Woolf, Virginia (1882–1941)

views updated

Woolf, Virginia (1882–1941)

Major 20th-century British novelist who, besides being one of the chief architects of the modern novel, was a pioneer in the use of the literary technique of stream-of-consciousness . Name variations: Virginia Stephen. Born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in Kensington, London; drowned herself in the River Ouse near Monk's House in Rodmell on March 28, 1941, at age 59; daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen (an editor, critic, historian) and Julia (Jackson Duckworth) Stephen; educated mostly by home tutoring; later took Greek and history classes at King's College, London, prior to studying with Janet Case, graduate of Girton College; married Leonard Woolf (a writer, publisher, and editor), on August 10, 1912; no children.

Grew up in and around London, in low end of upper-middle-class Victorian household, where she remained throughout her life, in addition to regular stays at a country retreat; mother died when she was 13; oldest half-sister and mother-substitute, Stella Duckworth, died two years later; experienced the first serious signs of mental illness that shadowed and, ultimately, claimed her life; in adolescence, authored the Hyde Park Gate News; began to keep a diary, which she sustained during various periods throughout her life (1897); had second breakdown and made first suicide attempt (1904), following her father's death by cancer; became a part of the Bloomsbury group of Cambridge intellectuals and published her first article in The Guardian (1904); after establishing a career in writing through reviews and criticism, embarked on a remarkable literary career that would see her become a novelist of the first order; published her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); suffered two more breakdowns (1910, 1913), resulting in extended "rest cures" and a second suicide attempt (1913); besides activity in the women's suffrage movement, enrolled in Women's Co-operative Guild (1915); established Hogarth House with Leonard Woolf, publishing the work of renowned writers like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot in addition to their own writing (1917); active in the "1917 Club," a resurgence of Bloomsbury intellectuals and antiwar socialists; saw the publication of Hogarth Press' first full-length novel, Woolf's Jacob's Room (1922); published Orlando—based on love affair with Vita Sackville-West—which marked an upward turn in her commercial and critical success (1928); gave famous lectures on "Women and Fiction" at Girton and Newnham Colleges (1928) which became the basis for that most original of feminist tracts, A Room of One's Own; continued writing and publishing throughout middle age, her literary accomplishments alternating with mental breakdowns.

Selected works:

The Voyage Out (Duckworth, 1915); The Mark on the Wall (Hogarth, 1917); Kew Gardens (Hogarth, 1919); Night and Day (Duckworth, 1919); Monday or Tuesday (Hogarth, 1921); Jacob's Room (Hogarth, 1922); Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (Hogarth, 1924); The Common Reader (Hogarth, 1925); Mrs. Dalloway (Hogarth, 1925); To the Lighthouse (Hogarth, 1927); Orlando: A Biography (Hogarth, 1928); A Room of One's Own (Hogarth, 1929); The Waves (Hogarth, 1931); Letter to a Young Poet (Hogarth, 1932); The Common Reader: Second Series (Hogarth, 1932); Flush: A Biography (Hogarth, 1933); Walter Sickert: A Conversation (Hogarth, 1934); The Years (Hogarth, 1937); Three Guineas (Hogarth, 1938); Roger Fry: A Biography (Hogarth, 1940); Between the Acts (Hogarth, 1941); A Writer's Diary (ed. by Leonard Woolf, Hogarth, 1953).

Posthumous publications:

(ed. by Leonard Woolf) A Writer's Diary (Hogarth, 1953); The Death of the Moth and other Essays (Hogarth, 1942); A Haunted House and other Short Stories (Hogarth, 1943); The Moment and Other Essays (Hogarth, 1947); The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays (Hogarth, 1950); Granite and Rainbow (Hogarth, 1958); Contemporary Writers (Hogarth, 1965); Collected Essays (Hogarth, 4 vols., 1966–67); (ed. by Leonard Woolf and James Strachey) Virginia Woolf & Lytton Strachey: Letters (Hogarth & Chatto & Windus, 1956).

Unquestionably, Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf was born and bred to be a writer. No angel in her middle-class household, she resisted the Victorian ideal of womanhood that sent her mother and older sister prematurely to their graves. As with all artists, separating the life from the work, the personal demons from the creative genius, requires delicate critical surgery. One of the most important novelists of her century, man or woman, Virginia Woolf has also been one of the most intriguing, particularly to biographers intent on explaining the origins of her lifelong "madness." Even more beguiling was the stable conventional life that gave rise to her singular literary genius, combined with the intermittent yet relentless bouts of mental illness.

She was born in 1882 at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London, to Julia Jackson Duckworth Stephen and Leslie Stephen. Both were widowers before coming to this second marriage with four children already between them: George, Gerald and Stella Duckworth from Julia's first marriage to Herbert Duckworth, and Laura Stephen from Leslie's marriage to Harriet Thackeray , daughter of the novelist. Julia and Leslie added four more children to the brood: Vanessa Bell (1879), Adeline Virginia (1882), Thoby (1880) and Adrian (1883). Well bred and literate, both parents had a hand in the children's schooling, particularly with that of the girls who were educated at home. Julia was more renowned for her compassion and charitable acts, although she is also credited with having published a manual on "how to manage sick rooms" in 1883, according to biographer-critic Lyndall Gordon. Leslie fancied himself a philosopher and man of the pen. Together, the parents apparently fashioned a strict but intellectually stimulating and nurturing atmosphere in a household that consisted of eight children, seven servants and a dog or two. This image of the stable Victorian home, as projected by biographer and nephew Quentin Bell, has been challenged by other biographers like Louise DeSalvo . Not only was Laura Stephen viewed as incorrigible, she was also confined to a separate part of the house from childhood onward, much like Charlotte Brontë 's "mad woman of the attic." Moreover, both Vanessa and Virginia suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their half-brother George Duckworth. Whether or not these aspects of her home life caused her lifelong instability can never be proved with certainty. But her childhood experience with sexual abuse and her sister's perceived insanity certainly had to figure into Virginia's compromised mental health.

Nevertheless, Woolf's giftedness became evident early on in the Hyde Park Gate News, which she "published" weekly from the age of nine until thirteen or so. She used such journalistic writing as a kind of apprenticeship throughout her youth and early adulthood, eventually developing into an adept and able professional writer of reviews and criticism. These efforts, besides providing her with a livelihood most uncommon for a Victorian woman, also formed a solid base for her most mature and original fictional writing. In addition to the juvenilia, her precocity was also evident in her insatiable appetite for books, particularly the English classics. Her father maintained an extensive library and took pride in his daughter's voracious literary appetite. According to Quentin Bell, Leslie also encouraged his daughter to be an independent thinker and to "learn to read with discrimination, to make unaffected judgments, never admiring because the world admires or blaming at the order of a critic." While she took his admonishment to heart with respect to her judgment of others, she suffered from severe hypersensitivity to any criticism of her own work.

Her mother's death when Virginia was 13 not only put an end to the Hyde Park Gate News, it also cast a pall over Leslie and the entire household and made the way for Virginia's first serious breakdown. It was at this time that her half-brother's unwanted sexual advances were occurring and, as expressed in her diary and paraphrased in the Bell biography, "spoilt her life before it had fairly begun." Stella Duckworth was compelled to replace her mother in the caregiving role, most particularly as it related to the demanding and inconsolable widower. Stella's untimely death within just two years of her mother's left the females of the house, Vanessa and Virginia, prey to Leslie's gloom and extravagant demand for sympathy, especially female sympathy.

In the absence of their mother's and older sister's protection, both Virginia and Vanessa became prey to half-brother George Duckworth's conventional notions regarding females and their "proper" introduction to society. He escorted them in public, saw to their wardrobe and manners, and in all ways acted the part of the ingratiating patron. Though uncomfortable, they had little choice in the matter. Their father's prolonged death by cancer in 1904 initially rendered them even more vulnerable to George's unwanted advances and involvement in their lives. After her father's death, Virginia experienced a second breakdown that saw her first suicide attempt during a stay at the home of a close friend, Violet Dickinson . Her mental illness ultimately extricated her from her London home, however, as well as from her half-brother's strangle-hold. Moreover, Virginia's intimacy with Violet Dickinson established a kind of template for the powerful female friendships and love affairs yet to come in Virginia's life, the most famous one being the love affair with Vita Sackville-West .

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

—Virginia Woolf

But her mental illness did not prevent her from publishing her very first article—a book review—in The Guardian (December 1904). By 1905, Virginia Woolf was a published writer with an established career. She had also moved, along with her sister and two brothers, from the Kensington home of their childhood to Bloomsbury, where the Bloomsbury group of Cambridge intellectuals was born. Younger brother Thoby enjoyed all the privileges of an upper-middle-class male, which, of course, meant that a Cambridge education was emphatically denied to Virginia and her sister. This prejudice aggrieved Woolf greatly, but she did manage to enjoy the benefits of the regular gathering of Thoby's fellow students at 46 Gordon Square, including such prominent people (to be) as John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and her future husband Leonard Woolf. Even more than the heady intellectual air of the Bloomsbury group, Virginia enjoyed being freed from the marriage market and social designs of George Duckworth and the narrow strictures of Victorian society.

By 1905, at age 23, Woolf was writing for The Times Literary Supplement, participating in her sister Vanessa's fine arts group, the "Friday Club," and instructing young working adults in the evening at Morley College. Besides taking classes in Greek and Latin at King's College, she was also tutored by Janet Case , one of the first graduates of Girton College, the institution for women that figures so prominently in Woolf's later work, the influential feminist tract A Room of One's Own (1929). Later, under Case's influence, she also took up the cause of women's suffrage, although Woolf always leaned more toward the aesthetic than to the political both in her life and in her work.

Tragedy once again struck the Stephen family when young Thoby contracted typhoid fever and died in November 1906. Shortly afterwards, Vanessa married Clive Bell and Virginia was compelled to move to a flat in Fitzroy Square with a younger, duller, and less companionable brother Adrian Stephen. But the Bloomsbury group was recycled and Virginia continued to sharpen her intellect as well as her writing techniques in the company of, among others, Lytton Strachey, critic, literary rival, and lifelong friend.

The year 1909 sounded the death knell of the Bloomsbury group, as Vanessa, an aspiring painter, and her husband Clive Bell grew more interested in the fine arts. A year later, Virginia succumbed to yet another breakdown and, under the care of a Dr. Savage, was advised to remove herself entirely from the hustle and bustle of London life and to undergo a rest "cure" at a home in Twickenham. Woolf was forced to submit to such treatments periodically, although the lack of intellectual and social stimulation they required seemed at times to engender rather than to relieve her anxiety. Famed feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides a scathing but telling fictional account of such cures in The Yellow Wallpaper, which is based on her own experience with the male medical model for the treatment of mental illness in women at that time. While it is unlikely that Woolf knew of Gilman's account, she certainly shared her experience of helplessness and victimization, resulting not only from the illness but also from patriarchal society's lack of understanding and questionable methods in dealing with it.

With age, the Stephen sisters grew more unconventional, no doubt to the dismay of Mr. "Victorian" Duckworth. By 1911, Vanessa's marriage to Clive Bell had disintegrated and she took up with an artist, Roger Fry, while Virginia shared a home at Brunswick Square with Adrian and several friends, including Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf. This form of communal living in the early 1900s had to be viewed as no less than outrageous. But, characteristically, Virginia balked at social prescriptions for women and revelled in the relaxed egalitarian atmosphere of her primarily male circle. She apparently agonized over whether or not she might find a suitable marriage partner, and experienced some jealousy of Vanessa's more successful love life. By 1912, after some initial misgivings, she agreed to marry Leonard Woolf, but not before experiencing another relapse that once again found her installed at the Twickenham home. The signs were always the same—depression, headaches, sleeplessness, inability to eat—and, worst of all, during her most severe bouts, she heard voices. After their marriage, Leonard kept a strict accounting of these periods of "illness," and in many ways he functioned as her caretaker—looking after her, consulting with specialists, removing her from town life and the activity which apparently promoted the anxiety that precipitated her periodic breakdowns. In consultation with her doctors, they agreed it would not be advisable for Virginia to have children, a choice which dismayed her.

They were married on August 10, 1912, at the St. Pancras Registry Office before honeymooning abroad, and thus began a reasonably successful social and intellectual, if not sexual, union: "Their love and admiration for each other," wrote Quentin Bell, "based as it was upon a real understanding of the good qualities in each, was strong enough to withstand the major and minor punishments of fortune, the common vexations of matrimony and, presently, the horrors of madness." Virginia had found her long-sought intellectual equal and worthy companion in Leonard. He was a well-educated man of the world, having lived and worked for the British government in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and was a writer himself. Ironically, however, he was the man behind the famous woman, as his writing never achieved the quality or stature of his wife's. But he was intelligent enough to recognize superior work, and demonstrated this with the co-founding (with Virginia) of Hogarth Press in 1915. In March of that same year, Virginia published her first novel, The Voyage Out, to enthusiastic reviews, including one by the well-respected writer E.M. Forster. But prior to both these achievements, she had already experienced her first post-marriage breakdown, during which she made another unsuccessful suicide attempt with an overdose of prescription medication. Another Dr. Savage restcure, followed by a period of recuperation at the home of George Duckworth, with the support of Leonard, close friend Ka Cox , and a team of nurses, finally resulted in her recovery. But as Quentin Bell notes, "It was one of the horrors of Virginia's madness that she was sane enough to recognise her own insanity." The madness persisted in shadowing her life. Woolf, the writer, captured this experience in one of her most mature novels, Mrs. Dalloway. Through the character of Septimus Smith, whose eerie descent into madness and suicide we witness, Woolf captures the machinations of her own demons which she could not kill off, either in or through her fiction.

Throughout most of their married life, Virginia and Leonard maintained a home in the city (Richmond, Bloomsbury) along with a country retreat (Asham, Monk's House). Virginia nurtured fond memories of the Talland House of her childhood, the beach home in St. Ives that is thought to be the basis for the Ramsey resort in one of her most wellknown novels, To the Lighthouse. Although she could not recapture the carefreeness associated with those early summers, retaining a country home relieved her from the stresses of her social and professional life. It also allowed her to enjoy the arduous rambling walks she so enjoyed, as did her father and grandfather before her; Lyndall Gordon points up the uncanny parallel between her physical and mental exertions: "As though she were tracking a metaphor for her future work, she followed natural paths which ignored artificial boundaries." Indeed, her novels' success depended "on their conclusions where she would justify the mind's keen ramble by some astonishing find." In her fiction, too, not inclined to stay on the welltrod conventional path, Virginia Woolf insisted on exploring the intricate streams of the mind and on investigating the different levels of reality. Content and form merge harmoniously as her best work—Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves—succeeds in capturing these streams and levels simultaneously and brilliantly. In this mature work, Quentin Bell points out, we also see her conscious efforts to make literature "radial" rather than "linear." In a 1919 essay entitled "Modern Fiction," Woolf, the selfconscious critic as well as the creative writer, contended that "true knowledge resides in the interior of the narrator and her subject, not in the external details of life." In line with the shift to a modern consciousness that occurred in the early 20th century, Virginia Woolf's writing reflects this emphasis on the inner truth and self. According to Quentin Bell, Woolf saw herself and others like her as making major aesthetic breakthroughs. Hers is a startling achievement, as she helped to refashion the novel, thus reflecting the significant epistemological developments of her era.

From 1915 until 1931, Woolf wrote prolifically and produced some of the major work of her career. Quentin Bell tells us that she fell into a pattern, in which an intense and serious-minded effort was invariably followed by a lighter, less taxing one. For example, To the Lighthouse was succeeded by Orlando, which was written as a lark and a kind of love letter to Vita Sackville-West. In the book Orlando, the protagonist who is inexplicably transformed into a woman, also mysteriously traverses several centuries. During the course of his/her astonishing journey, Orlando learns that, essentially, a woman is no different from a man save as society views and treats her. The ambiguity of his/her sexual identity also casts the issue of same-sex love in an unconventional but more accepting light, that is, it is not one's sex that we love but one's inner person and gender is an accidental rather than a defining aspect of one's self. In her 1994 film adaptation of Orlando, Sally Potter renders Woolf's poignant playfulness in strikingly visual terms. The film's selfconsciousness—reflected in Orlando's relationship with the camera—parallels the meta-narrative at work in Woolf's frisky yet earnest novel.

But despite her literary achievement and the recognition it engendered, Virginia Woolf could not escape the monster of madness that persisted in haunting her. In a diary entry of 1926, she likened its relentless attacks to a "fin rising on a wide blank sea." Orlando (1928) marked a turning point in her career, one that saw her reputation cinched and her bank account assured. Moreover, loath to accept awards or honorary degrees, she nevertheless agreed that same year to accept a French prize, the Femina Vie Heureuse, and the small sum it brought. But her formidable accomplishments failed to subdue the "fin" rising out of the darkness. Having lived through one war, during the 1930s she watched as the world took on Hitler and the fascist threat, dismayed that violence and military might were necessary to subdue them. She disapproved of her husband's aggressive stance and disagreed with her nephew Julian Bell's decision in 1937 to join the crusade against Francisco Franco in Spain. His death seemed unnecessary and no less acceptable for his idealism. The decade of the 1930s saw the death of other good friends as well, like Lytton Strachey, Janet Case, and her sister's lover, Roger Fry. In addition to these inestimable losses, Woolf's predisposition to gloom was also exacerbated by the movement toward leftist politics in literature, which had to be anathema to Woolf and her band of aesthetes. But the overriding factor in her despondency during this period emanated from the onslaught of increasingly hostile criticism of her work, particularly that of Wyndham Lewis.

Virginia and Leonard made a suicide pact, according to Quentin Bell, in the event that Hitler was successful. After all, Leonard was a Jew and the prospects of a Nazi takeover were frightening. That agreement obviously proved unnecessary, and the two went on as usual, Virginia with her writing (Three Guineas, an antiwar novel, and The Years), and Leonard with his editorship as well as with the ever-expanding Hogarth Press. But Virginia's "madness" again resurfaced and this time she felt totally hopeless and incapable of wrestling with it. She wrote her last words, a touching farewell to her best friend and husband, placed some stones in her pockets and walked into the River Ouse.

Known for her acute sensitivity to criticism and occasional professional jealousies, Virginia Woolf is better remembered, indeed, revered, for her daring in art and for her long battle against the inexplicable illness that claimed the woman and stole one of the century's finest and most extraordinary writers. It remains ironic that Virginia Woolf's most memorable words are contained in a feminist tract that has influenced generations of feminists, despite having been penned by a writer whose work was characteristically apolitical.


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

DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1989.

Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf; A Writer's Life. NY: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Mepham, John. Criticism in Focus: Virginia Woolf. NY: St. Martin's, 1992.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957.

suggested reading:

King, James. Virginia Woolf. NY: Norton, 1995.

Leaska, Mitchell. Granite and Rainbow: The Life of Virginia Woolf. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Nicholson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf: A Penguin Life. NY: Viking, 2000.


The Berg Collection; the New York Public Library; The Monk's House papers at the University of Sussex; and the Charleston papers at King's College, Cambridge.

related media:

Orlando (93 min. film), starring Tilda Swinton , Billy Zane, and Lothaire Bluteau, with Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I , directed by Sally Potter, 1994.

A Room of One's Own (play), adapted by Patrick Garland, starred Eileen Atkins , and opened off-Broadway in New York in March 1991 (also first aired on PBS "Masterpiece Theater," in 1992).

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (film), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone , and Rupert Graves, 1998.

Vita & Virginia (play based on the letters of Woolf and Sackville-West), written by Eileen Atkins, starred Vanessa Redgrave and Atkins, directed by Zoe Caldwell , opened off-Broadway at Union Square Theater in December 1994.

Kathleen A.Waites Lamm , Professor of English and Women's Studies, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

About this article

Woolf, Virginia (1882–1941)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article