"So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for the ages or only for hours, nobody can say." So wrote Virginia Woolf in her essay "A Room of One's Own" (1929), contemplating the potential of immortality granted to all writers through their work. Woolf herself became one of the most indelible authors of the early 20th century, a pioneer of Modernism who, through her stories, essays, and lifetime's worth of letters, stretched the boundaries of the English language to new horizons.
Virginia Woolf: Biography
Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen, is considered one of the most important modernist authors of the 20th-century. Today Woolf is well-known for pioneering the stream of consciousness approach, but in her own time, her narrative approach was unconventional. She embraced nonlinear timelines and a holistic perspective that varied drastically from the Victorian literary norms of the time.
In addition to her fiction, Woolf wrote essays on the politics of power, women's experience, social change, and artistic theory. She was a member of the artistic and intellectual Bloomsbury Group and founded Hogarth Press with her husband. Woolf wrote nine books in her lifetime, as well as essays, a biography, short fiction pieces, a drama, diaries, journals, and letters.
Woolf was born to an affluent English family in 1882. Her mother, Julia Stephen, was famous for being a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, was one of the most important British portraitists of the 19th century. Julia Stephen later wrote a book, Notes from Sick Rooms, detailing her experience as a nurse, and a collection of children's stories, which she read to her children. Woolf's father Leslie Stephen was an English author, biographer, critic, historian, and mountaineer.
Both Woolf's mother and father had been married and widowed before, so Woolf had four half-siblings. After they married for the second time, Woolf's parents had four children: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian. Woolf and her seven siblings all lived together under one roof, but the Stephen children were closer to one another than to their older half-siblings.
Although Vanessa acted as a mother figure to Virginia, the two were artistic rivals, Vanessa being a painter and Virginia a writer. In 1891, Vanessa and Thoby started the Hyde Park Gate News, a newspaper detailing the life of the Stephens family, but young Virginia soon became the main contributor and ran the paper until 1895 when their mother died.
Virginia Woolf's family tree, pixabay.com
The Stephen children enjoyed a mostly happy, upper-middle-class childhood, migrating every year from their London home at 22 Hyde Park Gate to their summer home at Talland House in Cornwall. The children loved their time at Cornwall, as it signified freedom and adventure to them. Woolf and her siblings were educated by her parents in their London home, where they had open access to their father's private library.
Woolf spent much of her free time reading the books in her father's collection. Both of Woolf's parents were traditional in the sense that they condemned formal education for women. However, writing was considered a respectable profession for women, and her father was a writer himself, so he encouraged Woolf's abilities.
Although Virginia and Vanessa were not allowed to continue their education, the Stephen boys went to Cambridge. Thoby introduced his literary and artistic college friends to his sisters, eventually leading to the formation of the Bloomsbury Group.
The easy-going nature of Woolf's life abruptly changed after her mother's death in 1895. Woolf was only 13, but losing her mother caused her to sink into a state of depression, triggering a nervous breakdown. Her mental state only worsened when her half-sister and her father died within 7 years of her mother.
In 1904, Woolf attempted suicide for the first time by jumping out of a window. She survived, Vanessa moved the family out of their childhood home to the Bloomsbury section of London, and Woolf found a way to cope with her depression through writing.
At Bloomsbury, the Stephen siblings hosted weekly gatherings of radical young thinkers. Following Thoby's death and Vanessa's engagement to English art critic Clive Bell, the group was transformed into the Bloomsbury Group, where artists and literary thinkers alike met to discuss their works and ideas.
Books in Woolf's father's private library, pixabay.com
The intellectuals and creatives at the Bloomsbury Group challenged Woolf to publicly express herself through her writing. In 1908, Woolf began writing anonymous reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and started her first novel, which she called Melymbrosia. When Leonard Woolf, whom Woolf had met at a dinner in 1904, returned from the colonial service that had sent him out East, he proposed to Woolf and the two married in 1912.
In 1913, Woolf completely revised Melymbrosia, changing the title to The Voyage Out. The publication of The Voyage Out was delayed until 1915, after Woolf attempted suicide in September 1913. Following her recovery, Woolf was able to keep her depression mostly at bay for years.
In 1917, Woolf and her husband founded the Hogarth Press, a printing press that they themselves used frequently to publish their own works. Woolf went on the publish Night and Day (1919), Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando: A Biography (1928), The Waves (1931), and The Years (1937). Her final novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously in 1941. She also wrote nonfiction essays on the oppression of women in her society, literary history, social justice, and other topics.
In 1922, Woolf was courted by the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West, and although both were married to men, they began a sexual relationship that peaked between 1925 and 1928. Sackville-West was also a writer and used Hogarth Press to publish her works, which saved the Woolfs' business from bankruptcy.
During their lifetimes, Sackville-West was considered the more famous writer, although now Woolf is more renowned. Woolf based one of her greatest works, Orlando, off of Sackville-West. Sackville-West's son called it, "the most charming love letter in literature," saying,
The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her."¹
Their romantic relationship fizzled out in the 1930s, but the two remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941.
At a time when homosexual relationships were typically viewed as taboo, Woolf and Sackville-West didn't hide their relationship and even with the lesbian connotations, Woolf's Orlando and A Room of One's Own sold very well. What do you make of this? What effect, if any, do you think being surrounded by radical thinkers in the Bloomsbury Group had on Woolf's relationships?
Virginia Woolf: Death
Woolf had struggled with depression since the death of her mother in May of 1895. Just as she was coming out of the depressive episode caused by her mother's death, the successive losses of her half-sister Stella Duckworth in 1897 and her father in 1904 precipitated a nervous breakdown.
Woolf attempted suicide for the first time when she was 22 by jumping out of a window, but fortunately the window wasn't high enough off the ground to do any serious damage. Her sister, Vanessa, took over motherly roles of caring for Woolf and moved the family to London in the bohemian Bloomsbury section.
Depression and what is now thought to be a bipolar disorder plagued Woolf for the majority of her life. From 1910 to 1913 she was hospitalized several times for minor suicide attempts, having to stay intermittently at Burley House, a private institution for women with nervous disorders, on "rest cure therapy."
In September of 1913, Woolf's manic-depressive thoughts that she was unloved by her siblings and husband, as well as a failure, caused her to attempt suicide once more, this time very seriously. She took 100g of barbital, a sedative used for central nervous system depression. She would have died if her stomach hadn't been pumped. It took until August of 1914 for Woolf to be considered fully recovered. She spent much of her life looking for a cure for her mental health issues, and finally started to feel better in the summer of 1914.
In 1940, her mental health deteriorated once again due to several factors. For one, World War II was a constant stress on Woolf's mental state. She struggled to write when writing seemed to insignificant due to the war. As writing was the chief factor in staving off Woolf's depressive episodes, not being able to write due to feeling its futility in the face of WWII was disastrous to her mental health and made her feel like a failure.
Woolf's family's London homes were destroyed during the Blitz that year. Her biography of Roger Fry didn't receive the praise she had anticipated and finishing Between the Acts left her exhausted and weak. On March 28, 1941, Woolf decided to end her life. She filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse near her home. Her body was not found until April 18. Her final novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously later that year.
How does Woolf's treatment of mental health differ from other authors who wrote about similar topics?
Virginia Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself in a river, pixabay
Virginia Woolf: Famous Works
Let's have a look at some of the famous works of Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
This novel is broken into three different parts. The first part of the novel focuses on Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, who are at their summer house with their eight children and several guests just before the start of World War I. The youngest of the Ramsay children asks if they can see the lighthouse the following day.
Mrs. Ramsay agrees, but Mr. Ramsay says no. Mr. Ramsay is not well-liked by his children and tension has separated him and his wife emotionally. Lily, one of the guests and an unmarried painter, struggles to complete a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay that she was commissioned to do. Following an ambivalent dinner party where Mr. Ramsay yells at a guest for asking for more soup, everyone in the room seems to connect with one another.
Mrs. Ramsay hopes there will be a permanent connection. In the second part of the book, "Time Passes," 10 years have gone by since the family has gone to the summer house. Mrs. Ramsay along with two of the children have died. The housekeeper, Mrs. McNab, goes back to the house to tidy it up when she hears the remaining family members will be returning.
In the last part of the book, "The Lighthouse," Mr. Ramsay takes his reluctant children out to see the lighthouse. Although they are annoyed by him, they feel a new connection to him. Lily finally finishes her painting. The novel's themes include the complexity of human relationships, the passage of time, and subjectivity.
Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway tells the story of a day in the life of fictional London socialite Mrs. Dalloway. Essentially plotless, the novel relies more on the character's consciousness to control any action in the story. The narration switches from Mrs. Dalloway as she prepares for a party, to that of Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of World War I who is experiencing shell shock (now known as PTSD).
Mrs. Dalloway gets ready for the party, coming face to face with an old flame, and questioning if she's really happy or not. When her husband brings her flowers home, he is unable to tell her that he loves her. Mrs. Dalloway reflects on how she and her husband are isolated from one another.
Septimus, meanwhile, is with his Italian-born wife and getting ready to see a psychiatrist to talk about his condition. The psychiatrist wants to have him taken away to an institution, so Septimus jumps out a window and impales himself on the fence below.
Back at the party, Mrs. Dalloway reflects on how many of her contemporaries and friends are actually happy. When she hears about Septimus's suicide, she respects him for choosing death over compromising his happiness, integrity, and soul. She returns to the party. The novel's themes include disillusionment with society, isolation, oppression, and fear of death.
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own
Woolf's most famous essay, A Room of One's Own, is a political piece that argues for female equality and freedom of expression. In this essay, Woolf expands on ideas that she presented in two separate speeches at two women's colleges in 1928.
Woolf's thesis is that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Woolf comments on women's lack of free expression using the metaphor of a fish. Women have thoughts and can cast their lines, but they're not allowed to express those thoughts, so the ideas (fish) get away.
Throughout her essay, Woolf argues that if women were given the same opportunities as men, especially in literary circles, they would produce just as much literature as men do. She says that women have been kept out of education throughout history, limiting their freedom of thought and ability to advance socially.
Woolf concludes the essay by telling women that they need to take up the tradition of the female writer and pass it on to their daughters. Woolf's social activism, especially for women's rights, was unconventional during her time and it has proved to be highly influential. A Room of One's Own is now one of the most widely-read essays in history.
Virginia Woolf Quotes
I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
A Room of One's Own is often viewed as Woolf's feminist critique of female oppression in a patriarchal society by keeping women trapped in subordinate roles. This quote reflects that sentiment well, arguing that women have never gotten the recognition or respect they deserve in their writing. Although Woolf was given an education (albeit informal) and her writing was encouraged, the same could not be said for all women in the early to mid-20th century.
Woolf had an advantage because her father was a writer and actively encouraged her writing. However, other women throughout history were deterred from writing, and even when they did write, they would not publish the work under their own name for fear of not being taken seriously. Women had far fewer opportunities than men, and their work was generally not as well-respected.
Many women either published under a male pseudonym (e.g., Charlotte Brontë under the name Curer Bell) or published anonymously. Woolf herself had some experience with anonymity, as all of her reviews for the Times Literary Supplement had to be anonymous, a tradition that held until 1974. In this quote, Woolf essentially argues that women contribute much more to society and literature than they are given credit for.
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
Again, Woolf equates education with freedom. With her vibrant literary education at home, her parents taught her to read and write and gave her access to a plethora of books. Woolf used those skills to get through life: she turned to reading to combat her depression, owned a successful printing business with her husband, published novels and essays, and met with other literary geniuses.
Her childhood education allowed Woolf to do all these things as a woman. Instead of being a housewife and a mother, Woolf had the education she needed to thrive in spheres that women were traditionally kept from. Her education gave her the freedom to break free of societal constructs that she found limiting.
In many ways, this sense of freedom links to the principles of modern feminism, in that women have the same capacity and potential for success as men but have been systematically held back from being able to achieve it.
Virginia Woolf - Key takeaways
- Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 to an upper-middle-class English family.
- Her siblings were deeply influential to her: sister Vanessa was an artist who challenged Virginia creatively; her brother Thoby introduced her to his college friends and founded the Bloomsbury Group; Adrian lived with Virginia after Thoby died; and Vanessa got engaged.
- Virginia Woolf's most famous works include Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando.
- Woolf married Leonard Woolf and the two founded Hogarth Press together.
- Woolf struggled with depression all her life and eventually killed herself in 1941, after putting rocks in her pockets and walking into the river Ouse.