Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 to an upper class family in London, England. Her mother, Julia Stephen, and her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, both had children from previous marriages resulting in a rather large blended family. Woolf’s siblings included Thoby, Adrian, and Vanessa, along with half siblings Laura Stephen, George Duckworth, Stella Duckworth, and Gerald Duckworth. The family resided at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington. Julia Stephen, who had gained notoriety as a model for artists such as Edward-Burne Jones, was a devoted and self-sacrificing matriarch (Goldman). Leslie Stephen was a renowned editor, literary critic and Alpinist with an influential group of intellectual friends, including poet Thomas Hardy and author Henry James. While she was growing up, Woolf did not attend school. However, she had a tutor who educated her in English literature and the classics. Her father took an interest in her education as well, and giving Woolf and her siblings private lessons in which he recommended literature and worked on improving their writing. Woolf’s childhood was not altogether unhappy; however, she was sexually abused by her half-brothers and her mother Julia died in 1895 when Woolf was only 13 years old. In the time after her mother’s death she experienced her first, of many, nervous breakdowns. She continued to struggle with mental health issues throughout her life, and a concern for sanity versus madness appears throughout her writing. Her father died in 1904, which although came as a relief to some of her siblings who had found him to be an oppressive figure, troubled Woolf who had revered him (Bell).
Not long after the death of her father, the family moved from their home in Hyde Park Gate, to Bloomsbury Square. It was in this home that Virginia, along with her sister Vanessa and brother Adrian became a part of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of intellectuals interested in avant-garde English modernism. She married a fellow member, political journalist and activist, Leonard Woolf in 1912. Shortly after getting married, Woolf published her first novel The Voyage Out (1913). During this time Woolf suffered another near suicidal breakdown. In 1915 the Woolf’s moved to the Hogarth House and it was here that in 1917 they founded the Hogarth Press which published all of Woolf’s works with the exception of her second novel Night and Day (1919). The Hogarth Press published not only the works of Woolf, but also writers Katherine Mansfield, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and translations of the works of Sigmund Freud. Woolf continued writing, innovating the form of the novel, and experimenting with stream of consciousness narrative techniques and went on to publish Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), among other novels and essays such as those in the collection The Common Reader (1932).
In Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction”, published in The Common Reader, she discussed her views on the Modern novel and its distinguishing features. Woolf began by asserting that she did not believe the evolution of literature through the ages necessarily correlated with improvement and understanding; she described herself and fellow writers as “in the crowd, half blind with dust, we look back with envy to those happier warriors, whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the fight was not so fierce for them as for us” (157-158). She asserted that it was not for her to decide the value of one type of writing over another. However, Woolf did make a distinction between Modern writers and materialists, who “write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring” (159). For Woolf it was more important to seek out the “life or spirit, truth or reality” rather than to be constrained by traditional themes and plot devices. Woolf stated that the goal of a novel should be to reflect life as it really is, “a myriad of impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” (160). A modern novelist must bring this sense of these many impressions to the page in order to capture “this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit” of life (160). In this way, Woolf advocated a break from both custom and convention so that modern fiction would resemble more closely our reality. This technique can be seen in her novel Mrs. Dalloway which records the events of a single day, while constantly shifting point of view from a number of different characters. Woolf uses a stream of consciousness technique in order to mirror the thoughts that cross the characters’ minds, from their feelings, reactions and memories, at any given moment throughout the events of the day. The novel does not follow a linear plot line, but rather jumps back and forth from events occurring in the present day and memories from the characters’ pasts. Woolf intertwines the characters’ internal realities with their external reality in order to resemble the way in which we experience life.
In her personal life, Woolf had begun an extramarital affair with aristocrat and fellow author, Vita Sackville-West, to whom she dedicated her novel Orlando (1928). The affair lasted about ten years, but did not appear to adversely affect Woolf’s relationship with Leonard (Goldman).
Despite Woolf’s success, throughout her life she continued to battle a number of nervous breakdowns during which she claimed to hear voices and refused to eat leading to multiple of suicide attempts. In the 1930’s with the rise of Fascism she became increasingly despondent, and as World War II began Woolf committed suicide by weighing her pockets down with stones and walking into the river Ouse, eventually drowning herself.
Virginia Woolf”s childhood home on Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.
Statue of Virginia Woolf in Tavistock Gardens
Virginia Woolf’s home in Gordon Sq. located in the Bloomsbury District of London
The only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice from a BBC Radio broadcast in 1937.
- The Voyage Out (1915)
- Night and Day (1919)
- Jacob’s Room (1922)
- The Common Reader (1925)
- Mrs Dalloway (1925)
- To the Lighthouse (1927)
- Orlando (1928)
- A Room of One’s Own (1929)
- On Being Ill (1930)
- The Waves (1931)
- The London Scene (1931)
- The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
- The Years (1937)
- Three Guineas (1938)
- Between the Acts (1941)
- The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
- The Moment and Other Essays (1947)
- The Captain’s Death Bed And Other Essays (1950)
- Granite and Rainbow (1958)
- Books and Portraits (1978)
- Women And Writing (1979)
Online texts of many of Woolf’s works: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 1972. London: Hogarth Press, 1973.
Goldman, Jane. The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf 1925-1928. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. Vol. IV. London: The
Hogarth Press, 1994. 157-164. Print
Photo of Virginia Woolf courtesy of WikiMedia Commons