Adeline Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and also a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
Woolf was born into an affluent household in South Kensington, London, the seventh child in a blended family of eight which included the modernist painter Vanessa Bell. Her mother was Julia Prinsep Jackson and her father Leslie Stephen. While the boys in the family received college educations, the girls were home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. An important influence in Virginia Woolf’s early life was the summer home the family used in St Ives, Cornwall, where she first saw the Godrevy Lighthouse, which was to become central in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927).
Woolf’s childhood came to an abrupt end in 1895 with the death of her mother and her first mental breakdown, followed two years later by the death of her half-sister and a mother figure to her, Stella Duckworth. From 1897 to 1901, she attended the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London, where she studied classics and history and came into contact with early reformers of women’s higher education and the women’s rights movement. Other important influences were her Cambridge-educated brothers and unfettered access to her father’s vast library.
Encouraged by her father, Woolf began writing professionally in 1900. Her father’s death in 1904 caused Woolf to have another mental breakdown. Following his death, the Stephen family moved from Kensington to the more bohemian Bloomsbury, where they adopted a free-spirited lifestyle. It was in Bloomsbury where, in conjunction with the brothers’ intellectual friends, they formed the artistic and literary Bloomsbury Group.
In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, and in 1917 the couple founded the Hogarth Press, which published much of her work. They rented a home in Sussex and moved there permanently in 1940. Throughout her life, Woolf was troubled by her mental illness. She was institutionalised several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness may have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. In 1941, at age 59, Woolf died by drowning herself in the River Ouse at Lewes.
During the interwar period, Woolf was an important part of London’s literary and artistic society. In 1915 she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, through her half-brother’s publishing house, Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her best-known works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928). She is also known for her essays, including A Room of One’s Own (1929), in which she wrote the much-quoted dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Woolf became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism and her works have since garnered much attention and widespread commentary for “inspiring feminism”. Her works have been translated into more than 50 languages. A large body of literature is dedicated to her life and work, and she has been the subject of plays, novels and films. Woolf is commemorated today by statues, societies dedicated to her work and a building at the University of London.
In the late nineteenth century, education was sharply divided along gender lines, a tradition that Virginia would note and condemn in her writing. Boys were sent to school, and in upper-middle-class families such as the Stephens, this involved private boys schools, often boarding schools, and university.Girls, if they were afforded the luxury of education, received it from their parents, governesses and tutors. Virginia was educated by her parents who shared the duty. There was a small classroom off the back of the drawing room, with its many windows, which they found perfect for quiet writing and painting. Julia taught the children Latin, French and History, while Leslie taught them mathematics. They also received piano lessons. Supplementing their lessons was the children’s unrestricted access to Leslie Stephen’s vast library, exposing them to much of the literary canon, resulting in a greater depth of reading than any of their Cambridge contemporaries, Virginia’s reading being described as “greedy”. Later, she would recall
Even today there may be parents who would doubt the wisdom of allowing a girl of fifteen the free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library. But my father allowed it. There were certain facts – very briefly, very shyly he referred to them. Yet “Read what you like”, he said, and all his books . . . were to be had without asking.
After public school, the boys in the family all attended Cambridge University. The girls derived some indirect benefit from this, as the boys introduced them to their friends. Another source was the conversation of their father’s friends, to whom they were exposed. Leslie Stephen described his circle as “most of the literary people of mark … clever young writers and barristers, chiefly of the radical persuasion … we used to meet on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, to smoke and drink and discuss the universe and the reform movement”.
Later, between the ages of 15 and 19, Virginia was able to pursue higher education. She took courses of study, some at degree level, in beginning and advanced Ancient Greek, intermediate Latin and German, together with continental and English history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London at nearby 13 Kensington Square between 1897 and 1901. She studied Greek under the eminent scholar George Charles Winter Warr, professor of Classical Literature at King’s. In addition she had private tutoring in German, Greek and Latin. One of her Greek tutors was Clara Pater (1899–1900), who taught at King’s. Another was Janet Case, who involved her in the women’s rights movement, and whose obituary Virginia would later write in 1937. Her experiences there led to her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek”. Her time at King’s also brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education such as the principal of the Ladies’ Department, Lilian Faithfull (one of the so-called steamboat ladies), in addition to Pater. Her sister Vanessa also enrolled at the Ladies’ Department (1899–1901). Although the Stephen girls could not attend Cambridge, they were to be profoundly influenced by their brothers’ experiences there. When Thoby went up to Trinity in 1899, he befriended a circle of young men, including Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf (whom Virginia would later marry) and Saxon Sydney-Turner, that he would soon introduce to his sisters at the Trinity May Ball in 1900. These men formed a reading group they named the Midnight Society.
After completing the manuscript of her last novel (posthumously published), Between the Acts (1941), 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. When Leonard enlisted in the Home Guard, Virginia disapproved. She held fast to her pacifism and criticised her husband for wearing what she considered to be “the silly uniform of the Home Guard”.
After World War II began, Woolf’s diary indicates that she was obsessed with death, which figured more and more as her mood darkened. On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. Her body was not found until 18 April. Her husband buried her cremated remains beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk’s House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex.
In her suicide note, addressed 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 till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it 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.
Virginia Woolf is known for her contributions to twentieth-century literature and her essays, as well as the influence she has had on literary, particularly feminist criticism. A number of authors have stated that their work was influenced by Virginia Woolf, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison. Her iconic image is instantly recognisable from the Beresford portrait of her at twenty (at the top of this page) to the Beck and Macgregor portrait in her mother’s dress in Vogue at forty-four (see image) or Man Ray’s cover of Time magazine (see image) at 55. More postcards of Woolf are sold by the National Portrait Gallery, London than any other person. Her image is ubiquitous, and can be found on tea towels to T-shirts.
Virginia Woolf is studied around the world, with organisations such as the Virginia Woolf Society, and The Virginia Woolf Society of Japan. In addition, trusts—such as the Asham Trust—encourage writers in her honour. Although she had no descendants, a number of her extended family are notable.