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Virginia Stephen Woolf

Virginia Stephen Woolf

The English novelist, critic, and essayist Virginia Stephen Woolf (1882-1941) ranks as one of England's most distinguished writers of the period between World War I and World War II. Her novels can perhaps best be described as impressionistic.

Dissatisfied with the novel based on familiar, factual, and external details, Virginia Woolf followed experimental clues to a more internal, subjective, and in a sense more personal rendering of experience than had been provided by Henry James, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. In the works of these masters the reality of time and experience had formed the stream of consciousness, a concept that probably originated with William James. Virginia Woolf lived in and responded to a world in which certitudes were collapsing under the stresses of changing knowledge, the civilized savagery of war, and new manners and morals. She drew on her personal, sensitive, poetic awareness without rejecting altogether the heritage of literary culture she derived from her family.

Early Years and Marriage

Virginia Stephen was born in London on Jan. 25, 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a famous scholar and agnostic philosopher who, among many literary occupations, was at one time editor of Cornhill Magazine and the Dictionary of National Biography. James Russell Lowell, the American poet, was her godfather. Virginia's mother died when the child was 12 or 13 years old, and she was educated at home in her father's library, where she also met his famous friends.

In 1912, eight years after her father's death, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, a brilliant young writer and critic from Cambridge whose interests in literature as well as in economics and the labor movement were well suited to hers. In 1917, for amusement, they originated the Hogarth Press by setting and handprinting on an old press Two Stories by "L. and V. Woolf." The volume was a success, and over the years they published many important books, including Prelude by Katherine Mansfield, then an unknown writer; Poems by T. S. Eliot; and Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf. The policy of the Hogarth Press was to publish the best and most original work that came to its attention, and the Woolfs as publishers favored young and obscure writers. Virginia's older sister Vanessa, who married the critic Clive Bell, participated in this venture by designing dust jackets for the books issued by the Hogarth Press.

Quite early in her career Virginia Woolf's home in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, became a literary and art center, attracting such diverse intellectuals as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Arthur Waley, Victoria Sackville-West, John Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. These artists, critics, and writers became known as the Bloomsbury group. Roger Fry's theory of art may have influenced Virginia's technique as a novelist. Broadly speaking, the Bloomsbury group drew from the philosophic interests of its members (who had been educated at Cambridge) the values of love and beauty as preeminent in life.

As Critic and Essayist

Virginia Woolf began writing essays for the Times Literary Supplement when she was young, and over the years these and other essays were collected in a two-volume series called The Common Reader (1925, 1933). These studies range with affection and understanding through all of English literature. Students of fiction have drawn upon these criticisms as a means of understanding Virginia Woolf's own direction as a novelist. One passage frequently studied occurs in "Modern Fiction" in the First Series: "Life is not a series of … big lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?"

Another essay frequently studied is "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," written in 1924, in which Virginia Woolf describes the manner in which the older-generation novelist Arnold Bennett would have portrayed Mrs. Brown, a lady casually met in a railway carriage, by giving her a house and furniture and a position in the world. She then contrasts this method with another: one that exhibits a new interest in the subjective Mrs. Brown, the mysteries of her person, her consciousness, and the consciousness of the observer responding to her.

Achievement as Novelist

Two of Virginia Woolf's novels in particular, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), follow successfully the latter approach. The first novels covers a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway in postwar London; it achieves its vision of reality through the reception by Mrs. Dalloway's mind of what Virginia Woolf called those 'myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel." To the Lighthouseis, in a sense, a family portrait and history rendered in subjective depth through selected points in time. Part I deals with the time between six o'clock in the evening and dinner. Primarily through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, it presents the clash of the male and female sensibilities in the family; Mrs. Ramsay functions as a means of equipoise and reconciliation. Part II: Time Passes, is a moving evocation of loss during the interval between Mrs. Ramsay's death and the family's revisit to the house. Part III moves toward completion of this intricate and subjective portrait through the adding of a last detail to a painting by an artist guest, Lily Briscoe, and through the final completion of a plan, rejected by the father in Part I, for him and the children to sail out to the lighthouse. The novel is impressionistic, subjectively perceptive, and poignant.

Last Years and Other Books

Virginia Woolf was the author of about 15 books, the last, A Writer's Diary, posthumously published in 1953. Her death by drowning in Lewes, Sussex, on March 28, 1941, has often been regarded as a suicide brought on by the unbearable strains of life during World War II. The true explanation seems to be that she had felt symptoms of a recurrence of a mental breakdown and feared that it would be permanent.

Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Jacob's Room (1922) constitute Virginia Woolf's major achievement. 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. Other experimental novels include Orlando (1928), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941). Virginia Woolf's championship of woman's rights is reflected in the essays in A Room of One's Own (1929) and in Three Guineas (1938).

Further Reading

Virginia Woolf's diary was edited by her husband, Leonard Sidney Woolf, The Dairy of Virginia Woolf (1953). Leonard Woolf's five-volume autobiography not only deals in great detail with his life with Virginia Woolf but reveals much about English social and literary history since 1939: Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years, 1880-1904 (1960), Growing: An Autobiography of the Years, 1904-1911 (1962), Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years, 1911 to 1918 (1964), Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years, 1919-1939 (1967), and The Journey, Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years, 1939-1969 (1970).

Much has been written about Virginia Woolf. Her experimental technique as well as her psychological depth made her, in a sense, a critic's writer. Interesting and helpful studies include David Daiches, Virginia Woolf (1942; rev. ed. 1963); Joan Bennett, Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist (1945; 2d ed. 1964); Bernard Blackstone, Virginia Woolf: A Commentary (1949); James Hafley, The Glass Roof: Virginia Woolf as Novelist (1954); Aileen Pippett, The Moth and the Star: A Biography of Virginia Woolf (1955); Dorothy Brewster, Virginia Woolf (1962); Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and Her Works (trans. 1966); Carl Woodring, Virginia Woolf (1966); and Jean O. Love, World of Consciousness: Mythopoetic Thought in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (1970). □

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Woolf, Virginia

Virginia Woolf

Born: January 25, 1882
London, England

Died: March 28, 1941
Lewes, Sussex, England

English novelist, critic, and essayist

The English novelist, critic, and essayist Virginia Woolf ranks as one of England's most distinguished writers of the middle part of the twentieth century. Her novels can perhaps best be described as impressionistic, a literary style which attempts to inspire impressions rather than recreating reality.

Early years and marriage

Virginia Stephen was born in London on January 25, 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a famous scholar and philosopher (a seeker of knowledge) who, among many literary occupations, was at one time editor of Cornhill Magazine and the Dictionary of National Biography. James Russell Lowell, the American poet, was her godfather. Her mother, Julia Jackson, died when the child was twelve or thirteen years old. Virginia and her sister were educated at home in their father's library, where Virginia also met his famous friends who included G. E. Moore (18731958) and E. M. Forster (18791970). Young Virginia soon fell deep into the world of literature.

In 1912, eight years after her father's death, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, a brilliant young writer and critic from Cambridge, England, whose interests in literature as well as in economics and the labor movement were well suited to hers. In 1917, for amusement, they founded the Hogarth Press by setting and handprinting on an old press Two Stories by "L. and V. Woolf." The volume was a success, and over the years they published many important books, including Prelude by Katherine Mansfield (18881923), then an unknown writer; Poems by T. S. Eliot (18881965); and Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf. The policy of the Hogarth Press was to publish the best and most original work that came to its attention, and the Woolfs as publishers favored young and unknown writers. Virginia's older sister Vanessa, who married the critic Clive Bell, participated in this venture by designing dust jackets for the books issued by the Hogarth Press.

Virginia Woolf's home in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, became a literary and art center, attracting such diverse intellectuals as Lytton Strachey (18801932), Arthur Waley (18891966), Victoria Sackville-West (18921962), John Maynard Keynes (18831943), and Roger Fry (18661934). These artists, critics, and writers became known as the Bloomsbury group. Roger Fry's theory of art may have influenced Virginia's technique as a novelist. Broadly speaking, the Bloomsbury group drew from the philosophic interests of its members (who had been educated at Cambridge) the values of love and beauty as essential to life.

As critic and essayist

Virginia Woolf began writing essays for the Times Literary Supplement (London) when she was young, and over the years these and other essays were collected in a two-volume series called The Common Reader (1925, 1933). These studies range with affection and understanding through all of English literature. Students of fiction have drawn upon these criticisms as a means of understanding Virginia Woolf's own direction as a novelist.

An essay frequently studied is "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," written in 1924, in which Virginia Woolf described the manner in which the older-generation novelist Arnold Bennett would have portrayed Mrs. Brown, a lady casually met in a railway carriage, by giving her a house and furniture and a position in the world. She then contrasted this method with another: one that exhibits a new interest in Mrs. Brown, the mysteries of her person, her consciousness (awareness), and the consciousness of the observer responding to her.

Achievement as novelist

Two of Virginia Woolf's novels in particular, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), successfully follow the latter approach. The first novel covers a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway in postwar London; it achieves its vision of reality through the reception by Mrs. Dalloway's mind of what Virginia Woolf called those "myriad impressionstrivial, fantastic, evanescent [vanishing], or engraved with the sharpness of steel."

To the Lighthouse is, in a sense, a family portrait and history rendered in subjective (characterized by personal views) depth through selected points in time. Part I deals with the time between six o'clock in the evening and dinner. Primarily through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, it presents the clash of the male and female sensibilities in the family; Mrs. Ramsay functions as a means of balance and settling disputes. Part II is a moving section of loss during the interval between Mrs. Ramsay's death and the family's revisit to the house. Part III moves toward completion of this complex portrait through the adding of a last detail to a painting by an artist guest, Lily Briscoe, and through the final completion of a plan, rejected by the father in Part I, for him and the children to sail out to the lighthouse.

Last years and other books

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 (193945; a war fought between the Axis powers: Japan, Italy, and Germanyand 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).

For More Information

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Bond, Alma Halbert. Who Killed Virginia Woolf?: A Psychobiography. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.

Caws, Mary Anne. Virginia Woolf. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Books, 2002.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1997.

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Woolf, Virginia (Stephen)

Virginia (Stephen) Woolf, 1882–1941, English novelist and essayist; daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen. A successful innovator in the form of the novel, she is considered a significant force in 20th-century fiction. She was educated at home from the resources of her father's huge library. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a critic and writer on economics, with whom she set up the Hogarth Press in 1917. Their home became a gathering place for a circle of artists, critics, and writers known as the Bloomsbury group. As a novelist Woolf's primary concern was to represent the flow of ordinary experience. Her emphasis was not on plot or characterization but on a character's consciousness, his thoughts and feelings, which she brilliantly illuminated by the stream of consciousness technique. She did not limit herself to one consciousness, however, but slipped from mind to mind, particularly in The Waves, probably her most experimental novel. Her prose style is poetic, heavily symbolic, and filled with superb visual images.

Woolf's early works, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), were traditional in method, but she became increasingly innovative in Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931). Other experimental novels are Orlando (1928), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941). She was a master of the critical essay, and some of her finest pieces are included in The Common Reader (1925), The Second Common Reader (1933), The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942), and The Moment and Other Essays (1948). A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) are feminist tracts. Her biography of Roger Fry (1940) is a careful study of a friend. Some of her short stories from Monday or Tuesday (1921) appear with others in A Haunted House (1944). Virginia Woolf suffered mental breakdowns in 1895 and 1915; she drowned herself in 1941 because she feared another breakdown from which she might not recover. Most of her posthumously published works were edited by her husband.

Bibliography

See her Writer's Diary, ed. by L. Woolf (1953) and Correspondence with Lytton Strachey, ed. by L. Woolf and J. Strachey (1956); diary, ed. by A. O. Bell (4 vol., 1979–83); letters, ed. by N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann (6 vol., 1977–82); essays, ed. by A. McNeillie and S. N. Clarke (6 vol., 1989–2000); biographies by Q. Bell (2 vol., 1972), P. Rose (1978), L. Gordon (1985), M. Rosenthal (1987), J. King (1995), P. Reid (1996), H. Lee (1997), N. Nicolson (2000), and J. Briggs (2005); studies by E. M. Forster (1942), J. Bennett (2d ed. 1964), R. Freedman (1980), and J. Marcus, ed. (1983). See also the autobiography of her husband, Leonard Sidney Woolf (5 vol., 1960–69).

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Woolf, Virginia

Woolf, Virginia (1882–1941). The daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, editor of the DNB, Virginia Stephen was a sensitive child. Abused at the age of 6, the death of her mother when she was 13 caused a breakdown. She was engaged at one time to Lytton Strachey but in 1912 married Leonard Woolf. The physical side of the marriage was unappealing to her given her preference for lesbian relationships. With her husband she founded the Hogarth Press and their house became a centre for the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. Despite her delicate health she sustained a large output of essays, reviews, and novels—Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928), which experimented with ‘stream of consciousness’ technique and was a great success. The Common Reader, a book of essays (1925), also sold well and a second and even better Common Reader came out in 1932. In 1929 she published A Room of One's Own, surveying the difficulties confronting women, which became a classic of feminist literature. A protracted bout of depression in 1941 led her to drown herself in the river Ouse in Sussex.

Sue Minna Cannon

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Woolf, Virginia

Woolf, Virginia (1882–1941) English novelist and critic. Her novels, which often use the stream of consciousness style associated with modernism, include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). Between the Acts, her final novel, was published posthumously. A member of the Bloomsbury Group, her long essay A Room of One's Own (1929) is a key text of feminist criticism. Her critical essays, including Modern Novels (1919) and The Common Reader (1925), are integral to modernist literary theory.

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Woolf, Virginia

Virginia Woolf

BORN: 1882, London, England

DIED: 1941, Lewes, Sussex, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
To the Lighthouse (1927)
Orlando (1928)
A Room of One's Own (1929)

Overview

One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf is chiefly renowned as an innovative novelist. She also wrote book reviews, biographical and autobiographical sketches, social and literary criticism, personal essays, and commemorative articles treating a wide range of topics. Concerned primarily with depicting the life of the mind, Woolf revolted against traditional narrative structures and developed her own highly individualized style of writing.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Life in an Unconventional and Literary Atmosphere Born in London, Virginia Woolf was the third child of Julia and Leslie Stephen. Although her brothers, Thoby and Adrian, were sent to school, Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, were taught at home by their parents and by tutors. Theirs was a highly literary family. Woolf received no formal education, but she was raised in a cultured atmosphere, learning from her father's extensive library and from conversing with his friends, many of whom were prominent writers of the era.

Formation of the Bloomsbury Group Following the death of her father in 1904, Woolf settled in the Bloomsbury district of London with her sister and brothers. Their house became a gathering place where such friends as J. M. Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and E. M. Forster congregated for lively discussions about philosophy, art, music, and literature. A complex network of friendships and love affairs developed, serving to increase the solidarity of what became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Here she met Leonard Woolf, the author, politician, and economist whom she married in 1912. Woolf flourished in the unconventional atmosphere that she and her siblings had cultivated.

Financial Need Catalyzes Literary Output The need to earn money led her to begin submitting book reviews and essays to various publications. Her first published works—mainly literary reviews—began appearing anonymously in 1904 in the Guardian, a weekly newspaper for Anglo-Catholic clergy. Woolf's letters and diaries reveal that journalism occupied much of her time and thought between 1904 and 1909. By the latter year, however, she was becoming absorbed in work on her first novel, eventually published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.

The Hogarth Press In 1914, World War I began, a devastating conflict that involved carnage on an unprecedented scale. It involved nearly every European country and, eventually, the United States. About twenty million people were killed as a direct result of the war. Nearly a million British soldiers died (similar losses were experienced by all the other warring nations). In 1917, while England was in the midst of fighting World War I, Woolf and her husband cofounded the Hogarth Press. They bought a small handpress, with a booklet of instructions, and set up shop on the dining room table in Hogarth House, their lodgings in Richmond. They planned to print only some of their own writings and that of their talented friends. Leonard hoped the manual work would provide Virginia a relaxing diversion from the stress of writing.

It is a tribute to their combined business acumen and critical judgment that this small independent venture became, as Mary Gaither recounts, “a self-supporting business and a significant publishing voice in England between the wars.” Certainly being her own publisher made it much easier for Virginia Woolf to pursue her experimental bent but also enabled her to gain greater financial independence from what was at that time a male-dominated industry. Like Woolf, many British women joined the professional work force in an increased capacity during World War I, capitalizing on England's need for heavy industry to support its armed forces.

Successful Experiments This philosophy of daring and experimental writing is shown in her self-published works. While the novel Night and Day (1919) is not astylistic experiment, it deals with the controversial issue of women's suffrage, or right to vote—a right championed by Woolf. At the time of its publication, English women over the age of thirty had just finally received voting rights; it would still be another decade before women held the exact same voting rights as men. Where Woolf might have had difficulty finding another publisher for a book dealing with such a subject, access to Hogarth Press left her free to deal with whatever subject matter she saw fit.

This freedom expressed itself more in stylistic terms in her following works. The novel Jacob's Room (1922), for example, tells the story of a character who is never directly introduced to the reader, but only revealed through the recollections of others. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) takes place over the course of a single day and presents the thoughts of characters in a free-flowing way meant to mimic actual consciousness. This description of her characters's “inner life” continued with To the Lighthouse (1927), and both novels earned Woolf the esteem of critics and readers. These novels, despite being experimental in style, directly reflect the author's own literate and well-heeled upbringing in their characters and settings.

Circumventing Censorship in Orlando Woolf drew upon her own relationships in Orlando (1928) a book characterized by Woolf as a biography but by most readers as a novel. The main character, who does not grow old and changes genders, is directly inspired by the female author Vita Sackville-West, a bisexual member of the Bloomsbury Group with whom Woolf had an intimate relationship. Many scholars and critics have viewed the main character's gender-switching as a clever device meant to suggest—but not directly depict—a lesbian relationship, since such topics were the subject of censorship at the time.

Depression and Suicide Woolf fought an ongoing battle against depression for most of her life. After her mother's death in 1895, she had a nervous breakdown, the first of four periods of depression and emotional trauma. Woolf had a second breakdown nine years later when her father died. A third episode of mental illness began early in 1912, became acute in September of 1913 (when she attempted suicide), and lasted into 1916.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Woolf's famous contemporaries include:

Henry James (1843–1916): James was an American-born novelist who became a British citizen and was highly influential in both British and American literary circles.

Sigmund Freud (1858–1939): Freud was an Austrian psychologist who founded the school of psychoanalysis and pioneered theories of the unconscious mind.

James Joyce (1882–1941): Joyce was an Irish writer who is widely considered one of the literary giants of the twentieth century, particularly because of his master-work, Ulysses.

Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923): Mansfield was a prominent New Zealand modernist short-fiction writer.

T. S. Eliot (1888–1965): Eliot was an American-born poet and dramatist who became a British citizen at the age of thirty-nine. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

William Faulkner (1897–1962): Faulkner was an American novelist widely regarded as one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986): De Beauvoir was a French author and philosopher best known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, an analysis of women's oppression and one of the most important texts of modern feminism.

In 1941 Woolf published her last novel, Between the Acts. She suffered another emotional breakdown in February of 1941, likely brought on by the escalation of World War II. After the horror of World War I, many people felt there could not possibly be another conflict of that type in Europe. That Europe could descend into violence once again so soon after World War I shocked and saddened Woolf deeply. Fearing that she lacked the stamina needed to weather further bouts of depression, Woolf drowned herself in a pond near Monks House, the Woolfs' home in Sussex, on March 28, 1941.

Works in Literary Context

Stream of Consciousness Woolf grew up in an environment rich in Victorian literary influences. Although she lacked the formal education afforded to men of her day, Woolf acquired extensive knowledge of the classics and English literature in the family's enormous home library. In addition, many influential literary figures visited her childhood house, including George Eliot, Henry James, George Lewes, Julia Cameron, and James Lowell, who was named Woolf's godfather. Proximity to influential writers of her day continued into her adulthood with the formation of the Bloomsbury group and creation of the Hogarth Press. With the freedom to create and publish her own work, Woolf largely avoided traditional narrative structures or plots. Her novels are noted for their subjective exploration of character and theme and their poetic prose. Woolf is chiefly renowned as an innovative novelist and in particular for her contribution to the development of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.

The stream-of-consciousness technique is found in much of Woolf's fiction. This technique, which emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is meant to reflect the way in which a character's thoughts flow freely, often without formal sentence structure or punctuation. Famous writers that popularized this technique included James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Examples of Woolf's stream-of-consciousness style can be found in many of her works but are especially notable in Mrs. Dalloway (1925).

Writing for “the Common Reader” Woolf also wrote book reviews, biographical and autobiographical sketches, social and literary criticism, personal essays, and commemorative articles treating a wide range of topics. Her essays are commended for their perceptive observations on nearly the entire range of English literature, as well as many social and political concerns of the early twentieth century. She maintained that the purpose of writing an essay was to give pleasure to the reader, and she endeavored to do this with witty, supple prose, apt literary and cultural references, and a wide range of subjects. Aiming to identify closely with her audience, she adopted a persona she termed “the common reader”: an intelligent, educated person with the will and inclination to be challenged by what he or she reads.

Influence Because of her importance as an innovator in the modern novel form, and as a commentator on nearly the entire range of English literature and much European literature, Woolf's life and works have been the focus of extensive study. In addition to occupying the attention of scholars, Woolf has inspired experimental works in a variety of artistic genres including author Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Hours (1998), in which Woolf appears as a character, and playwright Edward Albee's work Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) among many others.

Works in Critical Context

The writings of Virginia Woolf have always been admired by discriminating readers, but her work has suffered, as has that of many other major authors, periods of neglect by the literary establishment. She was, as she herself put it, always a hare a long way ahead of “those hounds my critics.” It was difficult to find copies of her books during the 1950s and 1960s, and they were rarely included on syllabi for literature classes. The extensive and serious treatment given Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse in Erich Auerbach's much-esteemed book Mimesis (translated into English in 1953), presaged and perhaps helped cause the turnaround.

The advantages of the recent critical and popular attention are manifold. Her novels are now in print again, in a variety of editions, often with introductions in homage by today's writers. They have been translated into more than fifty languages. Her essays, reviews, and short stories have been collected. And then there is the vast delight of the many volumes of letters and diaries, all scrupulously edited, copiously footnoted, and indexed. Even her reading notes are being published.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Woolf's fiction reveals an ongoing concern with subjective exploration of character and incident, which she accomplishes with frequent use of a stream-of-consciousness narrative style. Here are some other works that are constructed with a stream-of-consciousness style:

Ulysses (1922), a novel by James Joyce. This work, widely considered to be one of the most important works of modern literature, chronicles its main character's passage through Dublin during an ordinary day.

Steppenwolf (1927), a novel by Hermann Hesse. This work explores the duality of human nature as exemplified by the inner and outer struggles of its main character.

As I Lay Dying (1930), a novel by William Faulkner. This work tells the story of the death of Addie Bundren from the point of view of fifteen different narrators.

On the Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. This highly autobiographical work is based on the author's recollections of spontaneous road trips across mid-twentieth-century America.

Mrs. Dalloway When Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, Woolf received the immediate critical attention her earlier fiction failed to find. In a review for the New YorkTimes, John W. Crawford wrote that, despite the inventiveness of other contemporary authors, “Virginia Woolf is almost alone … in the intricate yet clear art of her composition.” Edwin Muir, in Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature, compares the novel favorably to her earlier Night and Day, stating, “[I]t is infinitely more subtle in its means, and it has on all its pages, as Night and Day had not, the glow of an indisputable artistic triumph.”

To the Lighthouse The critical success Woolf achieved with Mrs. Dalloway raised expectations for the 1927 release of her next novel, To the Lighthouse. Critical opinion of the book was mixed, with many noting the author's obvious skill at turning a phrase and offering credit for the stylistic and structural difficulties she tackled with the work. Edwin Muir, in a review for Nation and Atheneum, states that the book is “difficult to judge” because of this, and he credits Woolf as “a writer of profound imagination.” Muir concedes, “Yet as a whole, though showing an advance on many sides, it produces a less congruous and powerful effect than Mrs. Dalloway.” In his review for the New York Times, Louis Kronenberger agrees: “It is inferior to Mrs. Dalloway in the degree to which its aims are achieved; it is superior in the magnitude of the aims themselves.” Orlo Williams, in a review for the Monthly Criterion, offers praise wrapped in criticism: “Her mastery increases with each book, but, I fear, it will always fall short of her vision.” Despite these reviews, modern scholars have devoted much attention to the novel as one of Woolf's most complex and masterful works.

Responses to Literature

  1. Because Woolf and her husband operated a press, she was free to write without worrying about rejection by a publisher. In today's world, the Internet allows nearly anyone to publish their views easily and cheaply. Does the Internet provide the same kind of freedom that Woolf enjoyed as a writer? Are there differences in the way that online writers make use of their freedom? Do readers today approach online writings differently than they approach printed texts?
  2. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf presents the suicidal character of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked World War I veteran. Veterans of World War I commonly exhibited mental health problems, but they were largely misunderstood by doctors. Today, someone like Septimus Smith would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Using your library and the Internet, research the history of medical treatment for post-combat mental illnesses. Write an essay summarizing your findings.
  3. Woolf famously argued in her long essay A Room of One's Own that in order for women to succeed as writers of fiction, they needed to have a reliablemeans of income and a private space in which to work. Why do you think having “a room of one's own” would be important for women writers of the early twentieth century? In your opinion, are these still important factors for allowing women to succeed as writers? Why or why not? Do these same prerequisites also apply for male writers? Why or why not?
  4. Woolf frequently employed a stream-of-consciousness narrative style to explore the inner lives of her characters. Write a short story or essay using the stream-of-consciousness style.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1979.

Fleishman, Avrom. Virginia Woolf: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Freedman, Ralph, ed. Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Gaither, Mary. “A Short History of the Press,” in A Checklist of the Hogarth Press, by J. Howard Woolmer. Andes, N.Y.: Woolmer / Brotherson, 1976.

Goldman, Mark. The Reader's Art: Virginia Woolf as Literary Critic. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

Gorsky, Suan Rubinow. Virginia Woolf. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Kirkpatrick, B. J. A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Latham, Jacqueline E. M., ed. Critics on Virginia Woolf. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.

Leaska, Mitchell A. The Novels of Virginia Woolf: From Beginning to End. New York: John Jay Press, 1977.

Lehmann, John. Virginia Woolf and Her World. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Noble, Joan Russell, ed. Recollections of Virginia Woolf by Her Contemporaries. New York: Morrow, 1972.

Spater, George and Ian Parsons. A Marriage of True Minds. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Web Sites

Crawford, John W. “The Perfect Hostess (review of Mrs. Dalloway.” New York Times (May 10, 1925). Reprinted on the New York Times Web site at http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/08/reviews/woolf-dalloway.html. Accessed May 27, 2008.

Kronenberger, Louis. “Virginia Woolf Explores an English Country Home (review of To the Lighthouse.” New York Times, May 8, 1927. Reprinted on the New York Times Web site at http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/08/reviews/woolf-lighthouse.html. Accessed May 27, 2008.

University of Alabama in Huntsville Web site. Contemporary Reviews of To the Lighthouse. Retrieved May 27, 2008 from http://www.uah.edu/woolf/lighthousecontemprev.html.

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