Virginia Woolf

by OMB Staff on July 18, 2008

Virginia Woolf(Adeline) Virginia Woolf (née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English novelist and essayist regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century.

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.”

Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London to Sir Leslie Stephen, considered the father of the Bloomsbury Group, and Julia Prinsep Stephen (born Jackson) (1846–1895), she was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Virginia’s parents had each been married previously, and their spouses had died. Consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages: Julia’s children with her first husband Herbert Duckworth: George Duckworth (1868–1934); Stella Duckworth (1869–1897); and Gerald Duckworth (1870–1937). Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870–1945), Leslie’s daughter with Minny Thackeray, who was declared mentally disabled and lived with them until she was institutionalised in 1891 to the end of her life; and Leslie and Julia’s children: Vanessa Stephen (1879–1961); Thoby Stephen (1880–1906); Virginia; and Adrian Stephen (1883–1948).

Sir Leslie Stephen’s eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray (he was the widower of Thackeray’s eldest daughter) meant that Woolf was raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society.

Henry James, George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, Julia Margaret Cameron (an aunt of Julia Stephen), and James Russell Lowell, who was made Virginia’s godfather, 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 renowned beauties who left their mark on Victorian society as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers. Supplementing these influences was the immense library at 22 Hyde Park Gate, from which Virginia (unlike her brothers, who were formally educated) was taught the classics and English literature.

According to her memoirs her most vivid childhood memories, however, were not of London but of St Ives in Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The family stayed in their home called the Talland House, which looked out over the Porthminster Bay. Memories of the family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction she wrote in later years, notably To the Lighthouse. She also based the summer home in Scotland after the Talland House and the Ramsay family after her own family.

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. The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalized.

Her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods, modern scholars have claimed, were also induced by the sexual abuse she and Vanessa were subject to by their half-brothers George and Gerald (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).

Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by drastic mood swings. Though these recurring mental breakdowns greatly affected her social functioning, her literary abilities remained intact. Modern diagnostic techniques have led to a posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder, an illness which coloured her work, relationships, and life, and eventually led to her suicide. Following the death of her father in 1904 and her second serious nervous breakdown, Virginia, Vanessa, and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate, and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury.

Following studies at King’s College London, Woolf came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group which came to notorious fame in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax Virginia Woolf participated in, dressed as a male Abyssinian royalty.

Personal life
Virginia Stephen married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912, referring to him during their engagement as a “penniless Jew.” The couple shared a close bond, and in 1937 Woolf wrote in her diary “Love-making — after 25 years can’t be attained by my unattractive countenance … you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted, a pleasure that I have never felt.” They also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published most of Woolf’s work. The ethos of Bloomsbury discouraged sexual exclusivity, and in 1922, Woolf met Vita Sackville-West. After a tentative start, they began a relationship that lasted through most of the 1920s. In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero’s life spans three centuries and both genders. It has been called by Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West’s son, “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf’s death.

After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel Between the Acts, Woolf fell victim to a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The war, the Luftwaffe’s destruction of her London homes, as well as the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry, worsened her condition until she was unable to work.

On 28 March 1941, after having a nervous breakdown, Woolf drowned herself by weighing her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. Her body was not found until April 18. Her husband buried her cremated remains under a tree in the garden of their house in Rodmell, Sussex.

In her last note to her husband she wrote:

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.

* The Voyage Out (1915)
* Night and Day (1919)
* Jacob’s Room (1922)
* Mrs Dalloway (1925)
* To the Lighthouse (1927)
* The Waves (1931)
* The Years (1937)
* Between the Acts (1941)

Short story collections
* Monday or Tuesday (1921)
* A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1943)
* The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)

Virginia Woolf published three books which she gave the subtitle “A Biography”:
* Orlando: A Biography (1928, usually characterised Novel, inspired by the life of Vita Sackville-West)
* Flush: A Biography (1933, more explicitly cross-genre: fiction as “stream of consciousness” tale by Flush, a dog; non-fiction in the sense of telling the story of the owner of the dog, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
* Roger Fry: A Biography (1940, usually characterised non-fiction, however: “[Woolf’s] novelistic skills worked against her talent as a biographer, for her impressionistic observations jostled uncomfortably with the simultaneous need to marshall a multitude of facts.”[12])

Non-fiction books
* Modern Fiction (1919)
* The Common Reader (1925)
* A Room of One’s Own (1929)
* On Being Ill (1930)
* The London Scene (1931)
* The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
* Three Guineas (1938)
* The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
* The Moment and Other Essays (1947)
* The Captain’s Death Bed And Other Essays (1950)
* Books and Portraits (1978)
* Women And Writing (1979)
* Collected Essays (four volumes)

* Freshwater: A Comedy (performed in 1923, revised in 1935, and published in 1976)

Autobiographical writings and diaries
* A Writer’s Diary (1953) – Extracts from the complete diary
* Moments of Being (1976)
* A Moment’s Liberty: the shorter diary (1990)
* The Diary of Virginia Woolf (five volumes) – Diary of Virginia Woolf from 1915 to 1941
* Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909 (1990)
* Travels With Virginia Woolf (1993) – Greek travel diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Jan Morris
* The Platform of Time: Memoirs of Family and Friends, Expanded Edition including Dreadnought Hoax talk, edited by S. P. Rosenbaum (London, Hesperus, 2008)

* Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters (1993)
* The Letters of Virginia Woolf 1888-1941 (six volumes, 1975-1980)
* Paper Darts: The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf (1991)

Wikipedia contributors, “Virginia Woolf,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 18, 2008).

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