Life and Literature of Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was born into late-Victorian London on January 25, 1882. Her mother was Julia Stephen (1846-1895), famous in the artistic and literary world for her beauty and in high demand for her skills as an informal nurse. Woolf’s father was Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), a well-known literary critic and founder of the Dictionary of National Biography, who struggled with a sense of inadequacy in spite of his reputation. The family lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London and rented a summer house at St. Ives in Cornwall. The children grew up with governesses, and while the boys went on to school and university, the girls received much less formal education, a particularly sore point with Woolf, and a spur for her feminism. However, she read hugely from her father’s library, and developed a formidable and individual intellect. Her parents’ literary circle also helped to develop the foundations of her writing and thought. Julia and Leslie had each been married previously. With his first wife, Minny Thackeray (1840-1875), Leslie had a daughter, Laura (1870-1884). He floundered at being widowed and left to bring up the young girl, who had increasing emotional and developmental problems. Julia, a friend of Minny’s, seemed a lifeline. She had had three children with Herbert Duckworth (1833-1870), whose sudden death gave her the sorrow that many friends saw as her main characteristic. George (1868-1934), Stella (1869-1897), and Gerald (1870-1937), along with Laura, were part of the new household when Julia and Leslie married in 1878. Julia and Leslie had four more children together, of which Virginia was the third. Vanessa (1879-1961) was her childhood companion and fellow editor of the family newsletter, The Hyde Park Gate News; the two remained close friends and sometimes rivals in adulthood, when Vanessa married Clive Bell, who was a friend of her brother Thoby, had three children, and worked as an artist. Thoby (1880-1906) was a popular and goodlooking young man whose Cambridge friends formed the initial Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, with which all the Stephen siblings were connected to some degree. Adrian (1883-1948) was his mother’s favourite, but he clashed with his father and siblings, and became a psychoanalyst. The house at 22 Hyde Park Gate was full of children and energy, but also of sadness. Woolf wrote of being sexually molested by both her Duckworth half-brothers, which powerfully affected her. Laura was institutionalized in the 1890s as her disorders worsened. Julia Stephen suddenly died of influenza when Virginia was 13, “the worst disaster that could happen,” as she put it, which led to her first mental breakdown. In his own grief, Leslie leaned heavily on the girls, causing immense resentment. Stella Duckworth took on most of the responsibility, but she married in 1897, to Leslie’s distress. She died a few months after the wedding of peritonitis connected with pregnancy, another heavy blow to the family. Virginia’s mental health remained very fragile, but she carried on studying ,reading, and writing, while helping Vanessa with their father’s demands. When Leslie died of cancer in 1904, Virginia was saddened but liberated. With his death, she saw the Victorian past falling away. She suffered another nervous breakdown, which led to a suicide attempt, that year, but improved when she and her siblings left Hyde Park Gate and moved to unfashionable Bloomsbury to begin their own lives. Virginia enjoyed teaching adult courses at Morley College and working on her writing, as well as meeting with Thoby’s friends, but Thoby died at 26 of typhoid after a European trip, and again the family was crushed. Virginia worked on her first novel, The Voyage Out, which describes a young woman’s journey into South America and illness. In 1912, she agreed to marry Thoby’s friend Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), a Jewish writer who worked for the Colonial Civil Service, in spite of her uncertainty about their compatibility. Leonard provided support when Virginia made another suicide attempt in 1913, and had another breakdown in 1915, when The Voyage Out was finally published. With him, she established the Hogarth Press, named after their London house, in 1917, which published works by both Leonard and Virginia, as well as by other contemporary writers. The happiness of the marriage has been debated, and Virginia had a long affair with the Hogarth writer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) beginning in 1923, but regardless, Virginia saw Leonard as one of her most important readers and supports. In different ways, they were both interested in new artistic forms and genres, and the changing political landscape.
Virginia Woolf was the author of about fifteen books, the last, A Writer’s Diary, posthumously (after death) published in 1953. Her death by drowning in Lewes, Sussex, England, on March 28, 1941, has often been regarded as a suicide brought on by the unbearable strains of life during World War II (1939-45; a war fought between the Axis powers: Japan, Italy, and Germany and the Allies: France, England, the Soviet Union, and the United States). The true explanation seems to be that she had regularly felt symptoms of a mental breakdown and feared it would be permanent. Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Jacob’s Room (1922) represent Virginia Woolf’s major achievements. The Voyage Out (1915) first brought her critical attention. Night and Day (1919) is traditional in method. The short stories of Monday or Tuesday (1921) brought critical praise. In The Waves (1931) she masterfully employed the stream-of-consciousness technique which stresses “free writing.” Other experimental novels include Orlando (1928), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941). Virginia Woolf’s championship of women’s rights is reflected in the essays in A Room of One’s Own (1929) and in Three Guineas (1938). Some Notable Works of Woolf.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is recognised as one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. Perhaps best known as the author of Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), she was also a prolific writer of essays, diaries, letters and biographies. Both in style and subject matter, Woolf’s work captures the fast-changing world in which she was working, from transformations in gender roles, sexuality and class to technologies such as cars, airplanes and cinema. Influenced by seminal writers and artists of the period such as Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky and the PostImpressionists, Woolf’s work explores the key motifs of modernism, including the subconscious, time, perception, the city and the impact of war. Her ‘stream of consciousness’ technique enabled her to portray the interior lives of her characters and to depict the montage-like imprint of memory. Woolf’s work often explored her fascination with the marginal and overlooked: of ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’, as she put in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919/25). In ‘The Art of Biography’ (1939), she argued that, “The question now inevitably asks itself, whether the lives of great men only should be recorded. Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious”. She refused patriarchal honours like the Companion of Honour (1935) and honorary degrees from Manchester and Liverpool (1933 and 1939), and wrote polemical works about the position of women in society, such as A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). In Flush (1933) she wrote of the life of the spaniel owned by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Orlando (1928), she fictionalised the life of her friend Vita Sackville-West into that of a manwoman, born in the Renaissance but surviving till the present day. Besides her writing, Woolf had a considerable impact on the cultural life around her. The publishing house she ran with her husband Leonard Woolf, the Hogarth Press, was originally established in Richmond and then in London’s Bloomsbury, an area after which the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ of artists, writers and intellectuals is named. Woolf’s house was a hub for some of the most interesting cultural activity of the time, and Hogarth Press publications included books by writers such as T S Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Katherine Mansfield, E M Forster, and the Woolfs themselves.