During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One's Own (1929), with its famous dictum,
"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London in 1882 to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson).
Virginia's father, Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), was a notable historian, author, critic and mountaineer. He was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a work which would influence Woolf's later experimental biographies.
Virginia's mother Julia Stephen (1846–1895) was a renowned beauty, born in India to Dr. John and Maria Pattle Jackson. She was also the niece of Julia Margaret Cameron née Pattle, the famous photographer. Julia moved to England with her mother, where she served as a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones.
Woolf was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Julia had three children by her first husband, Herbert Duckworth: George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth. Leslie first married Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the daughter of William Thackeray, and they had one daughter: Laura Makepeace Stephen, who was declared mentally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalised in 1891. Leslie and Julia had four children together: Vanessa Stephen (1879), Thoby Stephen (1880), Virginia (1882), and Adrian Stephen (1883).
Sir Leslie Stephen's eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, and her honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Descended from an attendant of Marie Antoinette, she came from a family of beauties who left their mark on Victorian society as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers, including her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. Supplementing these influences was the immense library at the Stephens' house, from which Virginia and Vanessa were taught the classics and English literature. Unlike the girls, their brothers Adrian and Julian (Thoby) were formally educated and sent to Cambridge, a difference which Virginia would regret. The sisters did, however, benefit indirectly from their brothers' Cambridge contacts, as the boys brought their new intellectual friends home to the Stephens' drawing room.
According to Woolf's memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of St. Ives in Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens' summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing today, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse.
The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia's several nervous breakdowns. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901, and this brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education such as Clara Pater, George Warr and Lilian Faithfull (Principal of the King’s Ladies’ Department and noted as one of the Steamboat ladies). Her sister Vanessa also studied Latin, Italian, art and architecture at King’s Ladies’ Department.
The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised. Modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were also influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).
Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.
After the death of their father and Virginia's second nervous breakdown, Vanessa and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury.
Woolf came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group. Several members of the group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, which Virginia participated in disguised as a male Abyssinian royal. Her complete 1940 talk on the Hoax was discovered and is published in the memoirs collected in the expanded edition of The Platform of Time (2008). In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell, and the couple's interest in avant garde art would have an important influence on Woolf's development as an author.
Virginia Stephen married writer Leonard Woolf on the 10th August, 1912. Despite his low material status (Woolf referring to Leonard during their engagement as a "penniless Jew") the couple shared a close bond. Indeed, in 1937, Woolf wrote in her diary: "Love-making – after 25 years can’t bear to be separate ... you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete." The two also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published Virginia's novels along with works by T.S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and others. The Press also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell.
The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality, and in 1922 she met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship, which, according to Sackville-West, was only twice consummated. In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero's life spans three centuries and both genders. Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, wrote "The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her".] After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941. Virginia Woolf also remained close to her surviving siblings, Adrian and Vanessa; Thoby had died of an illness at the age of 26.
After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell into a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work. On 28 March 1941, Woolf put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. Woolf's body was not found until 18 April 1941. Her husband buried her cremated remains under an elm in the garden of Monk's House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex.
In her last note to her husband she wrote:
"Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V."Burial: Non-Cemetery Burial, Ashes buried beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk's House, Rodmell, Sussex, England
Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is, in many ways, the perfect modern novel. Or, a novel born of modernity, and perfectly expressive of modernity. I've reread my copy of Mrs. Dalloway so many times that it's fallen apart. The prose is deceptively casual, a style that would be characterized as "stream of consciousness" yet, unlike Faulkner's work, a stream that's layered yet accessible. What Mrs. Dalloway seems to offer are a series of short characterizations. But Woolf's technique is so blended with sensibility or impulse, that she creates pieces that become greater than the sum of the whole. --Tomas Mournian
A Room of One's Own has been described by some as a feminist tract, but it never felt stuffily political in my opinion. I must have skipped an introduction when I read it, because I didn't realize the book is based on a series of college lectures given by Ms. Woolf. I suppose I was thrown by the fact that, she compiled the lectures and published them as told by a fictional narrator. According to Wikipedia, "By taking on different identities, the narrator transcends one single voice and consequently she makes herself a force to be reckoned with." Scared of her. lol. --Aaron Fricke
Orlando is a classic in so many ways, the history behind this book makes the meaning and the layers even more eloquent and opens up a whole new world of interpretation. Essentially a love letter to one of Woolf’s partners, Vita Sackville-West, Orlando is a coded lesbian romance. Orlando is a nobleman who simply decides through his own will that he will never grow old. He moves through the centuries, has many romances and even changes sex, becoming the Lady Orlando. It was because of the gender-bendering and ‘fantastical’ elements that Woolf could, at the time, explore gender and sexuality in a way that had never been done before. It is a brilliant work that should be read by everybody. --Sean KennedyFurther Readings:
Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
Paperback: 944 pages
Publisher: Vintage (October 5, 1999)
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While Virginia Woolf--one of our century's most brilliant and mercurial writers--has had no shortage of biographers, none has seemed as naturally suited to the task as Hermione Lee. Subscribing to Virginia Woolf's own belief in the fluidity and elusiveness of identity, Lee comes at her subject from a multitude of perspectives, producing a richly layered portrait of the writer and the woman that leaves all of her complexities and contradictions intact. Such issues as sexual abuse, mental illness, and suicide are brought into balance with the immensity of her literary achievement, her heroic commitment to her work, her generosity and wit, and her sanity and strength.
It is not often that biography offers the satisfactions of great fiction--but this is clearly what Hermione Lee has achieved. Accessible, intelligent, and deeply pleasurable to read, her Virginia Woolf will undoubtedly take its place as the standard biography for years to come.
Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books; 2 Sub edition (August 23, 1985)
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Published years after her death, Moments of Being is Virginia Woolf’s only autobiographical writing, considered by many to be her most important book.
In “Reminiscences,” the first of five pieces included in Moments of Being, Woolf focuses on the death of her mother, “the greatest disaster that could happen,” and its effect on her father, a demanding Victorian patriarch who played a crucial role in her development as an individual and a writer. Three of the essays she wrote for the purpose of reading at the Memoir Club, a postwar regrouping of Bloomsbury, and “A Sketch of the Past” the last and longest of the five essays, gives an account of Woolf's early years in her family's household at 22 Hyde Park Gate.
A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf
Paperback: 372 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books (March 31, 2003)
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An invaluable guide to the art and mind of Virginia Woolf, drawn by her husband from the personal record she kept over a period of twenty-seven years. Included are entries that refer to her own writing, others that are clearly writing exercises; accounts of people and scenes relevant to the raw material of her work; and comments on books she was reading. Edited and with a Preface by Leonard Woolf; Indices.
Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf by Suzanne Raitt
Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (April 8, 1993)
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This book examines the creative intimacy between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, interpreting both their relationship and their work in the light of their experience as married lesbians. The contradictions and conflicts of their situation are worked out through the construction of different narratives of femininity, in letters, novels, diaries, and other texts. Vita and Virginia looks at the two women's continual renegotiation of what it means to be female, and suggests that the mutual exchange of different versions of "womanhood" is crucial to the development of their friendship. Orlando, for example, was Virginia Woolf's way of threatening Sackville-West with the extent of her own knowledge about her, as well as the celebratory love-letter it is usually assumed to be. The book also offers readings of both women's autobiographical texts, and a long-overdue study of Vita Sackville-West's work as a biographer and a novelist. Emphasizing also wider contexts, this study examines the links between homosexual desire and literary innovation, public politics and private lives. It provides an invaluable perspective on the relations between sexuality and feminism in modernism.
Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings (Cutting Edge: Lesbian Life & Literature) by Eileen Barrett & Patricia Cramer
Paperback: 306 pages
Publisher: NYU Press (July 1, 1997)
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The last two decades have seen a resurgence of critical and popular attention to Virginia Woolf's life and work. Such traditional institutions as The New York Review of Books now pair her with William Shakespeare in promotional advertisements; her face is used to sell everything from Barnes & Noble books to Bass Ale.
Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings represents the first book devoted to Woolf's lesbianism. Divided into two sections, Lesbian Intersections and Lesbian Readings of Woolf's Novels, these essays focus on how Woolf's private and public experience and knowledge of same-sex love influences her shorter fiction and novels. Lesbian Intersections includes personal narratives that trace the experience of reading Woolf through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Lesbian Readings of Woolf's Novels provides lesbian interpretations of the individual novels, including Orlando, The Waves, and The Years.
Breaking new ground in our understanding of the role Woolf's love for women plays in her major writing, these essays shift the emphasis of lesbian interpretations from Woolf's life to her work.