Adeline Virginia Woolf (/wʊlf/;née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer.
She is considered one of the foremost modernists authors of the 20th-century and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device. Born in an affluent household in Kensington, London, she attended the Ladies’ Department of King’s College and was acquainted with the early reformers of women’s higher education.
Having been home-schooled for the most part of her childhood, mostly in English classics and Victorian literature, Woolf began writing professionally in 1900. During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals. She published her first novel titled The Voyage Out in 1915, through the Hogarth Press, a publishing house that she established with her husband, Leonard Woolf. Her best-known works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its 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”, an aspect of her writing that was unheralded earlier. Her works are widely read all over the world and have been translated into more than fifty languages. She suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life and took her own life by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.
Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, London. Her parents were Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen and Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904). Julia Stephen was born in British India to Dr John and Maria Pattle Jackson. Julia was the niece of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and first cousin of the temperance leader Lady Henry Somerset. Julia moved to England with her mother, where she modelled for Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones. Julia named her daughter after the Pattle family: Adeline after Lady Henry’s sister, Adeline Marie Russell, Duchess of Bedford; and Virginia, the name of yet another sister of Lady Henry’s (who died young), but also of their mother, Julia’s aunt.
Woolf was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Julia had three children from her first marriage to Herbert Duckworth: George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth. Leslie had previously been married to Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, and they had one daughter: Laura Makepeace Stephen, who was diagnosed as being developementally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalised in 1891.Julia and Leslie had four children together: Vanessa Stephen (later known as Vanessa Bell) (1879), Thoby Stephen (1880), Virginia (1882), and Adrian Stephen (1883).
Sir Leslie Stephen’s eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, and Virginia’s honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Her aunt was a pioneering early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. Supplementing these influences was the large library at the Stephens’ house, from which Virginia and Vanessa were taught the classics and English literature. As was common at that time, their brothers Adrian and Julian (Thoby) were formally educated and attended the University of Cambridge, a disparity that Virginia noted and condemned in her writing. The sisters did, however, benefit indirectly from their brothers’ University contacts, as they brought their new intellectual friends home to the Stephens’ drawing room. Although Virginia would not attend university, she was tutored in Greek by two women, Clara Pater and Janet Case), whose instruction would influence her later work, especially her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek.”
According to Woolf’s memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of St Ives, Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens’ summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse. She describes why she felt so connected to Talland House in a diary entry dated 22 March 1921. “Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.”
The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. After her mother and half-sister, she quickly lost her surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s.She was, however, able to take courses of study, some at degree level, in Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This 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), Clara Pater and George Warr. Her sister Vanessa also studied Latin, Italian, art and architecture at King’s Ladies’ Department. In 2013 Woolf was honoured by her alma mater with the opening of a building named after her on Kingsway.
The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised. She spent time recovering at her friend Violet Dickinson’s house, and at her aunt Caroline’s house in Cambridge. Modern scholars, including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, have suggested, her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were also influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).
Throughout her life, Woolf suffered by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham, described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder”. Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.
After completing the manuscript of her last novel (posthumously published), Between the Acts, 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 criticized 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 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
The Voyage Out (1915)
Night and Day (1919)
Jacob’s Room (1922)
Mrs Dalloway (1925)
To the Lighthouse (1927)
The Waves (1931)
The Years (1937)
Between the Acts (1941)
Short story collections
Kew Gardens (short story) (1919)
Monday or Tuesday (1921)
A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)
Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973)
The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)
Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches (2003)
Virginia Woolf published three books to which she gave the subtitle “A Biography”:
Orlando: A Biography (1928, usually characterised as a novel inspired by the life of Vita Sackville-West)
Flush: A Biography (1933, more explicitly cross-genre: fiction as “stream of consciousness” tale by Flush, a dog; non-fiction in the sense of telling the story of the owner of the dog, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), reprinted in 2005 by Persephone Books
Roger Fry: A Biography (1940, usually characterised as non-fiction, however: “[Woolf’s] novelistic skills worked against her talent as a biographer, for her impressionistic observations jostled uncomfortably with the simultaneous need to marshal a multitude of facts.”)
Modern Fiction (1919)
The Common Reader (1925)
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
On Being Ill (1930)
The London Scene (1931)
The London Scene (1931)
The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
Three Guineas (1938)
The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
The Moment and Other Essays (1947)
The Captain’s Death Bed And Other Essays (1950)
Granite and Rainbow (1958)
Books and Portraits (1978)
Women And Writing (1979)
Collected Essays (six volumes)
Freshwater: A Comedy (performed in 1923, revised in 1935, and published in 1976)
Stavrogin’s Confession & the Plan of ‘The Life of a Great Sinner, from the notes of Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated in partnership with S. S. Koteliansky (1922)
Autobiographical writings and diaries
A Writer’s Diary (1953)—Extracts from the complete diary
Moments of Being (1976)
A Moment’s Liberty: the shorter diary (1990)
The Diary of Virginia Woolf (five volumes)—Diary of Virginia Woolf from 1915 to 1941
Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (1990)
Travels With Virginia Woolf (1993)—Greek travel diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Jan Morris
The Platform of Time: Memoirs of Family and Friends, Expanded Edition, edited by S. P. Rosenbaum (London, Hesperus, 2008)
Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters (1993)
The Letters of Virginia Woolf 1888–1941 (six volumes, 1975–1980)
Paper Darts: The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf (1991)
Selections Autobiographical and Imaginative from the Works of George Gissing ed. Alfred C. Gissing, with an introduction by Virginia Woolf (London & New York, 1929)
Monk’s House photograph album 1 (1863–1938) – 2 (1909–1922) – 3 (1890–1933) – 4 (1890–1947) – 5 (1892–1938) – 6 (1850–1900)