know from the science-in-art dialogue emanating from Vienna at the turn of the last century, extending to the rest of the Western world during her productive writing years, and continuing through another turn of the century; the extent of the “beholder’s share” in the artistic process is a function of the degree of ambiguity in the work of art, prompting emotional and empathetic reactions in terms of one’s own life experience and struggles.

Virginia Woolf Quotes

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described. So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary.”

“I could not write, & all the devils came out — hairy black ones. To be 29 & unmarried — to be a failure — Childless — insane too, no writer.” — a letter from Woolf to sister Vanessa in June 1911 (four years before she finished her first novel)

A Few Comments About Virginia Woolf’s Work

There is a personal basis to her published work, which Virginia Woolf is at pains to conceal.

She would “enter a trough of the wave that always followed the exhilaration and absorption of writing.” — Briggs

“The novel’s [Orlando] flight, its idiosyncratic version of ‘magic realism’ have proved particularly freeing and enabling for other women writers.” — Briggs

Woolf gave us limitlessness, impossible to grasp, urgent to embrace, as fluid as water, as endless as desire, a compass by which to get lost. — Rebecca Solnit inWoolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”

Little Known Facts About Virginia Woolf

Adeline Virginia Woolf, born January 25, 1882 and died March 28, 1941,  suffered from a manic-depressive illness most of her life that was diagnosed in her teens as neurasthenia (as had been her father, Sir Leslie Stephen) and would today be labeled bipolar disorder.

Woolf struggled with anorexia, convinced at times that she was monstrous, and that her “mouth and stomach were sordid in their demand for food.”

Better Known Facts About Virginia Woolf

Her father’s reputation as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised with regular contact with figures in Victorian literary society—positioning Virginia for experimenting with the art of writing.

The Stephens homeschooled sisters Virginia and Vanessa in the classics and English literature while their brothers Adrian and Julian were formally prepared and sent to Cambridge—a difference both of the sisters resented.

Virginia Woolf’s Notable Work

Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Movies: Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Golven, Simple Gifts, and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf Sources

“Adeline Virginia Woolf.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 21 Sep. 2014

Julia Briggs. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. London: Allen Lane, 2005.

Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012.

“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Collected Essays. Ed. Leonard Woolf. Vol. 1. London: Hogarth, 1966.

David Young and Keith Hollaman (eds.). Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Longman Inc., 1984.

Project Gutenberg.

Richard Perkins
Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.