Virginia Woolf was a British modernist writer, best known for her novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). These novels employed a new stream of consciousness style of writing which gave a freshness and interest to her writings. She was a prominent figure in inter-war literary circles and a member of the Bloomsbury Group.
She was born in London, in 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a notable historian, author and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother Julia Stephen was also well connected in cultural circles and acted as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artists and photographers.
Virginia was educated at her Kensington home by her parents with her step-brothers and stepsisters. She was quite a delicate child – ill-suited to the rough and tumble of ordinary schools. She grew up in a literary environment, she devoured many books from her father’s library. In particular, she gained a love of the Elizabethan period and read from Hakluyt’s Voyages from an early age. Living in such a literary environment she came into contact with some of the leading intellects of the day, including Thomas Hardy, John Ruskin, and Edmund Gosse.
She later took lessons at the Ladies’ Department of Kings College, London. Her brothers went to Cambridge, and although Virginia resented not being able to study at Cambridge, through her brothers, she later became involved in the circle of Cambridge graduates.
When Virginia was 13, the death of her mother left a profound mark on her, and she had a nervous breakdown. This nervous breakdown was the beginning of a lifetime of mood swings – manic depression and she frequently sought treatment for her mental instability but struggled to find any cure.
These mood swings made social life more difficult, but she still became friendly with some of the leading literary and cultural figures of the day, including Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell and Saxon Sydney-Turner. These group of literary figures became known as the Bloomsbury Group.
During this time she had an active correspondence with suffragettes such as Mrs Fawcett, Emily Pankhurst and others. Although she never took part in the activities of the suffragettes she wrote her clear support for the aims of female emancipation. This was made particularly clear in an essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) where Woolf highlights the difference between how woman are treated by patriarchal society and the idealised view of women in fiction.
“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.” ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929)
She is considered an important feminist writer and argued for the importance of women’s education.
In 1912, Virginia married writer and critic Leonard Woolf, and though he was poor, the marriage was happy. Leonard was Jewish, and she was rather proud of his Jewishness – even though she has been accused of some anti-Semitism in her works – often depicting Jews in a stereotypical way. The couple were both appalled by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and they were both on Hitler’s list of undesirable cultural figures.
Style of writing
She began working as a journalist, writing articles for the Times Literary Supplement in the early 1900s. In 1915, at the age of 33, she published her first novel. – The Voyage Out. It was a revised version of a novel she began writing several years ago. In 1917, Virginia and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press which published her novels and later works by other writers, such as T.S.Eliot, E.M. Forster and Lauren van der Post.
She was considered a modernist author, for her experimentation in a stream of consciousness writing, reminiscent of the period. Often her novels were based on quite ordinary, even banal situations. But, she sought to explore the underlying psychological and emotional motives of the characters involved. In particular, she used her great powers of observation to examine how perceptions can radically change through time She also explored ideas of sexual ambivalence (she herself had a brief lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West,) shell shock from First World War, and the rapid changes of society.
Her three most important novels were Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931)
During the Second World War, she became increasingly depressed, due to a combination of the blitz and the return of her mental demons. Fearing she was going mad again, she took her own life, filling her pockets with stones and jumping into the River Ouse.
Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own at Amazon
Virginia Woolf Quotes
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
Ch. 1 (p. 17)
Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
Ch. 2 (p. 26)
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
Ch. 2 (p. 35)
I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
Ch. 3 (p. 51)
Very often misquoted as “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”
For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.
Ch. 3 (p. 51)
Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.
Ch. 3 (p. 58)
The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
Ch. 3 (p. 72)
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Ch. 4 (p. 90)
The Waves (1931)
But look – he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gesture one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime.
Here on this ring of grass we have sat together, bound by the tremendous power of some inner compulsion. The trees wave, the clouds pass. The time approaches when these soliloquies shall be shared. We shall not always give out a sound like a beaten gong as one sensation strikes and then another. Children, our lives have been gongs striking; clamour and boasting; cries of despair; blows on the nape of the neck in gardens.
The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
Once you begin to take yourself seriously as a leader or as a follower, as a modern or as a conservative, then you become a self-conscious, biting, and scratching little animal whose work is not of the slightest value or importance to anybody.
The Moment and Other Essays (1948)
‘If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.
Granite and Rainbow (1958)
The extraordinary woman depends on the ordinary woman. It is only when we know what were the conditions of the average woman’s life … it is only when we can measure the way of life and the experience of life made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as a writer.
“Women and Fiction”
Writers and authors – Famous authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.
Female biographies – A list of 100 famous women from Sappho and Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe and Angela Merkel.