Acknowledged along with James Joyce as one of the foremost Modernist writers, and by Simone de Beauvoir as one of the few female writers to have explored what she referred to as “the given” – the assumptions made about what a woman ‘is’ – Virginia Woolf is best-remembered today for a handful of her most prominent novels, but during her lifetime was also a noted essayist and critic.
She was born in London on the 25th of January 1882, into an upper middle class family with strong literary and artistic connections. Both her parents had been left widowed with children by their previous spouses, and as a result Virginia (who was born Adeline Virginia Stephen) grew up with four older half-siblings as well as her three full siblings. In adulthood she would reveal that she had been sexually abused by her older half-brothers.
Although her brothers were formally educated outside the home, including tertiary education at Cambridge, Virginia and her sisters were educated at home, a fact which Woolf always resented although she certainly made the best of the education with which she was provided.
Her mother passed away in 1895, and her half-sister Stella two years later. The stress of these losses were the catalyst for the first of several mental breakdowns. Once recovered she made her way to the Ladies Department of King’s College, London (where today she has a building named after her), and studied Ancient Greek, Latin, German, and history. Her time at King’s College also expanded her already-wide circle of intellectual acquaintances and brought her into contact with a number of prominent figures in the women’s education movement.
In 1904 her father died, precipitating a second mental breakdown, this one severe enough to require a brief period of institutionalisation. 1910, 1912, and 1913 would all see brief returns to Burley House in Twickenham, “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” In between, however, she became part of the Bloomsbury Group, the influential group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists who lived, worked, or studied together in London during the first half of the 20th century. This group included such figures as the economist John Maynard Keynes, the writer E. M. Forster, the poet Rupert Brooke (although he died en route to Gallipoli in 1915) – and the political theorist Leonard Woolf.
Although Leonard was Jewish (and, based on her writing, Virginia never entirely lost her distaste for Jews as a group), they fell deeply in love. Years later, in 1937, Woolf would write in her diary about the continued pleasure of their love-making and how unbearable she found separation. This did not prevent the couple from engaging in at least sporadic experiments with the sexual liberalism of the Bloomsbury Group, and Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, which evolved from this, would provide inspiration for one of her most celebrated works, Orlando (1928).
Repeated bouts of mental illness may have played havoc with Woolf’s social life, but it proved no great impediment to her intellectual career: she began writing professionally in 1900 and her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915. Along with other Modernist writers she experimented with stream of consciousness, and spent a great deal of time exploring the psychological and emotional motives of her characters. She excelled in writing lyrical prose, in which seemingly commonplace scenes and events are brought vividly to life and strung together to create something extraordinary.
Of her non-fiction work the best-known today is A Room of One’s Own, which is based on a series of lectures Woolf delivered at two women’s colleges (Newnham and Girton) in late 1928. This highlighted the particular challenges faced by women writers: because their work is taken less seriously than that of their male counterparts women are seldom provided with the time, the space, or the financial resources to enable them to engage seriously and for a sustained period of time in the act of writing. As a result, there are far fewer successful women writers than there are male writers, and this lack of success leads to a lack of commercial reward, which limits the amount of support the women intellectuals of previous generations can provide to subsequent generations through college endowments and the like. Although it can be argued that the situation today is vastly improved, A Room of One’s Own remains a worthwhile read.
In 1941, in spite of Leonard’s unwavering support, Woolf experienced another period of mental illness. Afraid that this time she would not recover, on the 28th of March she committed suicide by filling the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. It took until the 18th of April for her body to be recovered. Leonard had her cremated and laid her remains to rest under an elm tree in their garden.
Starting-points with Virginia Woolf: Woolf’s best-known novels, in order of publication, are
Mrs Dalloway (1925)
To The Lighthouse (1927)
The Waves (1931)
Her best-known essay is A Room Of One’s Own (1929)