Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Stephen, the daughter of Leslie Stephen and Julia Princep Duckworth, was born at Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, on 25th January 1882. Her father was the author of several important literary works and the editor of the The Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother had three children from her first marriage, George Duckworth (1868–1934), Stella Duckworth (1869–1897), and Gerald Duckworth (1870–1937). Virginia had a sister and two brothers: Vanessa Stephen (1879), Thoby Stephen (1880) and Adrian Stephen (1883).

According to her biographer, Lyndall Gordon: "Virginia's strongest memories from childhood were the idyll of St Ives, a basis for art, and at the other extreme, humiliation at the age of six when Gerald Duckworth, her grown-up half-brother (the younger son of her mother's first marriage), lifted her onto a ledge and explored her private parts - leaving her prey to sexual fear and initiating a lifelong resistance to certain forms of masculine authority."

When Virginia was thirteen her mother died and this brought on the first of her several breakdowns. She was very close to her sister, Vanessa Stephen. Her biographer, Vanessa Curtis, has commented: "When Vanessa was not in her art class, the sisters often spent mornings companionably closeted away in a little class room off the back of the drawing-room, almost entirely made up of windows and perfect for quiet writing and painting." Leslie Stephen held conventional views on education and unlike her two brothers, Virginia did not go to university.

In 1897 Violet Dickinson visited the home of Leslie Stephen for the first time. Stephen wrote that: "She (Violet Dickinson) has taken a great fancy to all the girls, specially to Ginia (Virginia)". In 1902 Violet began corresponding with Virginia. The two women went on holiday together to Venice, Florence and Paris. Virginia who was seventeen years her junior accused Violet of being a "dangerous woman" who was "not at all the right kind of influence over young girls". Vanessa Curtis, the author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) has pointed out that "Violet was full of happiness, brusque common sense, jollity and optimism, all of which were qualities much needed and admired by the young Virginia."

Virginia commented on her new friend: "She is 37 and without any pretence to good looks - which humorously she knows quite well herself and lets you know too - even going out of her way to allude laughingly to her grey hairs, and screws her face in to the most comical grimaces. But an observer who would stop here, putting her down as one of those cleverish, adaptable ladies of middle age who are welcome everywhere and not indispensable anywhere - such an observer would be superficial indeed.

Vanessa Curtis has argued that it is difficult to know if the two women had a sexual relationship. However, she points out that in July 1903 Virginia wrote to Violet that "it is astonishing what depths - what volcano depths - your finger has stirred." On another occasion Virginia told Violet that she had a double bed ready in anticipation of her visit to join her on holiday. Curtis goes on to say that "regardless of the question marks that still hang over the exact nature of their early relationship, there can be no denying that Violet was the first true emotional and physical love of Virginia's early adult life."

Leslie Stephen died of cancer on 22nd February 1904. It has been claimed that Virginia came under the control of her older stepbrother George Duckworth, who bullied and sexually abused her. With both her parents dead, Virginia became even closer to Violet Dickinson. Virginia who was seventeen years her junior accused Violet of being a "dangerous woman" who was "not at all the right kind of influence over young girls".

In 1904 Mary Sheepshanks, the vice-principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women, appointed Virginia to teach history evening classes. Other lecturers at the college included Graham Wallas, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Ernest Shepherd. Sheepshanks later recalled how much the college meant to the people in the area: "Very many of the students left home early in the morning by the workman's train, came straight from work to their classes and arrived home late, not having had any solid meal all day... It was distinctly a school for tired people."

Violet became a firm believer in Virginia's literary talent and introduced her to Margaret Littleton, the editor of the women's supplement of The Guardian . As a result of this meeting, Virginia was commissioned to write an article on Charlotte Brontë. The author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) has pointed out that "Violet was full of happiness, brusque common sense, jollity and optimism, all of which were qualities much needed and admired by the young Virginia."

After the death of their father Virginia and Vanessa Stephen moved to Bloomsbury. Their brother, Thoby Stephen, introduced them to some of his friends that he had met at the University of Cambridge. The group began meeting to discuss literary and artistic issues. The friends, who eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Group, included Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Desmond MacCarthy, Arthur Waley and Duncan Grant. Virgina also had reviews of books published in the Times Literary Supplement.

The Stephen family went on holiday to Greece in September 1906. Violet Dickinson went with them as a self-styled "foster mother". According to Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996): "For Thoby, Greece was the last long holiday before he was called to the Bar. He was full of energy and ambitions, passionately opinionated and enthusiastic." Thoby Stephen, who returned home seriously ill from typhoid, died on 20th November 1906.

Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell on 7th February 1907. Vanessa Curtis , the author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) , points out that after their marriage, Clive became very close to Virginia: "Virginia, envious of her sister's newfound married happiness, also began to court favour and affection from Clive. A flirtation between the two sprang up in Cornwall, when Vanessa was too wrapped up in her first baby, Julian, to pay much attention to anyone else. Clive, flattered, and feeling shut out by his wife, reciprocated with passion and longed to make the flirtation physical; Virginia, existing cerebrally and intellectually, was happier to draw the line at long, stimulating walks and clever letters."

On 30th August, 1908, Virginia wrote to Violet Dickinson: "Supposing we drift apart, in the next three years, so that we meet and remember our ancient correspondence." Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996), has argued that "Virginia's intimacy with Violet was playfully erotic from the beginning of their correspondence. The teasing jokes, the demands for attention, the confiding of secrets, were part of an extortionate appeal for petting and mothering. Violet was her woman." Lee points out that Dickinson played an important role in her writing: "She used Violet as her sounding-board for her evolving ideas about how to live, how to talk and how to write."

In December 1908, Ottoline Morrell had tea with Virginia at her home in Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Virginia was impressed with Ottoline and confessed to Violet Dickinson that their relationship was like "sitting under a huge lily, absorbing pollen like a seduced bee." Vanessa believed that Ottoline was bisexual and that she was physically attracted to her sister. In her memoirs, Ottoline admitted that she was entranced by Virginia: "This strange, lovely, furtive creature never seemed to me to be made of common flesh and blood. She comes and goes, she folds her cloak around her and vanishes, having shot into her victim's heart a quiverful of teasing arrows."

in 1910 Virginia suffered another mental breakdown. That summer she spent six weeks at a private nursing home in Twickenham, which specialized in patients with nervous disorders. She was very unhappy during this period and told her sister: "I shall soon have to jump out of a window."

Later that year Clive Bell met Roger Fry in a railway carriage between Cambridge and London. Virginia later recalled: "It must have been in 1910 I suppose that Clive one evening rushed upstairs in a state of the highest excitement. He had just had one of the most interesting conversations of his life. It was with Roger Fry. They had been discussing the theory of art for hours. He thought Roger Fry the most interesting person he had met since Cambridge days. So Roger appeared. He appeared, I seem to think, in a large ulster coat, every pocket of which was stuffed with a book, a paint box or something intriguing; special tips which he had bought from a little man in a back street; he had canvases under his arms; his hair flew; his eyes glowed." From then on Fry became a very important member of the Bloomsbury Group.

Ottoline Morrell remained in close contact with Virginia, but it was always a difficult relationship. In her memoirs, Ottoline recalled: "She seemed to feel certain of her own eminence. It is true, but it is rather crushing, for I feel she is very contemptuous of other people. When I stretched out a hand to feel another woman, I found only a very lovely, clear intellect." Ottoline was fully aware of Virginia's abilities, she had "such energy and vitality and seemed to me far the most imaginative and mastery intellect that I had met for many years."

Virginia took an interest in the campaign for women's suffrage and was active briefly with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and later joined the Adult Suffrage Society. However, her main political involvement was as a member of the Women's Co-operative Guild, a radical organisation led by Margaret Llewelyn Davies. Virginia wrote that "I went to the Women's Cooperative Guild, which pleased me by its good sense, and the evidence that it does somehow stand for something real to these women. In spite of their solemn passivity they have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life."

In the spring of 1911 Vanessa Bell went on holiday to Turkey with Clive Bell and Roger Fry. During her stay Vanessa had a miscarriage and a mental breakdown. Virginia went out to help nurse her. She was also going through a period of depression. She wrote: "To be 29 and unmarried - to be a failure - childless - insane too, no writer." Both Vanessa and Virginia fell in love with Fry. That summer Vanessa began an affair with Fry. They tried to keep in secret from Virginia but on 18th January 1912, Vanessa wrote to Fry: "Virginia told me last night that she suspected me of having a liaison with you. She has been quick to suspect it, hasn't she?"

The awareness that her sister was having an affair with Fry was a major influence on why Virginia decided to marry Leonard Woolf on 10th August 1912. He resigned from the colonial service after a six-and-a-half-year stint as civil servant in Ceylon. The couple embarked on a writing life at Hogarth House in Richmond and at her rented home, Asheham House, at Beddingham, near Lewes.

In 1914 Virginia Woolf had a severe mental breakdown. Leonard Woolf nursed her back to recovery and in 1915 her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published. According to Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum: "He had recognized her genius before their marriage, but not the extent of her mental instability. For nearly thirty years one of Leonard's chief occupations was caring for Virginia. Without his vigilant love, her books would never have been written; he was her first reader, her editor, and her publisher. Though not a sexually active marriage, theirs was one of profound and enduring affection."

The couple shared a strong interest in literature and in 1917 founded the Hogarth Press. Over the next few years they published the work of Flora Mayor, Katherine Mansfield, E. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Robert Graves, Julia Strachey, T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. They also published Virginia's Night and Day, a novel that deals with the subject of women's suffrage in 1919. This was followed by Jacob's Room (1922), a novel that tells the story of Jacob Flanders, a soldier killed in the First World War.

After the war they bought Monk's House, a cottage in Rodmell, so Virginia could be close to her sister, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who lived at Charleston Farmhouse . In 1919 Leonard Woolf was appointed as secretary of an advisory committees on international and imperial questions that had been set-up by the Labour Party. In 1920 Woolf published Empire and Commerce in Africa, which analysed the economic imperialism of African colonization.

Virginia wrote about literature for The Nation and in an article published in December, 1923, attacked the "shallow realism" of Arnold Bennett and advocated a more "internal approach" to literature. This article was an important step in the development of what became known as Modernism. Woolf rejected the traditional framework of narrative, description and rational exposition in prose and made considerable use of the stream of consciousness technique (recording the flow of thoughts and feelings as they pass through the character's mind). This approach was explored in Virginia's novels: Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).

Woolf became romantically involved with the writer, Vita Sackville-West. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, later recalled: "There may have been - on balance I think that there probably was - some caressing, some bedding together. But whatever may have occurred between them of this nature, I doubt very much whether it was of a kind to excite Virginia or to satisfy Vita. As far as Virginia's life is concerned the point is of no great importance; what was, to her, important was the extent to which she was emotionally involved, the degree to which she was in love. One cannot give a straight answer to such questions but, if the test of passions be blindness, then her affections were not very deeply engaged."

In September 1927, Sackville-West began an affair with Mary Garman, the wife of Roy Campbell, the poet. Mary wrote: "You are sometimes like a mother to me. No one can imagine the tenderness of a lover suddenly descending to being maternal. It is a lovely moment when the mother's voice and hands turn into the lover's."

Virginia Woolf was very jealous of the affair. She wrote to Vita: "I rang you up just now to find you were gone nutting in the woods with Mary Campbell... but not me - damn you." It is believed that Woolf's novel Orlando was influenced by the affair. In October 1927 Virginia wrote to Vita: "Suppose Orlando turns out to be about Vita; and its all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell) - suppose there's the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people... Shall you mind?"

Vita Sackville-West replied that she thrilled and terrified "at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando". She added: "What fun for you; what fun for me. You see, any vengeance that you want to take will be ready in your hand... You have my full permission." Orlando, was published in October 1928, with three pictures of Vita among its eight photographic illustrations. Dedicated to Vita, the novel, published in 1928, traces the history of the youthful, beautiful, and aristocratic Orlando, and explores the themes of sexual ambiguity.

After reading the book, Mary Garman wrote to Vita: "I hate the idea that you who are so hidden and secret and proud even with people you know best, should be suddenly presented so nakedly for anyone to read about... Vita darling you have been so much Orlando to me that how can I help absolutely understanding and loving the book... Through all the slight mockery which is always in the tone of Virginia's voice, and the analysis etc., Orlando is written by someone who loves you so obviously."

Virginia Woolf was also romantically involved with Katherine Mansfield. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, wrote: "Virginia felt as a lover feels - she desponded when she fancied herself neglected, despaired when Vita was away, waiting anxiously for letters, needed Vita's company and lived in that strange mixture of elation and despair which lovers - and one would have supposed only lovers - can experience. All this she has done and felt for Katherine Mansfield, but she never writes of her as she does of Vita."

A highly respected journalist and literary critic, Virginia published a series of important non-fiction books including A Room of One's Own that appeared in 1929. An important book in the history of feminism, it argues the need for the economic independence of women and explores the consequences of a male-dominated society.

Virginia Woolf's most ambitious novel, The Waves, was published in 1931. According to Lyndall Gordon: "Its framework of steel invents a revolutionary treatment of the lifespan. Here the writer is at her furthest remove from the traditional biographic schema, the public highway from pedigree to grave. Not only are there no pedigrees in The Waves; there are no placing surnames and no society to speak of, for here she explores the genetic givens of existence, unfolding what is innate in human nature against the backdrop of what is permanent in nature: sun and sea."

Woolf became increasingly interested in feminism and in her diary on 31st December, 1932, she resolved to speak out as a woman against the abuses of power. During this period began a relationship with Ethel Smyth, an activist in the Women Social & Political Union and a former lover of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Virginia Woolf had recurring bouts of depression. The outbreak of the Second World War increased her mental turmoil and Leonard Woolf arranged for Octavia Wilberforce to treat Virginia. He later recalled: "She (Octavia Wilberforce) had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack."

On 28th March, 1941, Virginia wrote a letter to Leonard: "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."

Later that morning she committed suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse, near her home in Rodmell. After her body was recovered three weeks later, on 18 April, Leonard Woolf buried her ashes in the Monk's House garden.

Would it be any use if l spent an afternoon or two weekly in addressing envelopes for the Adult Suffragists ... I could neither do sums or argue, or speak, but I could do the humbler work if that is any good. You impressed me so much the other night with the wrongness of the present state of affairs that I feel that action is necessary. Your position seemed to me intolerable. The only way to better it is to do something I suppose.

I went to the Women's Cooperative Guild, which pleased me by its good sense, and the evidence that it does somehow stand for something real to these women. In spite of their solemn passivity they have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life.

"We've won the war today" he said at once. "The Germans have made up their minds they can't fight a retreat. The General Staff has faced the fact, and they've had what I think the considerable courage to admit it. There is now a good prospect of a complete defeat of the German army."

Foch says "I have not had my battle". Despite the extreme vindictiveness of our press and the French press, Herbert believes that we are going to balk Foch of his battle, partly because the Germans will accept any terms to avoid it. "Lloyd George has told me again and again that he means to be generous to the Germans. We want a strong Germany, he says."

So we talked on. I tried to think it extraordinary but I found it difficult - extraordinary, I mean, to be in touch with one who was in the very centre of the very centre, sitting in a little room at Downing Street where, as he said, the wireless messages are racing through from all over the world, a million miles a minute; where you have constantly to settle off-hand questions of enormous difficulty and importance - where the fate of armies does more or less hang upon what two or three elderly gentlemen decide.

Twenty-five minutes ago the guns went off, announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river. They are hooting still. A few people ran back to look out of windows. A very cloudy still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east; and that too wearing for a moment a look of something floating, waving, drooping. So far neither bells nor flags, but the wailing of sirens and intermittent guns.

Peace is rapidly dissolving into the light of common day. You can go to London without meeting more than two drunk soldiers; only an occasional crowd blocks the street. But mentally the change is marked too. Instead of feeling that the whole people, willing or not, were concentrated on a single point, one feels now that the whole bunch has burst asunder and flown off with the utmost vigour in different directions. We are once more a nation of individuals.

There may have been - on balance I think that there probably was - some caressing, some bedding together. One cannot give a straight answer to such questions but, if the test of passions be blindness, then her affections were not very deeply engaged.

Should you say, if I rang you up to ask, that you were fond of me: If I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed would you - I'm rather excited about Orlando tonight: have been lying by the fire and making up the last chapter.

But I do adore you - every part of you from heel to hair. Never will you shake me off, try as you may... But if being loved by Virginia is any good, she does do that; and always will, and please believe it.

Octavia Wilberforce practised as a doctor in Montpelier Crescent, Brighton, and lived there with Elizabeth Robins. Octavia was a remarkable character. Her ancestors were the famous Wilberforce of the anti-slavery movement; their portraits hung on her walls and she had inherited their beautiful furniture and their fine library of eighteenth-century books. Octavia had been born and bred in a large house in Sussex, a young lady in a typical country gentleman's house. But though she was always very much an English lady of the upper middle class, she was never a typical young lady.

She was already a young lady when she decided that she must become a doctor. It was a strange, disquieting decision, for in a Sussex country houses in those days young ladies did not become a doctors; they played tennis and went to dances in order to marry and breed more young ladies in still more country houses. Octavia's idea was not thought to be a good one by her family, and she received no encouragement there. Another difficulty was that her education as a young lady was not the kind which made it easy for her to pass the necessary examinations to qualify as a doctor. But her quiet determination, the oak and triple brass enabled her to overcome all difficulties. She became a first-class doctor in Brighton.

She had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack. Drastic steps meant going to bed, complete rest, plenty of food and milk.

On Wednesday, March 26, I became convinced that Virginia's mental condition was more serious than it had ever been since those terrible days in August 1913 which led to her complete breakdown and attempt to kill herself. I suggested to Virginia that she should go and see Octavia and consult her as a doctor as well as a friend. She had a long talk with Octavia by herself and then Octavia came into the front room in Montpelier Crescent and she and I discussed what we should do.

We felt that it was not safe to do anything more at the moment. And it was the moment at which the risk had to be taken, for if one did not force the issue - which would have meant perpetual surveillance of trained nurses - one would only have made it impossible and intolerable to her if one attempted the same kind of perpetual surveillance by one self. The decision was wrong and led to the disaster.

That's a whole pound of butter I said. Saying which, I broke off a lump and ate it pure. Then in the glory of my heart I gave all our week's ration - which is about the size of my thumb nail - to Louie (her maid) then sat down and ate bread and butter. Think of our lunch tomorrow! In the middle of the table I shall put the whole pat. And I shall say: Eat as much as you like.

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

On Friday, March 28, 1941, I was in the garden and I thought she was in the house. But when at one o'clock I went in to lunch, she was not there. When I could not find her anywhere in the house or garden, I felt sure that she had gone down to the river. I ran across the fields down to the river and almost immediately found her walking-stick lying upon the bank. I searched for some time and then went back to the house and informed the police. It was three weeks before her body was found when some children saw it floating in the river.

Sat out on the verandah, trying to write to Clive (Bell) in answer to his letter about Virginia's death. He says: "For some days, of course, we hoped against hope that she had wandered crazily away and might be discovered a barn or a village shop. But by now all hope is abandoned. It became evident some weeks ago that she was in for another of those long agonizing breakdowns of which she has had several already. The prospect - two years insanity, then to wake up to the sort of world which two years of war will have made, was such that I can't feel sure that she was unwise. Leonard, as you may suppose, is very calm and sensible. Vanessa is, apparently at least, less affected than Duncan, Ouentin and I had looked for and feared. I dreaded some such physical collapse as before her after Julian was killed. For the rest of us the loss is appalling, but like all unhappiness that comes of missing , I suspect we shall realize it only bit by bit."

Virginia Woolf is dead, a grey, highly-strung woman of dignity and charm; but she was unstable and often had periods of madness. She led the Bloomsbury movement, did much indirectly to make England so Left - yet she always remained a lady, and was never violent. She could not stand human contacts, and people fatigued her.

Remembering Katherine Mansfield, the Only Writer Virginia Woolf (Allegedly) Ever Envied

For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been using fictional devices to shape their worlds and communicate with one another. Four thousand years ago they began writing down these stories, and a great flourishing of human achievement began. We know it today as literature, a term broad enough to encompass everything from ancient epic poetry to contemporary novels. How did literature develop? What forms has it taken? And what can we learn from engaging with these works today? Hosted by Jacke Wilson, an amateur scholar with a lifelong passion for literature, The History of Literature takes a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.

Born into a well-to-do family in New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield began writing fiction at the age of 10. But it was in England and continental Europe that her writing took flight, as she drew upon Chekhov and the new spirit of Modernism to advance (and perfect) the short story form before dying a tragically early death. Her work was “the only writing I have ever been jealous of…,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “Probably we had something in common which I shall never find in anybody else.” In this episode, Jacke takes a look at the life and career of Katherine Mansfield, including a close-up look at her masterpiece “The Garden Party.”

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The early life of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born in London on January 25th, 1882. Her parents had a complicated marriage. When she came into the world, her parents already had children from previous marriages. Her father was an acclaimed editor, critic, and biographer.

Virginia’s mother never paid attention to her nor even spent a moment alone with her. Her father was an intimidating figure. Her childhood home was a cage for Virginia.

The early death of her mother, a sister, and later her father had a profound impact on Virginia. Losing loved ones is always traumatic, but her father made the situation even worse by forbidding anyone to speak of those who had died. That was the beginning of a terrible, forced silence in Virginia’s life. From her early years, she wasn’t allowed to express emotions of any kind.


The essay was based on two papers Woolf read on 20 and 26 October 1928 to two Cambridge student societies, the Newnham Arts Society at Newnham College and the ODTAA Society at Girton College, respectively. Elsie Duncan-Jones, then known as Elsie Phare, was the president of the Newnham Arts Society at the time and wrote an account of the paper, "Women and Fiction", for the college magazine, Thersites. Woolf stayed at Newnham at the invitation of Pernel Strachey, the college principal, whose family were key members of the Bloomsbury Group. At Girton she was accompanied by Vita Sackville-West. [3] [6] It was published in 1929 as a book with six chapters. [7]

The Four Marys Edit

The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". [2] The narrator of the work is referred to early on: "Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance)". [8] The two Marys were ladies-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots they are also characters in a 16th-century Scottish ballad, Mary Hamilton, about a lady-in-waiting who is facing execution for having had a child with the King, a child she killed. [9] [a]

In referencing the tale of a woman who rejected motherhood and lived outside marriage, a woman about to be hanged, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space.

Women's access to education Edit

[11] The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce, work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.

Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal setting. She moves her audience to understand the importance of their education, while warning them of the precariousness of their position in society. She sums up the stark contrast between how women are idealised in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated them in real life:

Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance very various heroic and mean splendid and sordid beautiful and hideous in the extreme as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips in real life she could hardly read scarcely spell and was the property of her husband. [12]

Judith Shakespeare Edit

In one section Woolf invents a fictional character, Judith, Shakespeare's sister, to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the opportunity to develop them. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school." [13]

While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, her father beats her, then shames her into the marriage. While William establishes himself, Judith is trapped by what is expected of women. She runs away from home to London, is harassed and laughed at when she tries to become an actor, and is finally made pregnant by an actor-manager who said he would help her. She kills herself and "lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle". William lives on and establishes his legacy. [14]

Building a history of women's writing Edit

In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison. Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar, could it be J---- H---- herself?" [15]

Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an "'arrant feminist'". [15] Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, although Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women". [16] Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage. [17] The essay quotes Oscar Browning, through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham, [18] "that the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man". [19] In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time her hybrid name for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge—Oxbridge—has become a well-known term, although she was not the first to use it.

Lesbianism Edit

Woolf wrote in her diary before A Room of One's Own was published that she thought when it was published she would be "attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist". [20] [21]

In one section of the book, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia . ' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." [22] [23] Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial, is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you . " [22]

Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it." [24] Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic". Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.

Alice Walker responded to Woolf's observation that only women with 'a room of their own' are in a position to write. Woolf herself was making the point that not all women in her society had such a safe space, but Walker continues the conversation by discussing the further exclusions suffered by women of colour. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes:

Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day. [25]

Walker recognises that Wheatley is in a position far different from the narrator of Woolf's essay, in that she does not own herself, much less "a room of her own". Wheatley and other women writers exist outside of this room, outside of this space Woolf sets aside for women writers. Although she calls attention to the limits of Woolf's essay, Walker, in uniting womanist prose (women's writing) with the physical and metaphorical space of "our mothers' gardens", pays homage to Woolf's similar endeavour of seeking space, "room", for women writers.

In 1975 the Madison, Wisconsin bookstore "A Room of One’s Own" was founded by five women as a feminist bookstore, but later it became a regular bookstore. [26]

A literary journal launched in Vancouver, Canada in 1975 by the West Coast Feminist Literary Magazine Society, or the Growing Room Collective, was originally called Room of One's Own but changed to Room in 2007. [27] [28] [29] [30]

The Smiths' 1985 song "Shakespeare's Sister" is named after a section of the essay. Shakespears Sister, founded in 1988, is an alternative pop group featuring Siobhan Fahey. The name was adapted from the title of the Smiths' song however, Fahey has described the meaning of the name being, "Siobhan Fahey is the mother, the sister, the daughter, it's not the artist. The artist is Shakespear's sister." [31] [32]

A Room of One's Own was adapted as a play by Patrick Garland that premiered in 1989 [33] a television adaptation of that play was broadcast on PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 1991. [34] [35]

The Leather Archives and Museum, founded in 1991, [36] has an exhibit called A Room of Her Own, about which curator Alex Warner has written, "As I began work for the first exhibit installation of the Women’s Leather History Project, I was excited that we were both literally and figuratively making room for Leatherwomen’s history in the LA&M. It was out of this line of thinking that "A Room of Her Own" emerged, building on Virginia Woolf’s 1929 feminist text that argues for women’s need for space to think and create". [37]

The Two Nice Girls' third album, from 1991, was called Chloe Liked Olivia, referencing the essay. [38] [39]

Chloe plus Olivia: an anthology of lesbian literature from the seventeenth century to the present was published in 1994 by Lillian Faderman the phrase "Chloe plus Olivia" is a reference to the essay. [39] [40]

A blog eventually called Shakesville started in 2004 as Shakespeare’s Sister the blog ended in 2019. [41] It was named after the Smiths' song "Shakespeare's Sister" and the essay, because (in regard to the essay), "I [the blog's original author, Melissa McEwan] am the heir of all the Shakespeare's Sisters before me, who carved out rooms of their own, tiny pieces of space and time, in which they formed the habit of freedom and mustered the courage to write exactly what they thought. I took up their legacy with breathless gratitude and compelling need, and I created a room of my own, built of 1s and 0s, where I try to honor them, as best I can". [42]

Patricia Lamkin's play Balancing the Moon (2011) was inspired by the essay. [43]

A women's co-working space in Singapore, "Woolf Works", opened in 2014 and was named after Virginia Woolf in tribute to the essay. [44] [45]

LGBT History Month: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born as Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882. Like many other great authors, Woolf’s path to literary fame was not ordinary. Her parents were both intelligent and social within their community, resulting in ample connections and opportunities for their children. However, their good fortune did not last long. Her mother died in 1895, when Woolf was 13, which was followed by a string of other deaths within her family, including her half-sister, brother and father.

Woolf and her sisters were educated at home rather than going to school, while the boys attended college. Despite dealing with personal losses, Woolf continued her studies at home and then later at the Ladies’s Department of King’s College London.

While at King’s College, Woolf came into contact with the radical feminists of her day, which likely inspired some of her later work. She began writing professionally when she was 26, at Times Literary Supplement. Woolf then fell into a group of intellectuals and artists where she met her husband, Leonard Woolf.

Throughout her life, Woolf published somewhere in the region of 500 essays and 9 novels. She is credited as one of the founders of the modernist literary movement. In between writing, Woolf suffered from mental illness and nervous breakdowns, for which she was briefly institutionalized several times.

Despite being married, Woolf carried on several close relationships with women throughout her lifetime. It is rumored that Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West served as inspiration for the protagonist of her novel Orlando. Nigel Nicholson, Sackville-West’s son, has been quoted with saying that the book is “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

Today, Woolf remains one of the most influential authors and feminists of the 21st century.

Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer

Virginia Woolf, in one of the more lively and often-seen photos of her from the 1930s.

Virginia Woolf, that great lover of language, would surely be amused to know that, some seven decades after her death, she endures most vividly in popular culture as a pun—within the title of Edward Albee’s celebrated drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Albee’s play, a troubled college professor and his equally pained wife taunt each other by singing “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?,” substituting the iconic British writer’s name for that of the fairy-tale villain.

The Woolf reference seems to have no larger meaning, but, perhaps inadvertently, it gives a note of authenticity to the play’s campus setting. Woolf’s experimental novels are much discussed within academia, and her pioneering feminism has given her a special place in women’s studies programs across the country.

It’s a reputation that runs the risk of pigeonholing Woolf as a “women’s writer” and, as a frequent subject of literary theory, the author of books meant to be studied rather than enjoyed. But, in her prose, Woolf is one of the great pleasure-givers of modern literature, and her appeal transcends gender. Just ask Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, the popular and critically acclaimed novel inspired by Woolf’s classic fictional work, Mrs. Dalloway.

“I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school,” Cunningham told readers of the Guardian newspaper in 2011. “I was a bit of a slacker, not at all the sort of kid who’d pick up a book like that on my own (it was not, I assure you, part of the curriculum at my slacker-ish school in Los Angeles). I read it in a desperate attempt to impress a girl who was reading it at the time. I hoped, for strictly amorous purposes, to appear more literate than I was.”

Cunningham didn’t really understand all of the themes of Dalloway when he first read it, and he didn’t, alas, get the girl who had inspired him to pick up Woolf’s novel. But he fell in love with Woolf’s style. “I could see, even as an untutored and rather lazy child, the density and symmetry and muscularity of Woolf’s sentences,” Cunningham recalled. “I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody.”

Woolf’s example helped drive Cunningham to become a writer himself. His novel The Hours essentially retells Dalloway as a story within a story, alternating between a variation of Woolf’s original narrative and a fictional speculation on Woolf herself. Cunningham’s 1998 novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, then was adapted into a 2002 film of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman as Woolf.

“I feel certain she’d have disliked the book—she was a ferocious critic,” Cunningham said of Woolf, who died in 1941. “She’d probably have had reservations about the film as well, though I like to think that it would have pleased her to see herself played by a beautiful Hollywood movie star.”

Kidman created a buzz for the movie by donning a false nose to mute her matinee-perfect face, evoking Woolf as a woman whom family friend Nigel Nicolson once described as “always beautiful but never pretty.”

Woolf, a seminal figure in feminist thought, would probably not have been surprised that a big-screen treatment of her life would spark so much talk about how she looked rather than what she did. But she was also keenly intent on grounding her literary themes within the world of sensation and physicality, so maybe there’s some value, while considering her ideas, in also remembering what it was like to see and hear her.

We know her best in profile. Many pictures of Woolf show her glancing off to the side, like the figure on a coin. The most notable exception is a 1939 photograph by Gisele Freund in which Woolf peers directly into the camera. Woolf hated the photograph—perhaps because, on some level, she knew how deftly Freund had captured her subject. “I loathe being hoisted about on top of a stick for anyone to stare at,” lamented Woolf, who complained that Freund had broken her promise not to circulate the picture.

The most striking aspect of the photo is the intensity of Woolf’s gaze. In both her conversation and her writing, Woolf had a genius for not only looking at a subject, but looking through it, teasing out inferences and implications at multiple levels. It’s perhaps why the sea figures so prominently in her fiction, as a metaphor for a world in which the bright currents we see at the surface of reality reveal, upon closer inspection, a depth that goes downward for miles.

Take, for example, Woolf’s widely anthologized essay, “The Death of the Moth,” in which she notices a moth’s last moments of life, then records the experience as a window into the fragility of all existence. “The insignificant little creature now knew death,” Woolf reports.

As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. . . . The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. Oh yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

Woolf takes an equally miniaturist tack in “The Mark on the Wall,” a sketch in which the narrator studies a mark on the wall ultimately revealed as a snail. Although the premise sounds militantly boring—the literary equivalent of watching paint dry—the mark on the wall works as a locus of concentration, like a hypnotist’s watch, allowing the narrator to consider everything from Shakespeare to World War I. In its subtle tracking of how the mind free-associates and its ample use of interior monolog, the sketch serves as a keynote of sorts for the modernist literary movement that Woolf worked so tirelessly to advance.

Woolf’s penetrating sensibility took some getting used to, since she expected those around her to look at the world just as unblinkingly. She didn’t seem to have much patience for small talk. Renowned scholar Hermione Lee wrote an exhaustive 1997 biography of Woolf, yet confesses some anxiety about the prospect, were it possible, of greeting Woolf in person. “I think I would have been afraid of meeting her,” Lee wrote. “I am afraid of not being intelligent enough for her.”

Nicolson, the son of Woolf’s close friend and onetime lover, Vita Sackville-West, had fond memories of hunting butterflies with Woolf when he was a boy—an outing that allowed Woolf to indulge a pastime she’d enjoyed in childhood. “Virginia could tolerate children for short periods, but fled from babies,” he recalled. Nicolson also remembered Woolf’s distaste for bland generalities, even when uttered by youngsters. She once asked the young Nicolson for a detailed report on his morning, including the quality of the sun that had awakened him, and whether he had first put on his right or left sock while dressing.

“It was a lesson in observation, but it was also a hint,” he wrote many years later. “‘Unless you catch ideas on the wing and nail them down, you will soon cease to have any.’ It was advice that I was to remember all my life.”

Thanks to a commentary Woolf did for the BBC, we don’t have to guess what she sounded like. In the 1937 recording, widely available online, Woolf reflects on how the English language pollinates and blooms into new forms. “Royal words mate with commoners,” she tells listeners in a subversive reference to the recent abdication of King Edward VIII, who had forfeited his throne to marry American Wallis Simpson. Woolf’s voice is plummy and patrician, like an English version of Eleanor Roosevelt. Not surprising, perhaps, given Woolf’s origin in one of England’s most prominent families.

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a celebrated essayist, editor, and public intellectual, and Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen. Julia was, according to Woolf biographer Panthea Reid, “revered for her beauty and wit, her self-sacrifice in nursing the ill, and her bravery in facing early widowhood.” Here’s how Woolf scholar Mark Hussey describes the blended household of Virginia’s childhood:

Her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, both previously widowed, began their marriage in 1878 with four young children: Laura (1870–1945), the daughter of Leslie Stephen and his first wife, Harriet Thackery (1840–1875) and George (1868–1934), Gerald (1870–1937), and Stella Duckworth (1869–1897), the children of Julia Prinsep (1846–1895) and Herbert Duckworth (1833–1870).

Together, Leslie and Julia had four more children: Virginia, Vanessa (1879–1961), and brothers Thoby (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948). They all lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London.

Although Virginia’s brothers and half-brothers got university educations, Woolf was taught mostly at home—a slight that informed her thinking about how society treated women. Woolf’s family background, though, brought her within the highest circles of British cultural life.

“Woolf’s parents knew many of the intellectual luminaries of the late Victorian era well,” Hussey notes, “counting among their close friends novelists such as George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was a pioneering photographer who made portraits of the poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, of the naturalist Charles Darwin, and of the philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, among many others.”

Woolf also had free range over her father’s mammoth library and made the most of it. Reading was her passion—and an act, like any passion, to be engaged actively, not sampled passively. In an essay about her father, Woolf recalled his habit of reciting poetry as he walked or climbed the stairs, and the lesson she took from it seems inescapable. Early on, she learned to pair literature with vitality and movement, and that sensibility runs throughout her lively critical essays, gathered in numerous volumes, including her seminal 1925 collection, The Common Reader. The title takes its cue from Woolf’s appeal to the kind of reader who, like her, was essentially self-educated rather than a professional scholar.

In a 1931 essay, “The Love of Reading,” Woolf describes what it’s like to encounter a literary masterpiece:

The great writers thus often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Defoe to Jane Austen, from Hardy to Peacock, from Trollope to Meredith, from Richardson to Rudyard Kipling is to be wrenched and distorted, to be thrown violently this way and that.

As Woolf saw it, reading was a mythic act, not simply a cozy fireside pastime. John Sparrow, reviewing Woolf’s work in the Spectator, connected her view of reading with her broader literary life: “She writes vividly because she reads vividly.”

The Stephen family’s summers in coastal Cornwall also shaped Woolf indelibly, exposing her to the ocean as a source of literary inspiration—and creating memories she would fictionalize for her acclaimed novel, To the Lighthouse.

Darker experiences shadowed Woolf’s youth. In writings not widely known until after her death, she described being sexually abused by her older stepbrothers, George and Gerald Duckworth. Scholars have often discussed how this trauma might have complicated her mental health, which challenged her through much of her life. She had periodic nervous breakdowns, and depression ultimately claimed her life.

“Virginia was a manic-depressive, but at that time the illness had not yet been identified and so could not be treated,” notes biographer Reid. “For her, a normal mood of excitement or depression would become inexplicably magnified so that she could no longer find her sane, balanced self.”

The writing desk became her refuge. “The only way I keep afloat is by working,” Woolf confessed. “Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down.”

Woolf’s mother died in 1895, and her father died in 1904. After her father’s death, Virginia and the other Stephen siblings, now grown, moved to London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood. “It was a district of London,” noted Nicolson, “that in spite of the elegance of its Georgian squares was considered . . . to be faintly decadent, the resort of raffish divorcées and indolent students, loose in its morals and behavior.”

Bloomsbury’s bohemian sensibility suited Woolf, who joined with other intellectuals in her newfound community to form the Bloomsbury Group, an informal social circle that included Woolf’s sister Vanessa, an artist Vanessa’s husband, the art critic Clive Bell artist Roger Fry economist John Maynard Keynes and writers Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster. Through Bloomsbury, Virginia also met writer Leonard Woolf, and they married in 1912.

The Bloomsbury Group had no clear philosophy, although its members shared an enthusiasm for leftish politics and a general willingness to experiment with new kinds of visual and literary art.

The Voyage Out, Woolf’s debut novel published in 1915, follows a fairly conventional form, but its plot—a female protagonist exploring her inner life through an epic voyage—suggested that what women saw and felt and heard and experienced was worthy of fiction, independent of their connection to men. In a series of lectures published in 1929 as A Room of One’s Own, Woolf pointed to the special challenges that women faced in finding the basic necessities for writing—a small income and a quiet place to think. A Room of One’s Own is a formative feminist document, but critic Robert Kanigel argues that men are cheating themselves if they don’t embrace the book, too. “Woolf’s is not a Spartan, clippity-clop style such as the one Ernest Hemingway was perfecting in Paris at about the same time,” Kanigel observes. “This is leisurely, ruminative, with long paragraphs that march up and down the page, long trains of thought, and rich digressions almost hypnotic in their effect. And once trapped within the sweet, sticky filament of her web of words, one is left with no wish whatever to be set free.”

During the Woolfs’ marriage, Virginia had flirtations with women and an affair with Sackville-West, a fellow author in her social circle. Even so, Leonard and Virginia remained close, buying a small printing press and starting a publishing house, Hogarth Press, in 1917. Leonard thought it might be a soothing diversion for Virginia—perhaps the first and only case of anyone entering book publishing to advance their sanity.

If Virginia Woolf had never published a single word of her own, her role in Hogarth would have secured her a place in literary history. Thanks to the Woolfs’ tiny press, the world got its first look at the early work of Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Forster. The press also published Virginia’s work, of course, including novels of increasingly daring scope. In To the Lighthouse, a family summers along the coast, the lighthouse on the horizon suggesting an assuringly fixed universe. But, as the novel unfolds over a decade, we see the subtle working of time and how it shapes the perceptions of various characters.

A young Eudora Welty picked up To the Lighthouse and found her own world changed. “Blessed with luck and innocence, I fell upon the novel that once and forever opened the door of imaginative fiction for me, and read it cold, in all its wonder and magnitude,” Welty recalled.

The Woolfs divided their time between London, a city that Virginia loved and often wrote about, and Monk’s House, a modest country home in Sussex the couple was able to buy as Virginia’s career bloomed. Even as she welcomed literary experiment, Woolf grew wistful about the future of the traditional letter, which she saw being eclipsed by the speed of news-gathering and the telephone. Almost as if to disprove her own point, Woolf wrote as many as six letters a day.

“Virginia Woolf was a compulsive letter writer,” said English critic V. S. Pritchett. “She did not much care for the solitude she needed but lived for news, gossip, and the expectancy of talk.”

Her letters, published in several volumes, shimmer with brilliant detail. In a letter written during World War II, for example, Woolf interrupts her message to Benedict Nicolson to go outside and watch the German bombers flying over her house. “The raiders began emitting long trails of smoke,” she reports. “I wondered if a bomb was going to fall on top of me. . . . Then I dipped into your letter again.”

The war proved too much for her. Distraught by its destruction, sensing another nervous breakdown, and worried about the burden it would impose on Leonard, Virginia stuffed her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near Monk’s House on March 28, 1941.

But Cunningham says it would be a mistake to define Woolf by her death. “She did, of course, have her darker interludes,” he concedes. “But when not sunk in her periodic depressions, [she] was the person one most hoped would come to the party the one who could speak amusingly on just about any subject the one who glittered and charmed who was interested in what other people had to say (though not, I admit, always encouraging about their opinions) who loved the idea of the future and all the wonders it might bring.”

Her influence on subsequent generations of writers has been deep. You can see flashes of her vivid sensitivity in the work of Annie Dillard, a bit of her wry critical eye in the recent essays of Rebecca Solnit. Novelist and essayist Daphne Merkin says that despite her edges, Woolf should be remembered as “luminous and tender and generous, the person you would most like to see coming down the path.” Woolf’s legacy marks Merkin’s work, too, although there’s never been anyone else quite like Virginia Woolf.

“The world of the arts was her native territory she ranged freely under her own sky, speaking her mother tongue fearlessly,” novelist Katherine Anne Porter said of Woolf. “She was at home in that place as much as anyone ever was.”

Danny Heitman is the editor of Phi Kappa Phi’s Forum magazine and a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana. He writes frequently about arts and culture for national publications, including the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor.

Funding information

NEH has funded numerous projects related to Virginia Woolf, including four separate research fellowships since 1995 and three education seminars for schoolteachers on Woolf’s major novels. In 2010, Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, received $175,000 to support WoolfOnline, which documents the biographical, textual, and publication history of To the Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf - History

Content warning for sexual abuse, discussion of mental illness, racism, anti-semitism, and suicide.

“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

Virginia Woolf is a complex and problematic character. Like many of the aristocrats of her time, she was deeply racist and anti-semitic. Her queerness does not excuse these prejudices. However, her queerness and struggles with mental illness are still worth exploring. These aspects of her personality, as expressed through her relationships as well as through her writing, allow modern readers of her work to find not a role model, but rather hints of their own struggles in a pillar of the past.

According to Danny Heitman in the article, “Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer,” Virginia “was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a celebrated essayist, editor, and public intellectual, and Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen.” A member of the upper class in England during the late nineteenth century, Woolf was raised in her family home. She was provided for and educated, though not to the same degree as her brothers and half-brothers. Heitman states that “Although Virginia’s brothers and half-brothers got university educations, Woolf was taught mostly at home—a slight that informed her thinking about how society treated women.”

There were other aspects of her childhood, however, that revealed a sharp divide between men and women in Woolf’s society. Woolf’s brother and half-brothers are reported to have sexually abused her throughout the bulk of their mutual youth. Nigel Nicolson, in a biography of Woolf’s life, explores this, saying

George's [Virginia’s half-brother] behavior was said to have been responsible for Virginia's sexual timidity and even contributive to her periodic fits of ‘insanity.' Louise de Salvo, the American Woolf scholar, has claimed that "sexual abuse was probably the central and most formative feature of her early life," and she alleges that "virtually every male member of the Stephen household was engaged in this behaviour." She uses the term incest without qualification.

Many readers may recognize just how traumatic childhood abuse of any sort can be. It is not known whether or not Woolf would’ve experienced such strong manic-depressive episodes had she not experienced sexual abuse in her past. However, as such abuse was “central and most formative” to Woolf’s early life, there is no question as to whether or not Woolf’s trauma contributed to her distress. Woolf’s mental illness is described by later scholars explicitly as manic-depressive disorder, though the illness had not been identified as such during the nineteenth century. A lot of terms get tossed around by those in Woolf’s life to describe her manic-depressive episodes, none of which are particularly thoughtful. Virginia’s eventual husband, Leonard Woolf, would address her ‘fits’ by sending her away to the country to an institution, where she would be deprived of any intellectual stimuli until her “madness” had passed. While I’m not going to go in-depth about the horrendous, idiotic, and frightfully sexist workings of these institutions at this time, needless to say, that this was England’s way of demeaning the needs of its women. The short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, explores the fictionalized experience of a woman in one of these institutions with an accuracy and horror that captivates as much as it offends modern sensibility. I highly recommend it.

Virginia’s lack of sex drive has been brought into question, too, when it is framed through her childhood abuse. While this will be expanded upon later, many scholars look at Woolf’s childhood and cite the abuse suffered at the hands of her male family members as one of the root causes behind Woolf’s lack of interest in sex.

Virginia eventually moved away from her family home and into the Bloomsbury District of London. She was already moving her way into the literary world, but living in Bloomsbury brought her into contact with the (slightly infamous) members of the eventual Bloomsbury Group. This group of intellectuals formed a sort of writers' support group, exchanging works in progress for revision and reviewing each other’s’ published work. Notable members of this group include Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell née Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf. While the Bloomsbury Group was primarily a “boys club,” the majority of the group’s members engaged in homosexual relationships. Some engaged in polyamory, as well – though this was rather complicated.

A brief example of the shenanigans that consisted of the Bloomsbury Group’s romantic entanglements: Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell. She then fell in love with Duncan Grant, a man who, up until this point, had only engaged in relationships with other men. Clive knew about Vanessa’s infatuated and allowed Duncan to live in their mutual home. Vanessa became pregnant with Duncan’s child and gave birth to a girl, Angelica. Duncan would then meander off to have a relationship with both Vanessa and fellow Bloomsbury member, David Grant. David Grant would then go on to eventually marry Angelica, Duncan’s daughter.

The romantic overlap within the Bloomsbury Group was nonsense, dear reader, and all the more interesting (entertaining? concerning?) for it.

Outside of these shenanigans and the various quarrels that took place over work, the Bloomsbury Group revealed itself to be full of mischief-makers. In what would later be known as “The Dreadnought Hoax,” several members, Woolf included, would board a British Naval vessel under the guise of being “the Emperor of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) and his posse” (Popova). Here complications with the group arise, as they all adorned costume to make the rouse convincing – meaning blackface was involved.

According to Maria Popova of Brainpickings, the group nearly got away with the joke however, “[t]he hoax had gone “viral” in the press and one newspaper published an interview with a man who claimed to have witnessed the Abyssinians’ visit and alleged that they had used the expression “Bunga Bunga.” The phrase quickly became a “meme” of the pre-meme era — it made its way into song lyrics and, to the cousin’s extreme distress, into the mouths of little boys in the streets of the town, who would shout “Bunga Bunga” as a mockery.”

The casual racism of this prank taints it for modern readers while also revealing the place of privilege most of the group sat in. It was within this group, though, that Virginia Woolf found her stride as a feminist writer and as a partner to two individuals in particular: Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

Virginia’s sexuality is a bit of a complicated thing, even with these two relationships available to explore it with. I’d label her as biromantic asexual – both of the to-be mentioned relationships were reasonably romantic, but Woolf expressed little to no interest in consummating either. In terms, first, of Leonard, Emma Woolf, a relative of the family’s, reports that

“Hesitating throughout the spring of 1912 over Leonard’sproposal, Virginia had struggled to reconcile “being half in love” with him with a sort of revulsion over “the sexual side of it.” Writing to him a few weeks before they became engaged she explained what was holding her back: “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no attraction in you. There are moments – when you kissed me the other day was one – when I feel no more than a rock.”

Virginia goes on to claim that she does want to marry Leonard, and eventually, the two are wed. There is a power imbalance throughout the relationship, despite the fondness between the two parties. Picture Leonard, if you would, as a well-organized, Victorianesque man, rather securing in his masculinity but still needing to assert it over his frail, “mad” wife. He cared for her with the utmost attention during her fits and truly believed that his sending her away to England’s various institutions would improve her mental health. Emma Woolf, however, reports that Virginia felt rather differently on the matter:

“Understandably, Virginia felt frustrated at being infantilised in this way, with all her decisions made for her. In 1912 she complained: without a degree of truth, he replaced the excitement and social “Leonard made me into a comatose invalid.” This accusation is not whirl of Bloomsbury with the relative quiet of Richmond he made her spend the mornings in bed, he monitored her eating and weight, her moods and menstrual cycles.”

This attention to detail speaks simultaneously to great care on Leonard’s part but also a great need to be in control. Virginia’s resentment of this obsessiveness, tied to her aforementioned lack of sexual attraction to her husband, strained their relationship despite the affection the two shared.

Comparatively, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia complemented one another. Neither overbore the other, and they encouraged each other through their various struggles with work and romantic endeavours, even after the two had stopped seeing each other as partners. This isn’t to say they liked each other immediately, of course – Vita believed Virginia to be too masculine, and Virginia believed Vita to be something of a floozy (Modernist Lab). There was an immediate attraction between the two. However, that would eventually bring them together. According to another Woolf biography from the Modernist Lab:

“Virginia felt that Vita was ‘a real woman. Then there is some voluptuousness about her the grapes are ripe & not reflective. No. In brain & insight, she is not as highly organi[z]ed as I am. But then she is aware of this, & so lavishes on me the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always wished from everyone.’”

As previously mentioned, Vita and Virginia spent most of their time together effectively snuggling, though it is said that they consummated their relationship at least twice (Nicolson). Vita respected Virginia’s boundaries and general discomfort with sex and did her best to not frighten her lover in fear of triggering a manic-depressive episode (Nicolson). It was a far more balanced relationship I’d argue than the one Virginia had with Leonard. Both women gave themselves to the relationship, Virginia to the point of writing the novel, Orlando. A beast of a novel, the main character undergoes a gender transformation halfway through a quest to re-obtain their childhood home. Vita, having been driven from her home of Knole in her youth, was regifted said establishment in this novel.

Virginia used her writing to explore more than just improved lives for her lovers, however. She and the Bloomsbury Group lived and worked through World War One, a highly traumatic event for all of them, even though few participated as soldiers. According to Emma Woolf:

“Although Virginia did not write directly about war, the conflict resonates through her novels, particularly Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) with their legacy of loss, shell-shock, and a generation changed forever. The recurrent symbols of distant armies, bombs, and guns overheard across the Channel in To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Years (1937) also have their origins in the First World War.”

Think about this: we at Queer History have discussed the impact of World War II on individuals within the queer community because said individuals were in immediate danger. World War I as an event, however, was the first of its kind that modernity had seen – it was unprecedented and therefore traumatic to the citizens of all countries involved. “Shell-shock,” as cited above, wasn’t recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, and it had no treatment. Soldiers and citizens wandered in fugue states, unable to cope with the reality of their lives. Woolf retreated from London during World War I, but she recognized the gravity of the time she was living in and suffered, mentally, for it. This external pressure only made her pre-existing mental illness harder to bear.

On a lighter (maybe?) note, she was able to address the horrors of war in a way that no previous author had done so before. All of the novels listed above were written in a form now known as ‘modernism.' Woolf and her peers rejected the standard novel of the Victorian age behind them and instead decided to forgo plot in their stories almost entirely. According to Heitman:

“I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody.”

Modernism works a bit like a guitar riff it varies and relies on the improvisation of the author. Sometimes the smallest details can take up the most room in a piece, and more often than not, they seem nonsensical. This, however, was Woolf’s literary act of rebellion, her way of fighting back against the world around her. By breaking with the form of the novel established in the Victorian era, she was able to pave the way for new forms of expression, ones that better suited her thinking and desire to break away from the structures of old.

Such rebellion continued to reveal itself in the lectures of A Room of One’s Own. While Woolf remained highly prejudiced against Leonard and his Jewish relatives, not to mention people of colour, she established herself early on as a white feminist. According to Heitman, “Woolf pointed to the special challenges that women faced in finding the necessities for writing—a small income and a quiet place to think.” She advocated for the independence of women and breaking away from the institutionalization that plagued her personal life. Women were meant to think and needed their own space to breathe, she claimed. The ability to support one’s self allowed for the mind to flourish in a way that is reminiscent to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – with the basics provided for, women could excel beyond the station of what Woolf calls “the Angel in the House” – a pedestal role wherein a woman was meant to be perfect little Hestias or guardians of the home.

Woolf defied this status with more than just her writing she defied it as a career woman. She and Leonard opened Hogarth Press in 1917, a small publishing house that released not only Virginia’s work, but the work of Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, and Forster (Nicolson). Her feminist advocacy does not excuse Woolf’s prejudices, but her work did assist in the sharing of transformative literature throughout the wider world despite the great struggle. Woolf’s struggle with her manic-depressive episodes did not lessen with the weight of the war on her country. She was known to entertain suicidal thoughts they were part of the reason Leonard had her institutionalized so often. There were a few attempts made when the episodes were at their worst. Then, according to Emma Woolf:

“Woolf clearly expressed her reasons for committing suicide in her last letter to her husband Leonard: “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 can’t concentrate.” On March 18, she may have attempted to drown herself. Over a week later on March 28, Virginia wrote the third of her suicide letters and walked the half-mile to the River House, filled her pockets with stones, and walked into the water.”

This is not a beautiful death. The film The Hours offers up Woolf’s suicide as cinematically as possible while also offering another commentary on suicide through different means (it’s by no means a perfect movie, nor is the conversation great, per se, but aesthetically, it’s a good film). This still, however, does not render her death an act of artistry. For Woolf, it was her only escape from the world that she felt constrained and weighed down by.

Virginia Woolf is not an unproblematic figure. She endured several different sorts of struggles throughout her life, however, that many of us today may be able to relate to. Her feminist works and queer relationships allow modern readers of her stories to draw parallels between themselves and a woman who made it farther in life than many in her family – arguably many in her inner circle – believed she would. She is a figure who, at the least, history must recognize as queer, even if that queerness is imperfect.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Belonsky, A. (2014, January 25). Today in Gay History: Virginia’s Woolf’s Orlando Says It All. Out.

Boynton, V. & Malin, J. (2005). Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography: K-Z. Greenwood Press. p. 580.

Heitman, D. (2015). Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer. Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Popova, M. The Dreadnought Hoax: Young Virginia Woolf and Her Bloomsbury Posse Prank the Royal Navy in Drag and a Turban. BrainPickings.

Nicolson, N. (2001). Virginia Woolf. London: The Orion Publishing Group.

Virginia Woolf: Biography. The Modernist Lab at Yale University.

Woolf, E. (2015, February 13). The Joyful, Gossipy, and Absurd Private Life of Virginia Woolf. Newsweek.

Virginia Woolf Suicide Note

“I feel certain I am going mad again.
I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.
And I shan’t recover this time.”

These lines are being g found from her suicide note. There are several critical analysis. Ethel Smith is of the opinion that,

The Suicide Note

“they often shed a whole Cutler fish bag of “feminism””

Virginia Woolf husband was also not very bad. Here, also many critical notes can be found but these all are also arguable. She attempted to commit suicide at least two times.

How did Virginia Woolf Die?

Virginia Woolf cause of death is also suicide. In the last she becomes successful. She drowned herself in the River Ouse when she was living in Lewes. Her life has many controversies though s clear answer is not found.

Coming back to her works, “Mrs Dalloway” is one of her famous works that has been critically issued. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway criticism is similarly getting attention. Dorothy Goldman says,

“Modernist writing suggests a cultural crisis:
language awry, cultural cohesion lost,
perception fragmented and multiplied”

Virginia Woolf gay is a charming topic on the famous novelists. Her bisexuality comes out if you read her biography in detail.

She is more and more addicted to the women but still, she married. This is a very controversial topic that has no specific answer.

The Education of Virginia Woolf

Born into the highest stratum of the English intellectual aristocracy, Virginia Woolf—whose set included some of the kingdom’s most illustrious families, many of its finest writers and painters, its greatest poet, its most brilliant economist—could be an appalling snob. But as this assemblage displays, she also lived by and championed a generously democratic vision of literature and of the reading life—“a pursuit,” she somewhat wistfully acknowledged, “which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial.”

Before and throughout her career as a novelist, Woolf was an indefatigable literary journalist, which was a calling “at the heart of her life’s work,” as her finest biographer, Hermione Lee, puts it. Of course, it was also her birthright. Referring to her early reviewing, her family’s old friend Henry James reminded Woolf that she was “the descendent of a century of quill pens and ink pots.” Her father, Leslie Stephen—editor of The CornhillMagazine and the Dictionary of National Biography, critic, essayist, biographer, historian—was a quintessential late-Victorian man of letters. Like Stephen, Woolf wrote her essays, nearly all of them review-essays, not for the academy but for the educated general reader—and she took great professional pride in her carefully developed ability to compress and enliven her writing for her audience. The result was a body of gemlike pieces, allusive, informal, fluent, that assessed an astonishing roster of literary and historical subjects—Turgenev, the ancient Greeks, Ring Lardner—but returned again and again to the English classics. She was especially drawn to the cool, polished literature of the English Enlightenment, although she was also enraptured by the exuberant, expansive prose of the Elizabethan era.

With their arresting blend of vigor, grace, and precision, Woolf’s essays, Rebecca West said, were written such that “what is an authentic critical masterpiece seems as light on the mind as a song.” Woolf wrote most of her essays for the Times Literary Supplement (where they were published anonymously), but famously collected the best in her series of books, The Common Reader. She aimed them at that eponymous type, which was how she characterized herself. The common reader, she wrote,

Woolf was intensely conscious of her self-education. True, her father, one of England’s most learned men, had guided that education, and true, Woolf was rigorously trained in Greek and had read widely and deeply in the English and American classics and in history. But as a woman, she was denied the systematized public-school and Oxbridge intellectual training that was the entitlement of the male members of her family and class—and she was acutely aware of her status, for better and for worse, as a non–academically schooled amateur.

Taken as a whole, Woolf’s essays are probably the most intense paean to reading—an activity pursued not for a purpose but for love—ever written in English. Her assessment of “the man who loves reading” (in contrast to “the man who loves learning”) fit both herself as an essayist and her audience:

That passage, from Woolf’s essay “Hours in a Library,” a title she borrowed from a multivolume collection of her father’s essays, recalls Stephen’s passion for reading, walking, and mountain climbing. She invoked her father again in “The Leaning Tower,” an essay adapted from a wartime lecture she gave in 1940 to the Workers’ Education Association, in which she conflated her expansive concept of amateurism with her hopeful, democratic vision of the reading life:

Fittingly, Woolf’s approach to criticism was inspiritingly open-ended. She perceives this quality in Hazlitt’s essays, but she might as well be describing her own:

The multivolume compilation The Essays of Virginia Woolf has been out of print for decades, and readers have been awaiting the conclusion of this expertly edited and lavishly annotated scholarly edition of Woolf’s complete essays for nearly 25 years. At last the project is finished with this, the sixth volume, which was published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Woolf’s death last year. This installment, which gathers the pieces she wrote from 1933 until her suicide in 1941, poignantly illuminates the effort and ideals that informed her critical writing. Woolf became a financially secure novelist in 1928 with the publication of Orlando, yet she continued to toil at her relatively unremunerative reviews. For example, by cross-referencing her letters and diaries, Stuart N. Clarke, this volume’s editor, reveals that in November 1936, Woolf began work on her lapidary, psychologically astute, tender essay on Edward Gibbon. That project demanded that she read his journals, letters, and the six drafts of his autobiography—and reread the six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the work that naturally forms the cynosure of her piece. She labored at this review through the winter and spring of 1937 (“I’ve spent all the morning, every morning, writing every evening reading. I had to dash through Gibbon”), until its publication that May. For this staggering quantity of work, she was paid 28 pounds, equal to something like $2,500 today—a nice lump sum, but a minuscule per-hour rate.

A similarly Stakhanovite effort lay behind her essay on Oliver Goldsmith, a piece that artfully interweaves incisive pen portraiture, a subtle literary analysis of “poetry clicking its heels together at the end of the line as though executing the steps of a courtly dance,” and a complex but trenchant history of literary patronage. Woolf was at this on and off for nearly a year: she began her efforts in early April 1933 by reading “four great vols of Goldsmith” in July she quailed, “Oh If I could finish my Goldsmith and send it off. I must”—yet five months later she was still beavering away on “Goldsmith all the morning.” Only in March 1934 did she finally deliver the piece, and she was rewarded with 27 pounds.

Woolf’s grand aim in this exhausting labor—labor that perforce took time and concentration away from her novel-writing—was to be “able to make not merely thousands of people interested in literature but millions.” She despaired at her failure. But the essays contained here—relics of that now-disdained Age of Print—are for the ages, and in that longest of long terms, thanks to these volumes, Woolf’s ambition might yet be achieved.

Legacy of Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s experiments with point of view confirm that, as Bernard thinks in The Waves, “we are not single.” Being neither single nor fixed, perception in her novels is fluid, as is the world she presents. While Joyce and Faulkner separate one character’s interior monologues from another’s, Woolf’s narratives move between inner and outer and between characters without clear demarcations. Furthermore, she avoids the self-absorption of many of her contemporaries and implies a brutal society without the explicit details some of her contemporaries felt obligatory. Her nonlinear forms invite reading not for neat solutions but for an aesthetic resolution of “shivering fragments,” as she wrote in 1908. While Woolf’s fragmented style is distinctly Modernist, her indeterminacy anticipates a postmodern awareness of the evanescence of boundaries and categories.

Woolf’s many essays about the art of writing and about reading itself today retain their appeal to a range of, in Samuel Johnson’s words, “common” (unspecialized) readers. Woolf’s collection of essays The Common Reader (1925) was followed by The Common Reader: Second Series (1932 also published as The Second Common Reader). She continued writing essays on reading and writing, women and history, and class and politics for the rest of her life. Many were collected after her death in volumes edited by Leonard Woolf.

Virginia Woolf wrote far more fiction than Joyce and far more nonfiction than either Joyce or Faulkner. Six volumes of diaries (including her early journals), six volumes of letters, and numerous volumes of collected essays show her deep engagement with major 20th-century issues. Though many of her essays began as reviews, written anonymously to deadlines for money, and many include imaginative settings and whimsical speculations, they are serious inquiries into reading and writing, the novel and the arts, perception and essence, war and peace, class and politics, privilege and discrimination, and the need to reform society.

Woolf’s haunting language, her prescient insights into wide-ranging historical, political, feminist, and artistic issues, and her revisionist experiments with novelistic form during a remarkably productive career altered the course of Modernist and postmodernist letters.